Treat people as individuals, not as members of groups
Recently, as readers of PT blogs know, Satoshi Kanazawa posted an entry at Psychology Today entitled "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men." (There is a screen shot at scribd
.) The post no longer appears at Psychology Today.
The post can be seen at scribd, and most readers are probably familiar with this by now, so I'll just summarize. Kanazawa reports data from Add Health, a large survey of adolescents. As part of the survey, interviewers rate the attractiveness of respondents on a scale from 1 to 5. Kanazawa shows data indicating that Black women are rated as less attractive by the Add Health interviewers than members of other ethnicities (White, Asian, Native American).
Kanazawa writes that "Black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women." I think a lot has turned on the word "objectively." He used it, I think, to distinguish the data he's discussing from the self-report data. (This point is made at evolvify.) I can, however, see how this would be read by many as making a claim about the women, as opposed to ratings of the women.
My point here isn't going to be about the data, but rather about the issue of stereotypes and prejudice. In terms of the data, I will make one remark. Rhodes et al. (2005) argued that if people prefer faces that constitute an average of the faces that they experience, then, as they put it, faces "should be more attractive when their component faces come from a familiar, own-race population." They indeed showed some evidence for an "own race" effect. If raters in Add Health were Caucasian men, then this might help to explain observed differences. Now, this idea doesn't by itself explain all the data, since this line of argument predicts that ratings across all non-white groups would be lower, and it doesn't explain ratings of males. However, it does suggest that experience with faces influences what one finds attractive, which in turn suggests that the explanation might be located in the particular pattern of experiences of the raters, most of whom might have been White males. (I don't know the Add Health interviewer demographics.) This is not to say that there are not commonalities in what people find attractive. (See Rhodes, 2006.) Not knowing about the people doing the rating in this case does seem to make the data difficult to interpret, but it also seems to me that it is defensible to argue that there is at least something to be explained here. (Unless, of course, there are some questions which simply must not be asked. I would be interested in a defense of such a claim.)
But let me say something about stereotypes. Humans are social creatures who coordinate activities and cooperate in substantial numbers. Possibly as a consequence of this, even when there is no objective existence of groups, we hallucinate that they exist, and we attach real meaning to them (see, e.g., Kurzban et al., 2001). Kanazawa writes, for instance, that "There are many biological and genetic differences between the races." My reading of the data is quite different, and in my view (Cosmides et al., 2003), "race" is a way to group people that exists in the heads of humans; this in part explains why the categories we use change over time.
And, further, sometimes people's views of groups are laden with emotion, and this is where I want to direct my main remarks. Kanazawa's post has led to something of a firestorm; for instance, responding to this post, PZ Myers says that Kanazawa is among the reasons that he "detests" evolutionary psychology.
Myers, just like others, cannot seem to help seeing the social world - indeed, the scientific world - in terms of groups and coalitions, and here his reaction to Kanazawa's post fuels his anger for an entire category of people who had no role in writing the post in question. I am strongly opposed to this, and I find his remarks offensive. It makes no more sense to hate an entire scientific discipline because of the work of one person than it does to hate a group (racial or otherwise) based on the ideas or the actions of one of its members.
Along similar lines, he says of evolutionary psychologists that "more of them need to stand up and repudiate this bigoted clown..." Holding aside what he means by "standing up" and the name calling, of all the possible categories that Myers could have chosen, why this one? Why not people at LSE? Or social scientists generally? To return to a point I made earlier in the context of the Hauser scandal, the choice of groups illustrates something about the predispositions of the observers more than anything else.
Not only that, even if one were to think it was reasonable and just to tar an entire field with the same brush, it's something of a perversity to base one's views of the field on Kanazawa's work. As Scott Barry Kaufman's post documents, and others have similarly pointed out, many evolutionary psychologists take issue with fundamental ideas as the heart of Kanazawa's research. If Myers wants to dismiss the entire field, or at least justify his hatred for it, he needs to engage the principles that underlie the field as a whole. If he wants to do this, I look forward to his explanation for why human behavior (but not, presumably, any other species' behavior) should be studied scrupulously free of the theory of evolution, or whatever remedy it is that he has in mind to relieve his anger.
These remarks are not, of course, intended to be specific to Myers, but apply to anyone who is similarly inclined to generalize from one person to a group of people.
I am, to be clear, against racism in all forms. And, I agree that bloggers bear an additional burden when discussing emotionally charged issues.
I look forward to a day when people are evaluated not by the categories to which they belong, but on the content of their blog posts.
I hope that day comes soon.
Cosmides, L., Tooby, J. & Kurzban, R. (2003). Perceptions of race. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(4), 173-179.
Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(26), 15387-15392.
Rhodes, G. (2006) The evolutionary psychology of facial beauty. Annual Review of. Psychology, 57, 199-226.
Rhodes, G., Lee, K., Palermo, R., Weiss, M., Yoshikawa, S., Clissa, P., Jeffery, L. (2005). Attractiveness of own race, other-race, and mixed-race faces. Perception, 34, 319-340.
Robert Kurzban. All Rights Reserved.
Note: A slightly different version of this post appeared at Evolutionary Psychology.