EvoPsych and Scientific Racism

I’m not a fan of EvoPsych. It manages the feat of misunderstanding both evolution and psychology, its researchers are prone to wild misrepresentation of fields they clearly don’t understand, and it has all the trappings of a pseudo-science. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought they had enough sense to avoid promoting scientific racism, at least openly.

[CONTENT WARNING: Some of them don’t.]

Many evolutionary psychologists have asserted that there is a panhuman nature, a species typical psychological structure that is invariant across human populations. Although many social scientists dispute the basic assumptions of evolutionary psychology, they seem widely to agree with this hypothesis. Psychological differences among human populations (demes, ethnic groups, races) are almost always attributed to cultural and sociological forces in the relevant literatures. However, there are strong reasons to suspect that the hypothesis of a panhuman nature is incorrect. Humans migrated out of Africa at least 50,000 years ago and occupied many different ecological and climatological niches. Because of this, they evolved slightly different anatomical and physiological traits. For example, Tibetans evolved various traits that help them cope with the rigors of altitude; similarly, the Inuit evolved various traits that help them cope with the challenges of a very cold environment. It is likely that humans also evolved slightly different psychological traits as a response to different selection pressures in different environments and niches. One possible example is the high intelligence of the Ashkenazi Jewish people. Frank discussions of such differences among human groups have provoked strong ethical concerns in the past. We understand those ethical concerns and believe that it is important to address them. However, we also believe that the benefits of discussing possible human population differences outweigh the costs.

Winegard, Bo, Benjamin Winegard, and Brian Boutwell. “Human Biological and Psychological Diversity.” Evolutionary Psychological Science 3, no. 2 (June 1, 2017): 159–80.

…. Yeah, they went there. There’s a bit of coded language going on, too: “human biological diversity” is the polite term for scientific racism, which is currently all the rage on the alt-right. And somehow it snuck into the pages of an EvoPsych journal?

The contention that human populations possess slightly different phenotypic characteristics because of recent evolutionary pressures is not controversial. Mainstream textbooks, for example, document many instances of human biological diversity (…). Despite this, the basics of human biological diversity are not integrated into the social sciences.

Claiming Both Sides of the Argument

Yep, we’re not even out of the introduction and we’ve already got equivocation between physiology and psychology. Interestingly, the authors proceed to argue that rapid physiological changes can evolve in some species, in order to set up the argument that human beings can rapidly evolve too (ergo biological races). That’s actually a big problem for EvoPsych.

Pioneers of evolutionary psychology all recognized that the psychological adaptations are designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment, not necessarily to the conditions of the current environment.  I call these observations the Savanna Principle:  The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment.  Other evolutionary psychologists call the same observation the evolutionary legacy hypothesis or the mismatch hypothesis.

The Savanna Principle argues we haven’t changed significantly since migrating out of Africa, thereby ruling out the possibility of different races evolving. To solve the contradiction, the authors propose a “slight” modification to Evolutionary Psychology:

… the working assumption of the SEPP [Standard Evolutionary Psychology Paradigm] is that the human mind is comprised of complicated programs that were designed to solve recurrent evolutionary problems. Such programs require many hundreds of generations to evolve because natural selection is slow; therefore, human skulls house “stone age” minds — minds that have not been “updated” to “post-hunter gatherer conditions” (…). We should be clear at this point and note that we are not suggesting that gradualism is, by definition, an incorrect assumption. Indeed, it has been, and should remain, a prevailing assumption among evolutionists. Rather, what we would challenge is the assumption — present in some, but not all corners of evolutionary psychology — that natural selection is precluded from working more rapidly than was previously assumed in the field of evolutionary psychology.

Sure, why not, let’s toss out a core assumption of our field when it’s inconvenient to our arguments, but let’s not toss it too far in case we need to rely on it for something else. Great plan. Not pseudo-scientific at all, no sirree, nope. Hell, while we’re at it, let’s toss out another assumption!

The SEPP asserts that there is a universal human nature. This is a relatively straightforward consequence of gradualism, and in principle, we do not dispute it. … The recalibration we propose in the pages to come for the concept of a panhuman nature is not that we should reject the notion of human psychological universals. Rather, we will argue that the panhuman nature possessed by our species has been differentially adjusted depending on local and regional selection pressures encountered by migrating human groups.

Let’s say a study finds that a sample of men find women who have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 to be most attractive. The authors of this study conclude that all men have this attraction, consistent with the predictions of EvoPsych. Later research with different samples of men find this pattern doesn’t hold. Ordinarily this would be counted as evidence in favour of cultural transmission, as cultures are allowed to vary while genes are hard-wired. However, by declaring that gene expression can vary according to local or regional conditions, the authors can still claim that genes are the primary driver, but these genes don’t activate in a straightforward way and instead shape their activation depending on the environment. Evidence that would have falsified EvoPsych now counts as evidence in favor if it. This is just a dodge around falsification!

These authors are not the first EvoPsych researchers to claim both sides of the argument, even for the universal/regional dodge, nor even the most radical at discarding core tenants to save the field from falsification. Embracing contradictory claims is a common tactic I’ve seen from people justifying racism, too; in particular, the latter group loves arguing that race is both a biological reality and a social construct.

Here, we will accept a moderate position: metaphysics aside, race is a useful concept; however, races are not immutable types, but fuzzy categories that can change depending on the level of analysis one chooses. Perhaps a useful comparison can be made between the construct of race and the construct of film category. Films are often categorized into horror, drama, comedy, and romance. These categories have some predictive value. If someone tells you that The Karate Kid is a coming of age drama, you have reasonable expectations about the kind of movie it is. Probably, it is not the kind of movie in which an unstoppable villain slaughters hapless teenage babysitters.

Pro tip: if you’re arguing racial categories “are not arbitrary human inventions,” analogising them to human inventions is counter-productive. To borrow this paper’s own tactic, is Children of Men a Hollywood film, an art film, a religious parable, disaster porn, a defence of refugees, or a movie precisely one hour fifty-four minutes long? All of those categories are abstractions piled on abstractions, constructed and shared by human beings to simplify complex things and therefore “fuzzy” as a consequence. That’s all a social construct is, a simplification or abstraction with multiple collaborators.

Compare that with something most people would consider a biological reality, species. We can define that as a shared gene pool: a human being could mate with another human and create another human, but the same could not be said of a human/wolf pairing. We can use this metric to sort everything on the planet into two categories, human and non-human, with no ambiguity. This is what brute realities are: concrete, unambiguous, without shades of grey.

Most people, alas, are wrong. Biologists would point out that Gray wolves and dogs have different behaviour, occupy radically different ecological niches, and yet they can inter-breed. Up until 1993 they were considered different species, but at the stroke of a pen were reclassified as the same species. Surprisingly, no such reclassification has happened for Gray wolves and coyotes, who are still considered separate species even though they too can inter-breed; what we thought was black and white reveals grey and ambiguity as we look closer.

Viruses and human beings should be entirely different species, yet we have viral genes in our genome. If you don’t consider viruses to be alive, and thus no more a species than rocks are, then you still have to deal with the fact that “Hundreds of human genes appear likely to have resulted from horizontal transfer from bacteria at some point in the vertebrate lineage.” And what about animals that do not reproduce via sex, like some plants, fungi, rotifers, or freshwater crayfish? Those individual organisms do not contribute into a shared gene pool, and yet we categorise them like species.

If the concept of species has the same fuzziness unique to social constructs, it must follow that the concept of sub-species or biological race is also a social construct. In the face of this, some of those defending racism have embraced a contradiction: they argue that fuzzy, uncertain social constructs are the same as sharp, certain biological realities. Hence why the authors can simultaneously claim races are “fuzzy categories that can change depending on the level of analysis one chooses” as well as the distinct categories “Caucasians, East Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines.” Compare the uncertain language near the start of the paper with what comes near the end, where fewer skeptical eyeballs will land:

First, there are many biological differences among Blacks, Whites, and Asians (…). Second, self-esteem is at least moderately heritable (…). And third, the differences in self-esteem, Blacks highest, Asians lowest, and Whites in the middle, do appear to cohere with a suite of hypothesized and known differences among the groups (…). Therefore, it may be reasonable to hypothesize that at least some of the differences in self-esteem among Blacks, Whites, and Asians are biologically caused (…). […]

Suppose, for example, that Blacks in the USA and the UK are more likely to suffer from hypertension than Whites (…). The only way we can address that problem is by sedulously studying the causes of the differences in hypertension. It might turn out that the causes are entirely environmental. But it might also turn out that Blacks have genetic profiles that make them more susceptible to hypertension than Whites.

The authors justify the fuzzy/sharp equivocation by claiming that race has “some predictive value,” implying that social constructs do not, while simultaneously declaring that movie categories have “predictive value,” admitting that social constructs can have value too. Up is down, black is white, and by embracing contradictions they allow irrational bigotry to survive rational scrutiny.

Oversimplification to Avoid Contradictory Evidence

They spend a few pages buttering us up with evidence of rapid evolution, primarily in cane toads and house sparrows. They do bring up human examples, though! The authors note that people with lighter skin tend to live in more Northern climes, due to the way we metabolise vitamin D. Is that true? Let’s ask this Brit:

Cheddar Man.

That’s “Cheddar Man,” who died in that part of the UK roughly 10,000 years ago. As the Natural History Museum puts it:

‘Until recently it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago,’ says [Dr.] Tom [Booth]. ‘Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight.’ However, Cheddar Man has the genetic markers of skin pigmentation usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa. […] ‘He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,’ says Tom. ‘They had dark skin and most of them had pale colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair.’

Pale skin is a fairly recent mutation, in reality, and much of Europe got those genes a mere 5,800 years ago via immigrants from the Middle East. The Inuit can have darker skin than modern Europeans, despite living in more Northern climates. People on the Southern part of South America are also darker, yet they live at a latitude roughly equivalent to Europe. First Nations follow the same pattern, and they too lived for at least 15,000 years at roughly the same latitude.

Dark-skinned people survive fine in Canada, while light-skinned people do great in the Caribbean, so the vitamin D effect cannot be strong. You’d think science would have nailed the vitamin D thing down by now, but according to a 2013 study “a consensus has not been reached on the vitamin D status of Africans,” so we don’t even know if dark-skinned people in Africa have more vitamin D than those in Europe, and a meta-analysis from 2014 concludes that “Despite a few hundred systematic reviews and meta-analyses, highly convincing evidence of a clear role of vitamin D does not exist for any outcome, but associations with a selection of outcomes are probable.”[1][2] So the harmful effects of vitamin D deficiency are so slight that the modern tools of science haven’t produced a consensus on their existence, yet so strong that they could drive Southern Europe to flip skin colour rapidly over a few thousand years, but still so slight that the flip happened many thousands of years after they’d settled in? I’m calling bullshit.

The authors also toss out some nonsense about lactose tolerance, but it’s self-defeating (despite appearing at least 2,000 years ago and being strongly selected for, only 30-35% of us can handle milk in adulthood). Their altitude arguments seem legit, though the genetic changes necessary for high-altitude living had anywhere from 9,000 to 65,000 years to develop, so it makes for a poor argument against gradualism. All it really does is establish that isolated human populations can have genetic differences from the rest of us, related to physical exertion; extending that to races which were not isolated is quite a challenge.

Revisionism and Minimization

With those arguments out of the way, the authors shift to historical revisionism and minimization.

Before proceeding with our discussion of human biological diversity, we want to discuss briefly the controversial concept of race. Thus far, we have not used the term for several reasons. Primarily, we have avoided it because it is a loaded and contentious concept, associated with a long history of prejudice and discrimination. Perhaps because of this regrettable legacy, the concept has impelled copious, often vitriolic discussion.

“Perhaps?” “Legacy?” Race is used as a basis for discrimination today, and even historic racism continues to have consequences. Take redlining:

“The availability of credit has really significant impacts on every dimension of neighborhood life, in terms of the quality of real estate, the willingness of investors to come in, the prices of property, the emergence of predatory practices,” said Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University. “These are all direct consequences of the lack of affordable loans and affordable mortgages.”

Blacks who did not have access to conventional home loans had to turn to schemes like contract sales that entailed steep interest rates (the practice is returning today in many of these same communities). Because those homes could be frequently repossessed by predatory lenders, these neighborhoods would experience more population instability. Slumlords, too, would move in, squeezing value from subdivided rental homes that otherwise might have been owned by families. Commercial investors, meanwhile, would have stayed away. Blacks discriminated against in the housing market elsewhere would have had limited options to move away. And any existing homeowners would have struggled to obtain credit for maintenance and repairs, leading to the further deterioration of properties.

This process can be invisible to people who might look at these communities, Mr. Sugrue said, and place blame for their disrepair on residents who don’t value their homes. There would be long-term and invisible effects, too, on family wealth, as people who weren’t able to buy a home never developed the equity that would allow their children (and grandchildren) to buy homes.

As a consequence of policies like this, light-skinned Bostonians had a median net worth of $247,500 in 2015, while dark-skinned Bostonians had a median net worth of $8. That, I think, justifies a little “vitriolic discussion.” As does this:

Researchers do not concoct racial categories without motivation just because, and neither do they do so for purely political or social reasons.

