Please, evolutionary psychology, just fade away


Rebecca Watson takes on the evolutionary psychologists again. I’m glad someone is.

I looked into the papers she’s talking about several days ago. I was unimpressed with and disgusted with them, and just said to myself, “Do I really want to wade into this shit again?” and let it pass, because I tell you, evolutionary psychology fans are the worst. Every criticism is dealt with by suggesting that the critic doesn’t really accept science, because the whole field is cloaked in a layer of pseudoscientific pretense that the true believers don’t question.

I first read “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy: A Critical Analysis of Kevin MacDonald’s Theory” by Nathan Cofnas, published in Human Nature. As it says, it’s critical of the idea that Jews have some exceptional genetic trait that makes them more tribal and capable of ‘taking over’ the world, which is a positive sign…but at the same time it blithely accepts a whole lot of biological assumptions.

MacDonald argues that a suite of genetic and cultural adaptations among Jews constitutes a “group evolutionary strategy.” Their supposed genetic adaptations include, most notably, high intelligence, conscientiousness, and ethnocentrism. According to this thesis, several major intellectual and political movements, such as Boasian anthropology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and multiculturalism, were consciously or unconsciously designed by Jews to (a) promote collectivism and group continuity among themselves in Israel and the diaspora and (b) undermine the cohesion of gentile populations, thus increasing the competitive advantage of Jews and weakening organized gentile resistance (i.e., anti-Semitism). By developing and promoting these movements, Jews supposedly played a necessary role in the ascendancy of liberalism and multiculturalism in the West. While not achieving widespread acceptance among evolutionary scientists, this theory has been enormously influential in the burgeoning political movement known as the “alt-right.” Examination of MacDonald’s argument suggests that he relies on systematically misrepresented sources and cherry-picked facts. It is argued here that the evidence favors what is termed the “default hypothesis”: Because of their above-average intelligence and concentration in influential urban areas, Jews in recent history have been overrepresented in all major intellectual and political movements, including conservative movements, that were not overtly anti-Semitic.

The “default hypothesis” claims that two factors are sufficient to explain Jewish success in certain fields of endeavor: IQ (they’re smart) and geography (they live in urban areas). OK, but the reliance on IQ as a factor raises my hackles. The author even admits that this might not be due to genetic factors.

The default hypothesis is not tied to any particular explanation of the cause of above-average Jewish IQ. Some researchers favor a genetic explanation. In an influential paper, Cochran et al. (2005) argued that during the Middle Ages Ashkenazim were selected for the intellectual ability to succeed in white-collar occupations. However, it is theoretically possible that the Jewish–gentile IQ gap is due at least in part to some yet-to-be-identified cultural factor (Nisbett 2009). Whatever the cause, high Jewish IQ presumably plays a role in Jewish overrepresentation in cognitively demanding activities.

That’s a start, but I’d have to say that the “yet-to-be-identified cultural factor” has been identified. It’s a cultural value that promotes literacy and education as a social good. You may not have noticed, but a lot of cultural subgroups don’t — I know that the white protestant subculture I grew up in disparaged academic achievement and put a much higher priority on sports and money. Do we really need to bring this fuzzy, poorly defined thing called IQ into the discussion? Evolutionary psychologists certainly do, and simply take it for granted. This same paper also includes this garbage:

The mean Ashkenazi Jewish IQ appears to be around 110 (Lynn and Kanazawa 2008)—moderately lower than MacDonald’s estimate of 117. Jewish intellectual accomplishment is consistent with higher mean intelligence.

That’s your source? Really? Richard Lynn, white supremacist psychologist, and Satoshi Kanazawa, sloppy fraud.

That’s the problem with evolutionary psychology in a nutshell. It’s built on a foundation of bad evolutionary theory with a set of assumptions about genetic determinism that are never questioned; instead, they constantly churn over the same old discredited authors and same old unfounded theories, and treat the fact that they’ve been published in uncritical, lazy EP journals as sufficient to establish their truth. They can’t question their assumptions about the primacy of genetic causes in determining complex phenomena like culture because, if they do, the whole field collapses about them.

Cofnas’s article isn’t as terrible, though, as the original article by Kevin McDonald, the “neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic”, nor is it as ghastly as the putative rebuttal to Cofnas published in Evolutionary Psychological Science. That one uses Herrnstein & Murray, Philippe Rushton, and the ubiquitous Richard Lynn as sources, and again fails to question the genetic causes and instead unquestioningly endorses “group selection”.

Kevin MacDonald (1998) has argued that a series of twentieth century ideologies which have challenged European traditions should be understood as part of a Jewish evolutionary strategy to promote Jewish interests in the West, as evidenced by Jewish leadership of and disproportionate involvement in these movements. Cofnas Human Nature 29, 134–156 (Cofnas 2018a) has critiqued this model and countered that the evidence can be more parsimoniously explained by the high average intelligence and urban location of Jews in Western countries. This, he avers, should be the ‘default hypothesis.’ In this response, I argue that it is MacDonald’s model that is the more plausible hypothesis due to evidence that people tend to act in their ethnic group interest and that group selectedness among Jews is particularly strong, meaning that they are particularly likely to do so.

