Why Objections to Irrationality and Simple-Mindedness Shouldn’t Be the Same

Internet commentators should put critical thinking before self-righteousness.

Posted May 30, 2011

I am writing in part to respond directly to other commentators' harmful and stereotypical statements in response to Kanazawa, but let me first deal with another issue: I did not want to get mired into a debate on the merits of Kanazawa’s claim that Black women are unattractive: because Kaufman and Wicherts already did a very nice job. For those who like to post a response before reading too much, I’ll save you some trouble—Kaufman and Wicherts, using the same data set as Kanazawa, find this: Not only is it not true that African American women are rated as unattractive, almost 50 percent of African American women in that sample are rated as “attractive” or “very attractive,” just over 40 percent are rated as “about average,” and only about 10 percent are rated as unattractive. 

My arguments in favor of even-handed and rational argumentation were inspired instead by two things I found especially troubling: First was one commentator’s reference to Kanazawa’s race and a dig at his attractiveness. Second was Stanton Peele’s dangerous and uninformed attack on evolutionary psychologists as a group, which was subsequently reprinted on Yahoo News (without comment by them, and without any reference either to Saad’s rebuttal, Kaufman’s rebuttal, or to my own).  

In looking at comments on my earlier postings, it appears I may have been speaking in terms that were too indirect. I did not originally think that the specific content of that other blogger’s self-righteous and uninformed accusations merited drawing more attention to him. But apparently I was wrong. 

So here’s what Stanton Peele said that got me involved in this argument: 

“I attacked Satoshi Kanazawa...—before his Ev Psych logic led him inevitably and frankly to racism. But the logic underlying his racism is exactly that which drives the field—i.e., there are biological imperatives that determine social behavior, attitudes, and undeniable human reality.... Kanazawa's and evolutionary psychology's blinders shut out everything important about humanity.” (emphases added) 

I’m sure Mr. Peele feels good about himself for opposing racism and celebrating “everything important about humanity.” But he is himself engaging in harmful stereotyping along the way. If he wants to hold Kanazawa to a higher standard of scientific reasoning and interpersonal sensitivity (as he should), he should hold himself to the same standards. And he should realize that when he makes such blanket stereotypical statements, he is not only besmirching the character of researchers such as Harvard professor Jim Sidanius, an African American man who has examined the roots of racism, and its justification, in evolutionary perspective. He is also besmirching the character of Jim’s colleagues Carlos Navarrete and Felicia Pratto, and of my colleagues Steve Neuberg and Rob Kurzban, none of whom are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, all of whom study the roots of racism, and all of whom use ideas from evolutionary biology to inform their research. 

When Mr. Peele suggests that evolutionary reasoning leads “inevitably” to racism, he is simply wrong. As I discussed in an earlier post, most evolutionary psychologists find little scientific merit in studying racial differences. And although all scientists try to control their political biases, a study by Josh Tybur and his colleagues uncovered the “shocking secret” that most evolutionary psychologists are, like most other psychologists, part of the imaginary liberal plot that includes the Sierra Club, the Democratic Party, the NAACP, and Nader’s Raiders. If Peele’s understanding of evolutionary biology leads him inevitably to racism, he should do a bit more reading on the topic.

And when Mr. Peele boldly states that “evolutionary psychology's blinders shut out everything important about humanity,” he is insulting all those researchers who are studying love, empathy, family relationships, prosocial behavior, friendship, creativity, and morality from an evolutionary perspective. See here for one broader discussion of what we’ve learned about the whole of human nature by looking at ourselves in an evolutionary perspective. Or look up the research by Dacher Keltner, Lani Shiota, or Mike McCullough, to name a few of many researchers in the emerging field of evolutionary positive psychology.

So, here’s my opinion, for the record. I am guessing that, because Satoshi Kanazawa’s general orientation is to start arguments, he’d have been just as happy writing a headline asking: “Why are White men (and Asian men) so much less attractive than women?” But he chose poorly, brought a lot of heat on himself, and annoyed and insulted a lot of people. Nevertheless, here’s what the rest of us learned: The original shock-jock claim was wrong. Prior restraint censorship is dangerous for various reasons. And guess what: The open discussion of the data has suggested that the news is actually good, Black women are beautiful after all. None of the re-analyses I’ve seen have refuted Kanazawa’s claim that men are, on average, rated as less attractive than women, and if you’re one of those people who likes to make ad hominem attacks on bloggers, I’ll save you the trouble: Kenrick is no exception to that sad sexist statistic.

Kanazawa’s more general theory of intelligence, as Scott Barry Kaufman has pointed out, is not mainstream evolutionary psychology (which doesn’t make it bad or good, per se, I personally just find it hard to follow, and far enough outside my own interests that I have not taken the trouble to read it carefully). I try not to express strong opinions on topics about which I have not followed the literature, and I would urge Mr. Peele to do the same thing. 

Should Peele also apologize to all the people whose character he unfairly besmirched? His call. But as in Kanazawa’s case, it doesn’t seem to be his style, and psychological drives for consistency make it difficult to rescind a public commitment. Should Yahoo apologize for failing to evaluate the evidence for Peele’s harmful use of stereotypes? Again, I’m not holding my breath. But kids, I guess that’s one cost of an open internet—bloggers and commentators get to express a lot of opinions, sometimes with evidence, sometimes without, sometimes too strongly, and sometimes too weakly. Others get to disagree, and hopefully, in the end, the truth is out there somewhere. But as I suggested in my earlier posting, you might want to think carefully before you hit the return key (he says as he hits the return key).


Doug Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our understanding of human nature. In that book, he explores what an evolutionary perspective can tell us about: 1) the positive as well as the negative side of human nature, 2) racism and stereotyping, 3) conspicuous displays, and 4) a few other minor topics, like the meaning of life.

A few references for to combat stereotypes about evolutionary psychology 

Ackerman, J. M., Shapiro, J. R., Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., Schaller, M., Becker, D. V., Griskevicius, V., & Maner, J. K. (2006). They all look the same to me (unless they're angry): From out-group homogeneity to out-group heterogeneity. Psychological Science, 17, 836-840.

Cottrell, C. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2005). Different emotional reactions to different groups: A sociofunctional threat-based approach to ‘prejudice.' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 770-789.

Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Kurzban, R. (2003). Perceptions of race. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 173-179.

Cottrell, C. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2005). Different emotional reactions to different groups: A sociofunctional threat-based approach to ‘prejudice.' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 770-789.

Kenrick, D.T. (2011). Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. New York: Basic books.

Navarrete, C.D., Fessler, D.M.T. Santos Fleischman, D., & Geyer, J. (2009a). Race bias tracks conception risk across the menstrual cycle. Psychological Science, 20(6): 661-665.

Navarrete, C.D., Olsson, A., Ho, A., Mendes, W., Thomsen, L., & Sidanius, J. (2009b). Fear extinction to an out-group face: The role of target gender. Psychological Science, 20(2): 155-158.

Schaller, M., & Neuberg, S. L. (2008). Intergroup prejudices and intergroup conflicts. In C. Crawford and D. L. Krebs (Eds.), Foundations of evolutionary psychology: Ideas, applications, and applications (pp. 401-414). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990). On the universality of human nature and the uniqueness of the individual - the role of genetics and adaptation. Journal of Personality, 58, 17- 67.

Tybur, J. M., Miller, G. F., & Gangestad, S. W. (2007). Testing the controversy: An empirical examination of adaptationists' attitudes towards politics and science. Human Nature, 18, 313-328.

Related posts 

The evolutionary psychology of racism and stereotyping 

On being a politically biased psychology professor

Evolutionary psychology is distinctly nonracist.

Satoshi Kanazawa does not speak for all evolutionary psychologists 

Black women are not rated as less attractive: An independent analysis of the Add Health dataset.