Thoughts on That Liberalism and Intelligence Survey

Liberals, including some friends of mine, are quite satisfied at a new survey of intelligence and ideology that finds liberals to be more intelligent, on average, than their conservative counterparts.  According to the CNN report summarizing the research, Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics has made the following three discoveries:

  • Liberals average as much as eleven IQ points higher than conservatives;
  • The smarter you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist;
  • And male sexual exclusivity is linked to intelligence.

Now, there are a number of questions that come out of this, some of which place the survey in the category of bad social science.  For starters, Kanazawa, invoking human evolution, makes broad claims like

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

And yet their survey sample is American youth, no older age cohorts and no foreigners.  The problem here is that when you’re talking about human evolution you don’t just look at a particular culture at a fixed point at time and say “This is generally true for all of us.”  For example, the research ignores Europe, where nearly everyone from football hooligans to Brussels elites have given up on God,* meaning that intelligence there is no longer a reliable predictor of atheism.  Similarly, the research ignores the Islamic world, where highly intelligent people are also often highly devout.   (While I won’t characterize terrorists as the “most faithful” of Muslims, it’s worth noting that many prominent Muslim terrorists are engineers and other high IQ professions.)

Moving on, other problems with the survey appear when you consider that the particular findings don’t match up with the American political environment.  For example, there should be an additional correlation between liberalism and male sexual exclusivity, yet if the last two decades taught us anything, it’s that liberals are less likely to endorse the concept of faithfulness in general even if they are faithful in their private lives, whereas conservatives and the religious are more likely to promote faithfulness in general.  This doesn’t square with Kanazawa telling us that conservative attitudes and religion have old school evolutionary advantages yet male sexual exclusivity does not, since the former actively promote the latter.**  Another issue is that American-Americans, who affiliate themselves with liberal causes more consistently than most groups in the US, are also far more churchgoing than their fellow liberals: while 44% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, only 10% of African-Americans do so.  This is an outlier that goes unexplained in the CNN summary but might make it into Kanazawa’s full report, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is not something I am going to pay $32.00 to read.***

Another issue with the report comes when Kanazawa asserts that liberalism has the contra-evolutionary trait of being interested in the welfare of strangers whereas conservatives prefer to be interested in the welfare of their kin.  On the surface of it, this claim makes sense, given that liberals endorse government social programs while conservatives argue against government handouts.  Yet if we look beyond the role of the state in promoting the welfare of strangers, we find that conservatives are significantly more committed to private sector altruism.  For instance, of the top 25 states for charitable giving in the mid-2000s, 24 voted for Bush and one voted for Kerry in the 2004 elections.  Moreover, throughout history, religious institutions have long demonstrated a commitment to the welfare of strangers, and in the Islamic world these institutions have provided vital social services where the state has failed its citizens.  A failure to account for private charity means that Kanazawa’s arguments about altruism and evolution stand on shaky ground.

Overall, the deeper problem is that Kanazawa is looking at specific cultural constructs and making general evolutionary claims.  Culture is fluid and changes generationally and geographically.  Evolution, conversely, takes time.  If we are hard-wired to be conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, in the same way that we are genetically predetermined to be intelligent, then we shouldn’t see such profound shifts in values within a short span of time, and we shouldn’t see large gaps between cultural and national groups worldwide.  As presented in the media, much of Kanazawa’s report is junk science, and comes dangerously close to being a Bell Curve for white liberals.  It remains to be seen whether the actual document is similarly flawed.  That I leave to the peer reviewers.

* Nearly half of Europeans no longer believe in a personal God, and church attendance stands at 30-20% for most major European countries.

** Interestingly, though Islam is often deplored for promoting four-wife polygamy, scholars of Islam consider this an advance over life in the Arabian peninsula at the time, which involved unlimited polygamy.  From an evolutionary perspective, Islam increased social peace and increased cooperation by limiting the number of wives a man could have, which made the religion more appealing than its pagan competition.

*** Seriously, what’s up with that pricing model?  Buying a single article online costs more than buying a single issue of the whole journal.