Finding counterexamples is trivially easy. Hell, I don’t even have to leave my home province!

If, upon examination of any mentally defective person, the Board is unanimously of the opinion that the exercise of the power of procreation would result in the transmission to such person’s progeny of any mental disability or deficiency, or that the exercise of the power of procreation by any such mentally defective person involves the risk of mental injury either to such person or to his progeny, the Board may direct, in writing, such surgical operation for the sexual sterilization of such mentally defective person as may be specified in the written direction and shall appoint some competent surgeon to perform the operation.

That’s clause six of the 1937 Sexual Sterilization Act. “The Board” consisted of two esteemed members of the public, plus two doctors that had sound scientific training.

As the founder of both the psychology and philosophy departments at the University of Alberta, as well as the co-founder of the Canadian Psychological Association, [professor J.M.] MacEachran was a well-respected academic with a deep interest in eugenics. Due to his interest in eugenics and his support for sterilization, MacEachran began his role as Chairman of the Board in 1928. He kept this position for 37 years, retiring in 1965 at the age of 88, twenty years after he retired from teaching at the University of Alberta. […]

MacEachran had a diverse education before he became Chairman of the Eugenics Board. … Prior to becoming the Chairman of the Board, MacEachran had the good fortune to study under some of North America’s and Europe’s leading professors at the turn of the twentieth century.

The idea that intelligence is passed primarily via genes is a central claim of eugenics, and was considered the scientific consensus at one point. Well-educated academics bought into it, and used it as a means of social control right up until 1970. While “mentally defective person” doesn’t map neatly to race, First Nations people were disproportionately targeted to “serve the political and economic interests of Canada.” This however adds to other outrages that were exclusive to them, like residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, that were intended to “civilize” the savage.

Embarrassingly, similar claims about intelligence are neeaaarly endorsed by the authors.

Recently, however, several researchers have argued that Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence is not entirely socioculturally caused, but rather is the result of unique selection pressures faced by the ancestors of modern Ashkenazi Jews (…).

Cochran et al. (2006), for example, contended that because Ashkenazi Jewish people between 800 and 1700 were largely endogamous and were forced into a few, cognitively challenging occupations (e.g., accounting, money lending, and management), there were strong selective pressures on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence. That is, because Ashkenazi Jews who were highly intelligent flourished in their limited occupational niche, they reproduced more prolifically than less intelligent Ashkenazi Jews, which ultimately led to a population level increase in intelligence. Lynn (2011) and Glad (2011) have also forwarded evolutionary accounts of Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence. […]

Although heritability measures cannot be uncritically applied to group differences (Block 1995), the high heritability of intelligence suggests that large group differences might be at least partially genetically caused (Sesardic 2005). Lynn (2011) notes that Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence scores are relatively similar wherever they are measured. Furthermore, Ashkenazi Jewish people tend to have high levels of achievement in every country they inhabit, often despite facing fierce anti-Semitism. Cochran et al. (2006) also noted that Ashkenazi Jewish people are vulnerable to a number of diseases and genetic disorders that are related to the growth of axons and dendrites and potentially to higher intelligence. …

Of course, this evidence is not dispositive. But it is strongly suggestive. And if true, it means that at least part of the IQ gap between Ashkenazi Jews and other populations is genetic in origin.

Unfortunately, you can’t draw a line between good and bad uses of science. Claims of differing intelligence or “civility” will be seized on as a basis for discrimination, as the past amply demonstrates, so there’s a strong moral imperative not to study them even if they exist. The same reasoning led scientists to voluntarily create the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, and the author of the Anarchist’s Cookbook to call for its ban; some things are simply too dangerous to roam without restraint.

Besides, it’s pretty well established that our modern views of race were invented during the Enlightenment for social/political reasons, and that scientists played a key role. Take the words of Barbara J. Fields, or those of Robin D.G. Kelly, both historians.

What is interesting is that the Enlightenment produced a challenge to Christianity. And what ends up happening is scientists begin to talk about the races as separate human species emerging over time. And when you can talk about different species, it solves the problem of saying that we are all part of the Christian world. It allows you to begin to designate some people as just one step out of the animal kingdom, in the case of Africans. It even allows you in some ways to talk about the noble savage in the case of Native Americans, who are celebrated in some ways initially as having a certain kind of superior primitive knowledge that could be liberating for the West.

Now what is also interesting is that science in the 18th and 19th century requires a rewriting of the histories that they already knew in order to justify these claims. Perhaps the best example is that in the 19th century, ancient history gets rewritten so that the connection of Egypt and North Africa to ancient Greece gets erased. Almost all historians who write histories of the formation of Europe and Greek lineage begin to literally, systematically remove the present of Egyptian philosophers.

No wonder the authors had to turn a blind eye to history, it would cause some uncomfortable self-reflection.


Instead, they want to shift that discomfort onto the rest of us.

To conclude, we believe that:

1. It does not promote the interests of society or of science to deny that human populations vary in biologically meaningful ways simply because it makes some people uncomfortable or anxious.

Aren’t their opponents the real monsters here, for being so inflexible and dogmatic?

2. If some scholars deny the reality of human population variation and slander those who wish to study and discuss it openly, then extremists are likely to monopolize the conversation. […]

Some researchers have even contended that the study of population differences is so divisive and so dangerous that scientists of good conscience should avoid it altogether (…). Although we disagree with this advice, which we think betrays the spirit of free scientific inquiry, we do understand the concerns that arise when scientists study and candidly discuss human population differences (…). Those concerns can be addressed without stifling scientific progress or slandering researchers who decide that the study of human biological diversity is inherently interesting and worth pursuing.

This is a lot like the classic “Teach the Controversy” line: if you value freedom of thought, you must give me a platform to speak freely and with minimal opposition. If you have an open mind, you must take everyone’s opinion seriously even if their claims are misleading. In reality, we don’t allow patents on perpetual motion machines because we gain nothing from them. The science has already been settled, so that patent is only useful for scamming people. Likewise, the evidence these authors bring up is self-refuting, has been refuted, or is being distorted to “prove” something it does not. We gain nothing from turning back the clock and reintroducing race into science.

The scientific material available to us at present does not justify the conclusion that inherited genetic differences are a major factor in producing the differences between the cultures and cultural achievements of different peoples or groups. It does indicate, however, that the history of the cultural experience which each group has undergone is the major factor in explaining such differences. The one trait which above all others has been at a premium in the evolution of men’s mental characters has been educability, plasticity. This is a trait which all human beings possess. It is indeed, a species character of Homo sapiens. […]

The biological fact of race and the myth of ”race” should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ”race” is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth ”race” has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years it has taken a heavy toll in human lives and caused untold suffering. It still prevents the normal development of millions of human beings and deprives civilization of the effective co-operation of productive minds. The biological differences between ethnic groups should be disregarded from the standpoint of social acceptance and social action.

That was the scientific consensus in 1950, according to UNESCO. Swimming against that consensus does not make these authors daring freethinkers, it paints them as cranks who wish to exploit the ignorance and good intentions of others to spread their ideas.

What Sort of Journal Does This?

Of course, we live in a world dominated by low-quality journals. I could easily score cheap points on EvoPsych by hunting through those with little-to-no peer review and presenting that as legit.

This isn’t my first rodeo, however. Since I last opened the pages of Evolutionary Psychological Science, I’ve had a closer look at their Editorial Board. Yeah, some of those people are a bit iffy (Joseph Carroll is a fun read, and what the hell is Sam Harris doing there?!), but it also includes researchers like Todd Shackelford, David Buss, Robert Kurzban, Michael B. Petersen, Bailey R. House, Peter DeScioli, and even Steven Pinker. Remember that video of snow monkeys having sexy time with a deer? Two of those researchers are also on the editorial board of Evolutionary Psychological Science.

This looks like a legit EvoPsych journal to me, complete with double-blind peer review (check the “Instructions for Authors” tab), and yet it published an article promoting scientific racism that should have been a desk reject. That paper reverses core assumptions of EvoPsych, but only when convenient; ignores or is ignorant of the ample research which would refute it; and is at odds with longstanding scientific consensus.

I’ve long believed EvoPsych is rotten to the core, but to see some of its researchers publicly embrace scientific racism? This is a new low.

[1] O’Connor, Michelle Y, Caroline K Thoreson, Natalie L M Ramsey, Madia Ricks, and Anne E Sumner. “The Uncertain Significance of Low Vitamin D Levels in African Descent Populations: A Review of the Bone and Cardiometabolic Literature.” Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases 56, no. 3 (2013): 261–69.

[2] Theodoratou, Evropi, Ioanna Tzoulaki, Lina Zgaga, and John P A Ioannidis. “Vitamin D and Multiple Health Outcomes: Umbrella Review of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses of Observational Studies and Randomised Trials.” The BMJ 348 (April 1, 2014).