The Scientific Fundamentalist

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More on Intelligent Stupid Liberals

Higher intelligence as a peacock’s tail?

Janeane GarofaloThere may be other reasons why intelligent people like liberals espouse stupid ideas.

In my previous post, I discuss Bruce G. Charlton’s notion of “clever sillies.”  Charlton suggests that intelligent people have a tendency to overapply their logical and analytical abilities (afforded by their higher intelligence) inappropriately to social and interpersonal domains, where feeling, not thinking, usually leads to the correct solutions.  Intelligent people lack common sense, because common sense is evolutionarily familiar, and the Hypothesis suggests that intelligent people are therefore less likely to resort to evolutionarily familiar common sense that would lead to the correct solutions to most problems in social and interpersonal domains.

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Mads AndersenNow, a regular reader of my blog, Mr. Mads Andersen, offers another potential explanation for why intelligent people like liberals espouse stupid ideas.  Mr. Andersen has a couple of great suggestions, both of which utilize the handicap principle, first proposed by the Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi.

A prime example of a handicap is the peacock’s tail.  The long, elaborate, and ornate tail of a peacock does not have any adaptive value; it does not serve any tangible, useful purpose that would aid the survival of the peacock.  In fact, it only harms its survival chances.  Peacocks with longer, more elaborate trains are easier for predators to catch and kill than fellow peacocks with shorter and simpler trains.  So they only have costs and no benefits.  But that, according to Zahavi, is precisely the point.  Peacocks are advertising to peahens “Look, I am so genetically fit and I can run so fast that I can still evade the predators with this huge thing hanging from my ass!  Them other guys ain’t so fit and the only reason they can evade predators is because their trains are shorter.  They wouldn’t be able to evade the predators if their tails are as long as mine!  Now whose genes would you like your offspring to carry?”  And peahens indeed do prefer to mate with peacocks with longer, more elaborate, and more symmetrical tails that are biologically very expensive to maintain, so that their male offspring will also sport long, elaborate tails that attract females of their generation.

Peacock's tailThe same idea is captured in the expression “fighting with one arm tied behind my back.”  Any fighter who can win a fight with one arm tied behind his back would naturally have to be stronger and more genetically fit than anyone who needs both hands to fight.  Zahavi and other biologists suggest that many seemingly useless traits like peacock’s long tails may have evolved as a handicap, an honest signal of one’s genetic fitness to potential mates.  They are therefore sexually selected (they increase the carrier’s reproductive success), even though they are not naturally selected (they do not increase the carrier’s survival chances).

Mr. Andersen’s ideas capitalize on Zahavian handicap principle.  First, Mr. Andersen suggests that more intelligent individuals tend to espouse absurdly complex ideas as an honest signal of their higher intelligence.  Because common sense is evolutionarily familiar, and all humans are equipped with common sense, it is by definition the simplest and easiest solution available to them.  More intelligent people reject the “simplistic” solution offered by common sense and instead adopt unnecessarily complex ideas simply because their intelligence allows them to entertain such complex ideas, even when they may be untrue or unuseful in solving the problem at hand.

Many observers have noted that this is indeed already happening in academia.  In fields like literary criticism that lack external objective criteria for evaluating ideas (in contrast to natural sciences whose theories must be evaluated against nature), or in pseudoscientific fields like sociology where no one can agree on what the truth is and political ideology trumps empirical evidence, academics are increasingly rewarded for proposing complex and absurd ideas like reader response theory or social constructionism.  Mr. Andersen suggests that these academics may be (unconsciously) saying “Look, I have such an excess of intelligence that I don’t have to go for the obvious, simple (albeit true) answers.  I can come up with absurdly complex ideas because my higher intelligence allows me to!”

Second, Mr. Andersen points out that many political liberals, especially in Hollywood and academia, are themselves well off and do not individually and directly benefit from liberal policies of greater welfare states.  Once again, these liberals may be giving an honest signal that they have accumulated and are still able to accumulate so many resources that they can afford to pay higher taxes and allow the public funds to benefit other people.  If they are not able to accumulate resources themselves, they would not be able to afford paying higher taxes to fund welfare programs that do not directly benefit them.  In essence, they are (unconsciously) saying “Look, I’m so wealthy that I can afford to waste my money on other people!”

I believe Mr. Andersen may be right in both of his suggestions.  But I don’t think his explanations are necessarily alternative to the ones that Professor Charlton and I offer in my previous post.  Instead, they may be additional reasons why intelligent people are more likely to be liberals and espouse stupid ideas as honest signals of their genetic fitness and higher intellectual capacity.  One does not have to be wrong for the other to be right; they may both be correct and provide partial answers.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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