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Is Evolutionary Psychology Total, Utter, and Dangerous Bullshit?

The Hypothesis: Evolutionary psychology is deleterious bullshit

Satoshi Kanazawa

As you know, class, I am quite skeptical of evolutionary psychology. I was so struck by Dr. Kanazawa's recent evolutionary psychology post claiming that smarter people binge drink more (which was on the most popular list for weeks), that I commented on it in PT blogs, then posted about it on Huffington Post.

I pointed out that the better educated people are, the more likely they are to drink, the less likely to binge. Thus, if you divide binge level by drinking levels (that is, the percentage of drinkers in each group who binge), you get this hierarchy in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 68% of drinkers with less than high school degrees binge; 52% of high school graduate drinkers binge; 45% of drinkers with some college binge; 33% of college graduate drinkers binge.

What a fire storm that HuffPo post created, class. Let's discuss it, along with the question, "Is EvPsych bullshit?"

EvPsych as catechism

Whooo, put your hands down now, and stop shouting out, "being educated isn't the same as being smart." Virtually every commenter at HuffPo made that point, like laying down a card that trumps anything else that can be said. Here are a couple such comments: Allen Bouchard said, "You have a false premise in your reasoning, combined with a strawman. Satoshi Kanazawa's opening statement is that more intelligent people drink more. You then give statistics on education level and binge drinking. Education level and intelligence are not equivalent, so this unstated premise is false." More pointedly, Beka 13 said, "I love when scientists assume that the level of education correlates directly to the level of intelligence" (we're idiots!).

Okay, class, are you calmed down now? There are certain bromides that people announce, like a catechism, after which they feel there can be no more discussion, like "Addiction is a brain disease," or "Correlation is not causation." But such a statement doesn't halt a conversation, it begins one. Think about the current debate. If, as the National Survey shows, better educated people binge drink less, but as Dr. Kanazawa claims, smarter people binge more, that indicates more than that there is no relationship between education and intelligence.  It says that they are actually inversely related - that is, high school drop-outs are smarter than college grads.

Class - do you really believe that?

EvPysch as fable

As is typical, class, Dr. Kanazawa lays out the EvPsych Hypothesis (yes, he capitalizes the word) from which all truth flows.  Then he discusses prehistory, history, birds, fermentation, Arabic - what a yarn! All by way of explicating and supporting the Hypothesis - that intelligent people like novel experiences and thus drink, binge, and get drunk more.

Meanwhile, class, I have told you about how Christopher Ryan co-authored Sex at Dawn, which discusses the EvPsych fable of monogamy. Here's how NPR's Peter Sagal described the book and what it says about evolutionary psychology:

If you are interested in evolutionary biology (as I am) and are interested in sex (as everybody is), eventually you seek out an evolutionary explanation of human sexual behavior. It always goes something like this: Men, eager to spread their genes (in the form of unlimited sperm) far and wide, are naturally promiscuous, and women, eager to provide resources for their genes (in the form of rare and precious eggs), are nesters, trading sex with men for security for their offspring. . . .

Which is why my favorite book of 2010 is Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins Of Modern Sexuality - it's the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something. The "standard model" is, as authors Ryan and Jetha point out, as false as the Piltdown Man. Even worse, it is, as they call it, a "Flintstonization of Prehistory," a way of mapping modern mores backwards onto our ancient past. For centuries, men were allowed sexual freedom, women were not, and thus this explanation exists to provide a "scientific" basis for what we already believe.

Their eminently convincing case argues that our current sexual practices - pair bonding in marriage, monogamy (which, again, historically we've imposed only on women), even the nuclear family - are all a cultural construct, dating from after the rise of agriculture and civilization. To describe sexual behavior in our natural state, in the hundreds of thousands of years before the scant few millenia of recorded history, they use evidence from anthropology, comparative zoology, and evolutionary biology. Their conclusion is that we are evolved to be highly sexualized creatures, almost unique in the world, who use sex as a form of social communication and bonding. And that in our natural state, females enjoy and exercise as much sexual freedom as males, if not more.