This is the kind of thing the alt-right loves: Jews are just so tribal, they want to claim, as they march around with torches chanting “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They are justified in wanting to oppress them, because gosh, those Jews are just so oppressive.

EP journals are just sitting there indulging them, too — my objection isn’t to the Cofnas article itself, but the whole field that seems to think this is a subject that is worth discussing, to the point where they’re feeling the need to publish rebuttals to bad theories that are widely endorsed in their own journals. I think it’s a good idea for science journals to be open in criticizing creationism, for instance, because those bad ideas are currently widespread in popular culture (as are racist ideas). It would be a disgrace if science journals were also publishing creationist trash, but that’s exactly analogous to what EP journals do: publish an onanistic mix of terrible, awful, ridiculous articles with a few articles that try to rebut them. It’s a roiling mess that keeps the publishers in business but does nothing to advance our knowledge.

If you’re in evolutionary psychology, get out while you still can. Distance yourself. Refuse to publish in the usual EP journals, because you’re just going to get tarred with the deplorable taint of the whole field. Maybe you’re a competent scientist with great logical skills, but you can’t build on a foundation of invalid rubbish.

It’s too late for the editorial board of Evolutionary Psychological Science. I hadn’t looked until Rebecca mentioned it, but all the usual suspects are there: Kurzban, Buss, Pinker, and Sam Harris (his affiliation is listed as “Independent Scholar”). They ought to be as embarrassed as the board of a molecular biology journal that started printing articles by creationists.

Comments

  1. specialffrog says

    I’m still waiting for an evo psych explanation for why people reject evo psych claims.

  2. says

    I think people get confused because the claim that humans have psychological characteristics that are shaped by evolution is trivially true. We like to have sexual intercourse; we like babies, especially our own; we have kinship systems, although they vary somewhat; we teach skills to children; we fear death and try to stay alive; and so on. But it is difficult to get very far beyond such basic and largely obvious facts. Our behavior is very flexible — some people are even exceptions to the above rules — and shaped by culture, individual socialization, and experience. Looking for universals among cultures — especially given that we don’t know a whole lot about pre-literate societies, and historians even argue about highly literate ones, and cultural description is heavily influenced by special pleading — is an invitation to pareidolia.

    I wouldn’t mind if people tried starting over and seeing if there is some body of understanding that can be built from the ground up, but instead we have these grandiose, speculative and tendentious claims. I think the problem is that when you criticize these people, what they are hearing is a claim that there is no valid nomothetic claim about human psychology and evolution. That is not your claim, I am sure. But that’s what they are hearing, which allows them to dismiss the actual claim, which is that they are telling just-so stories.

  3. says

    How smart of the Jews to get themselves banned from most rural professions and owning land in the Middle Ages, to be shunned and required to live in urban ghettos.
    So they just killed and prosecuted themselves all those centuries so they could come out on top later.

  4. jrkrideau says

    Good lord, Satoshi Kanazawa is still around? LSE must have one heck of a strong faculty union. I have never been completely sure that he is a fraud as much as just totally incompetent. I suppose it could be both. He does have a knack for catchy titles.

    I had never heard of Richard Lynn before but he does sound like piece of work.

    I recommend that anyone in Environmental Psychology should flee as if escaping a wildfire. I get the impression that it has gone from a perhaps misguided but possibly hopeful (well if we forget a few fools like Rushton) area of research 30–40 years ago to a cesspit.

  5. jazzlet says

    For starters and actually for last as well I’m not remotely convinced that Jews are any more tribal than many other cultures. But then I didn’t discover that my best friend was/is Jewish until I’d known him over twenty years, because it wasn’t important to him, so what would I know?

  6. thirdmill301 says

    I am far from persuaded by the claims of evolutionary psychology, but it seems to me that the opposite claim — everything is cultural and biology has nothing to do with it — is equally unsupported. I can certainly see a lot of cultural reasons for why Jews might have higher than average IQs, but I also see that they managed to be the last tribe standing from the ancient Middle East — there are no more Philistines, Hittites, Ammonites, Moabites, Jebusites or Perizzites. They all died out. Not only that, but Jews managed to survive centuries of sometimes really awful persecution. So perhaps biology has something to do with it as well.

    Is there any reason it couldn’t be both?

  7. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points out a critical factor, so far ignored by the evo psychics, is cooties. Certain cultural practices affect cooties, their spread and contagion. For instance, cultures which encourage cootie-carriers to hide to avoid contagion have wider spread of more virulent cooties. Hiding the carriers means the cooties get more and more concentrated / virulent, eventually bursting out and inflecting the countryside. (Hiding cootie-carriers has many forms, with historical but still-practised examples such as confinement to tents, to drudgery, or in clothing resembling tents.)

    The cootie-carriers are frequently punished for allowing their cooties to escape, albeit “cooties” are not-known to be mentioned in any legal system, such is their powers. The charges are often being immodest, objecting to being treated as an object, or simply been seen. The evo psychics often misinterpret this tendency with a variety of ad hoc rationales, which then gets further misinterpreted in the popular gutter press, such as she asked for it. That is then picked up by those who decree the rules, further reinforcing the cycle and continuing to ignore the underlying cooties.

    She(the mildly deranged penguin) notes some cults have an extreme fear of cooties, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Vatican, and the Republicans. Each has assorted amusingly absurd explainations / rationales, which, with a bit of editing, she maintains, would not be out of place in The Journal of Evo Psychic Woo-Woo. For instance, they already have the dubious references down pat (magic sky faeries).

  8. tinkerer says

    thirdmill301

    but it seems to me that the opposite claim — everything is cultural and biology has nothing to do with it — is equally unsupported.

    Nobody’s claiming that, so why did you just make it up?

    Not only that, but Jews managed to survive centuries of sometimes really awful persecution. So perhaps biology has something to do with it as well.

    I take it you didn’t actually watch the video. How about doing that first rather than searching around for a way to justify tired old racial stereotypes.

  9. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    but it seems to me that the opposite claim — everything is cultural and biology has nothing to do with it — is

    made by no one and a really, really tedious strawman?

    You’re right.

  10. says

    @6: “there are no more Philistines, Hittites, Ammonites, Moabites, Jebusites or Perizzites. They all died out. ” No they didn’t — they became assimilated into other cultural groups. The Jews today are not defined by biological descent from Abraham, as the Bible has it, but by an ethnic identity which has survived even as Jewish people intermarried, took in converts, and got raped. Being Jewish is a cultural, not a biological, fact — and it’s not by any means the same cultural fact among all Jews. It’s just a label that some people give themselves. The descendants of the ancient people’s you list are today Arabs, Jews, Bedouins, and some of them are no doubt Italians and Scots.

    I blame 23 and Me for this bizarrely biological understanding of ethnic identity.

  11. thirdmill301 says

    Tinkerer, No. 8, if you’re going to accuse me of perpetuating racist stereotypes, perhaps you could identify the specific stereotypes I’m accused of perpetuating.

    Tinkerer No. 8 and Azkyroth No. 9, that claim most certainly is made whenever there is a discussion about why there aren’t more female scientists or black engineers. You may not make that claim, but I’ve certainly heard it.

    Cevantes, No. 11, I probably should have been more clear. By dying out, I did not mean go extinct like the dinosaurs. I meant that today there is no one who self-identifies as a Philistine or an Assyrian. There are people who self-identify as Jews.

  12. mnb0 says

    “they live in urban areas”
    Huh? Russian jews living in cities typically lived in the poorest neighborhoods. How exactly did that give jews like David Oistrakh, David Bronstein and Mikhael Tal (to name a few) an evolutionary advantage on their road to the top?
    In Habsburgian Austria the facts strongly hint at the opposite: Rudolf Spielmann’s parents for instance were born in small villages. I haven’t looked it up, but I bet that the same is true for lots of intellectual and artistic jews in Vienna in say 1900.
    Jewish intellectual and artistic achievement is an interesting phenomenon, but “living in urban cities” is not quite an explanation. My, do those evopsychs have a testable hypothesis, they manage to screw it.
    As for IQ that’s so circular that it becomes a plain tautology. I have another excellent evopsych hypothesis for you. The fact that so many winners of the Nobel Price for physics are so smart is also explained by IQ.

  13. mnb0 says

    @5: “I’m not remotely convinced that Jews are any more tribal than many other cultures.”
    I am. That happens to groups of people who are forced to live in ghettos for several centuries

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurter_Judengasse

    with a nice pogrom for change now and then. But that has exactly zilch to do with Evolution Theory.

    @6: “it seems to me that the opposite claim – ….. and biology has nothing to do with it …. ”
    To do with what exactly? Without any specification this is nothing but a strawman.

    “I also see that they managed to be the last tribe standing from the ancient Middle East — there are no more Philistines, Hittites, Ammonites, Moabites, Jebusites or Perizzites.”
    Genetically speaking jews worldwide don’t have any more in common with the jewish folks from Antiquity than the 21st Century inhabitants of Libanon with the Philistines and Fenicians – or the 21st Century Greeks with the Ancient Greeks. So if anything your remark speaks against the claim that “biology has something to do with it”.

    Of course it can be both. Lactose persistence is a famous example. It enormously influenced culture. But you know, before making a claim like this you need to have some empirical data to back it up. When it comes to the intellectual and artistic achievements of jews they are rather lacking. You didn’t even try either. And that’s a fine reason to answer your question “couldn’t it be both” in this specific case with a resounding “no”.
    The racial stereotypes you are accused of are “jews are so smart and so artistic and managed to survive as a separate population because they are jews, which is a biological concept”. It seems to me that the accusation is correct.

  14. blf says

    thirdmill301@12, Whilst tinkerer can speak for themselves, here’s the racist sterotype I immediately noticed (my added emboldening): Jews managed to survive centuries of sometimes really awful persecution. So perhaps biology has something to do with it as well.

    “Jew” is not biological. That is a racist trope, conflating an invented malleable fictitious construct (race) with biology. Blatant expressions such Jewish race were avoided, and a qualifier (perhaps) used, but neither has fooled people. The use of a related strawman — already called out — adds to the probably of racism.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    thirdmill301 @ # 6: … there are no more Philistines, Hittites, Ammonites, …

    [ahem!] Defining peoples gets very fuzzy, especially over multiple generations, but –

    Concerning Philistines: drop the “h”, blur that first vowel a bit … and ask yourself which ethnic group is most at odds with the Israeli(te)s today. Yes, genetically and culturally they got swamped by the Arabs, and at present we see continuous efforts by Netanyahu and Co. to eliminate them altogether – but so far Palestinians have resisted both assimilation and genocide quite doggedly.

    And the Ammonites? Look up the name of the capital city of the nation of Jordan. At least some of the people there now can claim local ancestry back to when the Judaeans first wrote those rather biased tribal histories.

    The Hittites, I grant you, seem to have gotten lost in the crowd over the millennia, though one might argue they tend to partially resurface these days: “She was a Big Hit at the concert last night…” ;-)

  16. thirdmill301 says

    Nos. 14 and 15, you’re right that Jewish is not a race, and I never said it was. I said it was possible that there was a biological component. Shared biology comes from people who live together and reproduce together, regardless of whether they are, strictly speaking, part of the same race or not, to the extent that race can even be well-defined.

    “English” isn’t a race either, and the people who today are English citizens or residents are an amalgamation of multiple races and bloodlines from all over the world. Nevertheless, by virtue of living together in close proximity and reproducing together over an extended period of time, “the English” have acquired certain common traits and characteristics, some of which are cultural and some of which are probably genetic. In sum, you are making a racial issue where one never existed, because I never made the claim that Jews are a race. They do, however, tend to reproduce within their community (though not as much today as in the past) so it’s hardly surprising that over the centuries they’ve acquired some common biological characteristics.

    And I really don’t know what to say to someone who is so bound and determined to find racism that they have to impute to me an argument I never made on a subject I wasn’t even talking about in order to find it. Try not finding the worst possible reading of what someone wrote.

  17. raven says

    there are no more Philistines, Hittites, Ammonites, Moabites, Jebusites or Perizzites. They all died out. ”

    No they didn’t

    Oddly enough, even the Canaanites are still around.
    The Jews started out as just another tribe of Canaanites.
    Another group were the Phoenicians.
    They are still around but these days are called Lebanese and rather mixed with a lot of other people.
    Even the Samaritans are still around and still called that, although these days they are considered a branch of Judaism.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    today there is no one who self-identifies as a Philistine…

    Palestine: Arabic Filisṭīn
    Palestinians: Arabic al-Filasṭīniyyūn

  19. chrislawson says

    thirdmill301

    @6– “I am far from persuaded by the claims of evolutionary psychology, but it seems to me that the opposite claim — everything is cultural and biology has nothing to do with it — is equally unsupported.”

    @12– “Tinkerer No. 8 and Azkyroth No. 9, that claim most certainly is made whenever there is a discussion about why there aren’t more female scientists or black engineers. You may not make that claim, but I’ve certainly heard it.”

    You started with a straw man and when challenged just moved the goalposts from “everything” to “female scientists or black engineers.” If you read this blog regularly, you will know that there is strong evidence that the reason there are few women scientists and black engineers is 100% social. For you to claim that there is some biological reason for these observations — as if blacks lack the well-described engineering gene MACHIN3 and scientific talent is carried on the Y chromosome — shows that far from being “not persuaded by the claims of evolutionary psychology”, you’ve internalised the claims extremely well.

  20. consciousness razor says

    thirdmill301:

    Cevantes, No. 11, I probably should have been more clear. By dying out, I did not mean go extinct like the dinosaurs. I meant that today there is no one who self-identifies as a Philistine or an Assyrian. There are people who self-identify as Jews.

    But in #6 you had said that somehow this is suggestive of a biological feature. So what’s the deal? There are genes for identifying as Jewish but not for identifying as Philistine or Assyrian?* I’m not a biologist, but my immediate reaction is that that shit just sounds totally fucking absurd.

    *As others have said, “Palestinians” and “Syrians” do still exist, so you might want to be a whole lot less “picky” (strike that … “ridiculous” is closer to the target) about which specific ways we (in English, no less) happen to name different groups, as if that had any real significance, much less biological significance.

  21. thirdmill says

    Chris Lawson, No 23, your reading comprehension sucks. I didn’t say that I agreed that the reason for fewer women and blacks in science and engineering is biological. Rather, I was responding to the claim that “nobody” says that everything is cultural and biology has nothing to do with it. In other words, I was stating that some people do say that, not that I agree with them.

    Consciousness, No. 24, your reading comprehension isn’t much better. I didn’t claim that nobody self-identifies as a Palestinian or an Assyrian. I didn’t claim that modern Palestinians and Assyrians aren’t the descendants of people who did self identify as Philistines and Assyrians. But unlike the Jews, those groups have all been assimilated and are not the same as they were before they assimilated. The Jews have the same name, the same customs, the same religion and the same identity that they’ve always had. And that’s a pretty significant difference, given that they endured a Babylonian captivity, a Roman diaspora, centuries of pograms and inquisitions, and the Holocaust. I’m not sure that many of those other groups would have survived all that. So without more, I’m not willing to rule out biology. Neither am I willing to discount culture. It’s not an either/or.

  22. says

    So, how long until the next Alan Sokal makes a big splash by getting utter nonsense published in an EP journal?

    I really enjoy it when PZ stops to jab at EP, by the way. I’d read the heck out of a book of critical essays on some of the EP highlights.

  23. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    thirdmill @12:

    I meant that today there is no one who self-identifies as a Philistine or an Assyrian.

    thirdmill @25,

    I didn’t claim that nobody self-identifies as a Palestinian or an Assyrian.

    You might want to have a discussion with yourself about what you’re trying to say. As for “assimilating”, whatever that means, modern day Assyrians are largely Christians surrounded by Muslims who mostly speak Syriac, a modern form of Aramaic.

  24. blf says

    thirdmill@25, The Jews have the same name, the same customs, the same religion and the same identity that they’ve always had.

    Un-huh… The religion still has a central authority, the custom of sacrifices is still routine, the religion still has multiple magic sky faeries, and so on …

    A hint: The Talmud, written in the Middle Ages, has been highly influential, “in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to ‘all Jewish thought and aspirations’, serving also as ‘the guide for the daily life’ of Jews.”

  25. consciousness razor says

    But unlike the Jews, those groups have all been assimilated and are not the same as they were before they assimilated.

    Assimilated by whom, the Borg? Seriously: give me the actual histories of all of the people in all of those groups, compare and contrast them at different times, etc. Show your fucking work.

    But what difference is this supposed to make? If one culture is “assimilated” into others (or it’s not), then this may tell you something about the cultures in question. They have certain features and so forth, and they can be understood (on their own terms) like anything else in the natural world. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a phenomenon that’s just flatly uninteresting, far from it … but where in the fuck would you get the idea that this says (in fact, not “it might possibly say”) anything interesting about genes?

    The Jews have the same name, the same customs, the same religion and the same identity that they’ve always had.

    False. I figure your claims (as well as I can understand them) don’t depend on the assumption that this is true anyway, so you can rescind this bullshit at no cost.

    And that’s a pretty significant difference, given that they endured a Babylonian captivity, a Roman diaspora, centuries of pograms and inquisitions, and the Holocaust.

    And yet they’ve not changed, due to any of those things? That’s (partly) what makes this so fucking preposterous, just so you know. At least in certain respects, they’re often quite progressive.

    What if (not that it’s really a stretch) somebody had a culture which did change (or which changed a great deal)? What precisely is that supposed to tell us about anyone’s genes?

    Are we assuming that it was adaptive because it stayed around for a few thousand years? Couldn’t it be argued just as well that plasticity/versatility may be adaptive instead, so we ought to be looking for groups who don’t have a “static” type of culture? Besides, Jews aren’t very numerous, so why would you think, out of all the random groups you could’ve picked from our species, that they look like particularly good candidates? What is it exactly that makes you think they have the special sauce, whatever that’s supposed to be?

    I’m not sure that many of those other groups would have survived all that. So without more, I’m not willing to rule out biology. Neither am I willing to discount culture. It’s not an either/or.

    I have not ruled out biology either. I’m perfectly well aware that it’s a logical possibility that it plays some kind of role or another, but my ignorance is not informative or helpful (neither is yours) since that would be fallacious. So I don’t especially give a shit what you’re not so sure about.

    Anyway, at this point, it’s not even clear what you think ruling it in would entail…. You don’t know if “many” of some other, nameless, amorphous groups would have survived the same. This counterfactual you’re pondering has no clear relation to the claim that biological factors are at work — how many different conversations are we having at the same time here?

    If we suppose that it really is true (and not that we simply don’t know) that many other cultural/ethnic groups wouldn’t have survived the same ordeal, it’s not like that tells us “genes did it.” Nor does it say “God did it” or “garden gnomes did it.” It really doesn’t. It’s still just a big, stupid, poorly-motivated non sequitur. Is that really the best you can come up with? Because if it is, then we’re done here. And if you’re merely doing a half-assed job of it, then I don’t what to say … do better.

  26. Susan Montgomery says

    “EP journals are just sitting there indulging them, too — my objection isn’t to the Cofnas article itself, but the whole field that seems to think this is a subject that is worth discussing, to the point where they’re feeling the need to publish rebuttals to bad theories that are widely endorsed in their own journals.”

    But…but…but…what about open mindedness? My goodness, Philo Zedemore, what about fairness!!?? Aren’t liberals always talking about hearing both sides!? About being skeptical and examining all the evidence? What sort of so-called scientist are you anyway?

  27. chrislawson says

    thirdmill–

    You know, I’m not in this conversation for the joy of making you feel bad about yourself, but it’s important to understand that what you’ve said above about black engineers/women scientists is wrong and in a way that would be hurtful to a lot of people. I really want you to understand why, but without turning this into an attack-defence call-response singalong. So let’s start with an abstract exercise to take the heat out of it.

    Imagine that there is an ethnicity, let’s say they’re hobbits to make it abundantly clear that this is a fictional group. Now let’s also say that hobbits are unusual in that they all carry a very specific gene that makes their population average exactly 5% worse at engineering than humans (in the Tolkienverse, hobbits are related to humans, but not actual humans). I’m sure you can see that this is a completely made up scenario — not just the hobbits, but the existence of a single gene making an impossibly precise difference to a complex skill set, and the gene being 100% prevalent in one group and 0% in the other. It’s a complete fairy tale, right?

    Now if such a situation existed, then you could use two variables — the relative population of humans to hobbits and the cut-off mark for engineering talent to be accepted into engineering school — and you could work out exactly how many engineers would be hobbits if engineering talent was the key determining factor.

    Now suppose I told you that the ratio of hobbits in engineering was way, way lower than our predicted value. So being good scientists we want to know why our observation does not meet our a priori prediction. We see many social factors — hobbits are brought up in communities with a strong anti-technology culture, for instance.

    So being good equitarians, we set up tech schools in The Shire to attract young, tech-minded hobbits. And we have great success. We’re graduating thousands of enthusiastic hobbits every year with STEM qualifications. And yet, strangely, even though these hobbits graduate having demonstrated their ability to be effective engineers and their determination to succeed (an engineering degree is five years of very hard work!), very few of them are landing jobs or if they do get into the field, they’re leaving in their early thirties.

    So somebody says, well maybe these hobbits are good enough to graduate but they’re still not able to compete with the humans and their more engineering-friendly genome. So we think about it and we realise that even with a 5% average population disadvantage, this still means that the very best hobbit engineers will be way better than the vast majority of human engineers, and we can identify many high-quality hobbit engineers whose careers stalled or who left the field because over and over again they saw less-capable human colleagues suck up all the promotions. (And we also notice that a lot of the top human engineers didn’t even score that well on their engineering tests. Some of them were middling engineers but happened to discover they had good management skills, a talent that was not even selected or trained for at engineering school. Which meant that sheer engineering talent was never the crucial factor in career success anyway.)

    So we try to fix this by outlawing discrimination. In theory, if a very capable hobbit is overlooked for a less capable human, they could take it to court. And indeed, there are a few high profile cases where a hobbit successfully sues for discrimination, and it makes HR departments put a lot of effort into educating their workers about the evils (and potential litigation cost to the company!) of discriminating against hobbits.

    Yet strangely, even now, with all these measures in place, all those special education programs, and anti-discrimination laws, and encouraging “BIG HAIRY FEET CAN’T BE BEAT” posters, there are very few hobbit engineers.

    We wonder why, all things being equal, hobbits don’t get the same opportunities. And the answer is, of course, that there is no such thing as “all things being equal” between two job/promotion candidates. We’re complex beings. Which makes it difficult to prove discrimination in specific cases. But we can create equal applicants for the sake of research, and when we submit fictitious resumés to job advertisements, we find that even when everything on the resumé is identical except for the name, hobbitish names like Brando Pipepuffer are far less likely to get called up for interviews than humanish ones like Isambard son of Brunel.

    So, in this fairy tale scenario where there is a known genetic difference in engineering talent between two groups, we can say with a high degree of certainty that this genetic difference has nothing to do with employment opportunities.

    And of course, outside this fairy tale, the real world of science has never identified any gene or genes that give people better STEM skills, let alone that these genes are distributed according to sex or the arbitrary racial groups invented (with multiple contradictory groupings) in the colonial era. And also in the real world there are many other forms of discrimination to which I did not draw Tolkienesque parallels.

    Now given all this, I hope you can understand why arguing for a biological root cause behind underemployment of minorities in STEM is a bad idea. Because even if there is a biological effect (and there is very good reason to think there isn’t), it is emphatically not the underlying cause of differences in career progression. And perhaps you can even understand why people impassioned about the unfairness of discrimination might not take kindly to you saying “yes, yes, I get all that about discrimination but maybe there’s a biological reason at the root of it all”, and they might even reply with a very salty “biology has nothing to do with it!” — which would be the correct reply, even if it wasn’t the lengthy, nuanced response you would have appreciated.

    And finally, saying biology has nothing to do with the specific problem of why there are fewer black engineers and women scientists is not the same as saying biology has nothing to do with anything.

  28. Dunc says

    Nevertheless, by virtue of living together in close proximity and reproducing together over an extended period of time, “the English” have acquired certain common traits and characteristics, some of which are cultural and some of which are probably genetic.

    Only if you stand far enough away and squint a bit. Get up close and it’s a different matter – it’s all Northerners vs Southerners, Yorkshire vs Lancashire, North Yorkshire vs South Yorkshire…

  29. thirdmill301 says

    Chris, I appreciate you trying to turn down the volume (unlike another commenter on this thread who I think has completely lost it) and I will try to do the same. Please understand, though, that I have said nothing about women scientists and black engineers. I said that other people say certain things about women scientists and black engineers, which is not the same thing as agreeing with them. Please stop imputing to me positions I haven’t taken.

    Now, that said, here is the flaw that I see in the position that it’s all racism and misogyny and biology has nothing to do with it: First, in science, there is no such thing as “settled”. We found this out when Einstein came along and showed us that much of what Isaac Newton had taught us was wrong (or at least incomplete). It’s one thing to say that there’s no proven biological link (a position I agree with); it’s another thing entirely to say that a biological link is impossible. And what I’m hearing on this blog is the latter.

    What I’m also hearing is that the possibility of a biological link is an excuse to not attack racism and misogyny, and that’s nonsense. Even if it were to be shown that biology plays some role, that’s not a reason to not vigorously oppose racism and misogyny. It is not inconsistent to say BOTH that hobbits, as a group, don’t have as great an aptitude for math and science as non-hobbits AND ALSO that those hobbits who do have an aptitude for math and science should be encouraged to go into math and science AND ALSO that any anti-hobbit bigots who want to keep hobbits out of math and science should lose their jobs. I absolutely agree with you that racism and misogyny are the lion’s share of why there aren’t more women and people of color in math and science, and that prejudice needs to be confronted and called to account and fought with the full vigor of both the law and cultural pressure. But to make what seems to me the thoroughly unscientific statement that X is impossible (as opposed to X is unproven) is not the way to do it.

    Thanks, again, for your civility and your willingness to engage on a non-personal-attack basis. I hope that I have done the same.

  30. Danny Husar says

    It is so interesting to see how each side (left and right) has their academic boogeyman and are perfectly comfortable in disparaging huge swaths of academic scholarship.

    On the right, it is postmodernism – which in fact does have a ton of zany ideas and mixed scholarship quality, but was defended on this blog.

    On the left, evolutionary psychology is the boogeyman that apparently needs to die.

    Seriously, what is the difference between cherry-picking bad papers from postmodern academics, and evolutionary psychology academics?

  31. Danny Husar says

    35

    To add to the thought, Social Sciences are very easy disparage because it is incredibly easy to create bad papers and bad ideas. Rebecca could have done this analysis on ANY Social Science, but she chose Evolutionary Psychology because it is currently the favourite whipping boy of certain segments of the Left.

    And the further away you go from the ‘hard’ sciences, the more abstract ideas get, the more ideology biases the conclusions. For example, almost no claims emanating from third-wave feminism have actually been tested or supported by evidence (for example, where is the idea that little girls playing with dolls, and little boys playing with trucks has any bearing on their career choices when they are 19 years old, coming from?).

  32. raven says

    Dumb troll:
    On the left, evolutionary psychology is the boogeyman that apparently needs to die.

    Seriously, what is the difference between cherry-picking bad papers from postmodern academics, and evolutionary psychology academics?

    This is all simple minded and all wrong.
    1. Being against Post Modernism isn’t a left or right issue.
    Post Modernism is almost dead because it was a dumb idea that didn’t work.

    It’s the same for evolutionary psychology.
    It isn’t a left versus right issue.
    It’s simply bad science.
    It’s heavily criticized and not credible within the scientific community for exactly this reason.

    I’m not sure that there is even such a thing as a good evo-psych paper.
    When a field is characterized by crackpots, bad science, Nazis and other ideologues, trolls, etc.., it just isn’t worthwhile spending the time wading through muck looking for something that might be real science.
    We are all busy and it is too big a world to bother with that.

    no claims emanating from third-wave feminism

    Anyone using this phrase is a troll. It’s an infallible marker like “cultural Marxism”.
    Fuck you troll.

  33. Danny Husar says

    @37

    Post Modernism is almost dead because it was a dumb idea that didn’t work

    I remember the blog defending it but that wasn’t my point – see next line.

    It’s the same for evolutionary psychology.

    You have to take a step back and think about whether disparaging an entire field of scholarship is really something you want to do. Like I said, Social Sciences are fraught with bad science and bad papers and one can pick them apart in the same manner as Rebecca did with EP. Is it a coincidence that for some reason EP is wholly in the crosshairs of the progressive left. That sounds like ideological objection rather than a rational one.

    Anyone using this phrase is a troll. It’s an infallible marker like “cultural Marxism”.

    I gave you a specific example of claim made by a “third wave feminist”. If there’s a better category for those kinds of claims, please let me know and I’ll use that in place of “third wave feminism” next time.

    Fuck you troll.

    I didn’t write my message to inflame or disrespect anyone. I stated an opinion I hold. Why the venom? You have an ugly way about you. Your entire comment is low-effort, low-content, and high in disparagement. What is the real difference between a troll comment and your comment?

  34. susans says

    PZ, I did a telephone interview with Kevin MacDonald years ago for talk.origins as a result of a conversation there. He teaches (or taught) at Cal State Long Beach, I live in Long Beach, and so I was the obvious scapegoat: I volunteered. I can confirm that in person, he really is an unrepentant anti-Semitic racist. I posted my notes of the interview to t.o. so they should be archived there, but I am too lazy to search for it.

  35. jack lecou says

    @34:

    If I may, I think this is the claim Chris’s (very excellent) response is rebutting:

    [the claim that everything is cultural and biology has nothing to do with it] most certainly is made whenever there is a discussion about why there aren’t more female scientists or black engineers. You may not make that claim, but I’ve certainly heard it.

    Chris is pointing out that what you heard in this context was NOT actually the claim “there are absolutely no biological differences in engineering aptitude,” but something subtly different, which, with more qualifier words, works out to something like:

    “the problems we see with lack of representation for [group X] in [field Y] is (almost) entirely cultural, and biology (even if there is some undetermined biological component) has nothing to do with (the specific kinds of problems we actually see on the ground, which are not aptitude problems, but readily identifiable problems like discrimination against resumes with certain types of names on them).”

    The fact that you may have interpreted those words some other way doesn’t mean someone actually meant it the way you heard it. More like likely, it was simply that the person talking used shorthand context for the obvious fact that biology is essentially irrelevant to the actual problems at hand, and thus might tend leave some of those onerously verbose qualifiers off. You can take it as given that most people saying something like what you quoted are not actually trying to make the strong claim that all biological differences have been ruled out. They’re just making the obvious point that this isn’t really relevant to the problem (as the hobbit example shows).

    Which isn’t to say there isn’t some over-earnest debater you could find out there who really does think that, but if there is, it’s really not the biggest problem.

    The bigger problem is the people on the other end, who want to push the idea that because there might be unknown biological factors, we should go ahead and chalk everything up to that, unless and until they are conclusively ruled out. Which is why this:

    What I’m also hearing is that the possibility of a biological link is an excuse to not attack racism and misogyny, and that’s nonsense.

    Misses the mark by a mile.

    I mean, in a sense, you’re absolutely right: it is nonsense to use that as an excuse. It’s nonsense even in the hobbit story, where a conclusive, quantifiable genetic factor exists. It’s orders of magnitude more nonsensical out in our world, where the biological factor(s), if any, are very murky and undeterminable, but the social factors are biting us on the ass everywhere you care to look.

    Yet, that isn’t stopping the likes of Charles Murray, James Damore or Jordan Peterson from making exactly that sort of claim: “We don’t need to worry about this representation problem, because it might be possible that there’s just intrinsic biological differences.” And their audiences gobble it up.

    And that’s why, in the real world, “possible biological differences” is not some neutral intellectual statement, but a poisonous red herring that should be shut down whenever it comes up.

  36. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    I love how racists expose themselves as losers when they buy arguments like this.

    Let’s say Kevin’s racist claptrap was true.

    That’d mean that the Jews were just better at ethno-politics than whites. No wonder the white nationalists are complaining.

    But it gets better.

    This is the era that neo-Nazis claim is Jew-dominated.

    So, in their own worldview, Jews are responsible for the best period in world history, with the greatest scientific achievements, some of the best popular and high art, the most peace, and the most prosperity. We went to the Moon, for God’s sakes. All because the Nazis lost.

    White nationalism and supremacy is based heavily in a sense of overcompensation for mediocrity.

    Nothing gets them fuming and reaching for irrelevant excuses faster than pointing out “Hey, buddy, Mozart may have been awesome, but… you’re not Mozart, and you’re an intellectual parasite for pretending that you are”.

    I’ve pointed out to Nazis that, if they were right, there is absolutely no harm to discrimination law and affirmative action. Even with those ostensible handicaps, the whites will still win, right?

    No response. Because, of course, they know damn well that they need that leg up to have the disproportionate gain that they want.

    I have yet to see a Nazi even try to have an argument against the idea that we should just accept the apparent Jewish control of the world, because, well, damn if it isn’t working better than their craphole alternative.

  37. neroden says

    The only legitimate evolutionary psychology research I have ever read was not done on humans, it was done on bird colonies. (It’s part of the long line of “cheating” vs. “enforcement” animal behavior studies.) It was of course published in animal behavior journals and not referred to as “evolutionary psychology”.

    We should probably prohibit anyone from pretending to write evo-psych papers about humans until we actually understand the basics of the evolution of psychology in animals about which the writers don’t have massive preconceived biases.

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