In fact, class, we see, like Aesop's fables, the EvPsych narrative reinforces current cultural mores with elaborate claims of evolutionary necessity - we are what we are (inherently monogamous) because - not God - but nature made us this way. Yet, in fact the opposite is true!

EvPsych as science

Eventually, class, Dr. Kanazawa presents this finding: "There is a clear monotonic association between childhood intelligence (measured before the age of 16) and the frequency of alcohol consumption in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. ‘Very bright' British children grow up to consume alcohol nearly one full standard deviation more frequently than their ‘very dull' classmates."

Wait a second, class, run that by me one more time. I pointed out that better educated people are more likely to be current drinkers (68% of college grads, 35% with less than a high school education), while Dr. Kanazawa says that smarter people more frequently drink. . . .huh, aren't those close to the same things? Smarter people drink more frequently, better-educated educated people are more likely to be current drinkers?

EvPsych as three-card monte

Class, I must say I felt insulted at HuffPo. That devil Allen Bouchard reports, "Mr. Kanazawa is not talking about binge drinking, he never says the word."

You mean I made that up? But, wait, right there at the top of the article - the tag line - it says, "More intelligent people are more likely to binge drink and get drunk."

Here are further findings presented by Dr. Kanazawa: "'Very bright' British children grow up to consume nearly eight-tenths of a standard deviation more alcohol than their ‘very dull' classmates". . . . "The more intelligent Americans are in their childhood, the more alcohol they consume as young adults." There are three graphs accompanying the three findings presented marked "frequency of alcohol consumption," "quantity of alcohol consumption" (British), and "quantity of alcohol consumption" (American).

Final conclusion: "Since the consumption of modern alcoholic beverages - including binge drinking and getting drunk - is evolutionarily novel, the Hypothesis would predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to engage in it, and the empirical data from the UK and the US confirm it."

Wait a second, class. First, Allen, there's that "binge drinking and getting drunk" again. Second, where is that graph? The one showing smarter people binge drink and get drunk more? Dr. Kanazawa does claim this, "Indicators of alcohol consumption in the Add Health data include the frequency of binge drinking (drinking five or more units of alcohol in one sitting) and the frequency of getting drunk" (emphasis added).  Class - what does that mean? Did Dr. Kanazawa just fast shuffle that conclusion in without showing any data?

EvPsych as anti-psychology

Class, you remember that we have read in health psychology that better-off and better-educated people have greater feelings of self-efficacy and are more concerned about health? The greater people's education, the less likely they are to smoke, the more likely to drink moderately, the less likely to binge drink, the less likely they are to be obese - all of their appetitive behaviors seem to be consistent with this hypothesis (note no caps). After Dr. Kanazawa says that smarter people binge drink more, he claims: "That such behavior is detrimental to health and has few, if any, positive consequences, is irrelevant for the Hypothesis. It does not predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to engage in healthy and beneficial behavior." All that stuff about people's attitudes and behavior that psychology finds - bullshit according to Dr. Kanazawa.  The EvPsych "Hypothesis" reigns supreme!

EvPsych as detrimental to our health

There is nothing more crucial in alcohol epidemiology than the distinction between regular moderate drinking and binge drinking. The former results in more overall consumption, but is healthier.  The latter is associated with far higher death rates due to violence and accidents. Remember, class, research has established the following, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,

Strong evidence consistently demonstrates that compared to non-drinkers, individuals who drink moderately have lower risk of coronary heart disease....

Moderate evidence suggests that compared to non-drinkers, individuals who drink moderately have a slower cognitive decline with age....

An average daily intake of one to two alcoholic beverages is associated with the lowest all-cause mortality and a low risk of diabetes and CHD among middle-aged and older adults.... (emphases added)

Consuming less alcohol overall, on the other hand, but drinking it in short bursts, has the exact opposite effect - depreciating mental faculties and enhancing the likelihood of heart disease. So the entire fast shuffle exercise between regular drinking and binge drinking, just as it confused all of you and virtually every HuffPo commenter, is exactly opposite to healthy information. For to mix the two up is to obfuscate the difference between what is healthy and what is unhealthy.

Is encouraging such confusion what psychology and science are about?

Picture: PT evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa