Evolutionary psychology: are we still haunted by the spectre of eugenics?

You can invariably trust the Idle Ethnographer to come up with a refreshing pre-Christmas read.

So, it is the beginning of the XXI century? So, we’ve had the Holocaust in Europe, the Apartheid in South Africa, and racial segregation in the US (and elsewhere) – and learnt our lesson? Is biological reductionism gone? Not at all. In fact, it is as resilient as a GMO weed.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and his work is an example of the pernicious influence of biological-based explanations of the social world. A recent article in the Independent critically summarises his main points – but the problem seems to be deeper than whether we “like this science”. Even if we could leave aside the incurable (and, to me, unacceptable) problems that biological determinism introduces into social science, how is it possible to accept such enquiry as science at all, when it is fraught with obvious methodological inconsistencies and linguistic trickeries?

The author claims to reveal the real reasons behind the “inconvenient truths” of the real world but in fact all he does is confirm and objectify tautologies and  stereotypes – about gender (the purpose of all men is to get laid), about human nature (beautiful people have more daughters), about appearance (“nice people look nice, nasty people look nasty”)  etc. The “causal chain” is blatantly reversed, a small number of observed “facts” is taken to have been caused by other observed facts – with both sides of the equation being socially constructed and hence incommensurable. The claim that “scientists have more achievements in their young years” is proven by examining 280 biographies of academics. How is achievement defined? Can intellectual achievement – even in its institutionalised version of “academic achievement” – ever be seen as an objective fact? And the reason for this is that the goal of mating has been achieved, hence one does not need to be smart or do great deeds any more.

The premisses and conditionalities of the observation are taken for granted, as if what we observe is the truth – all of it, nothing but the truth. The scariest of it all: socially constructed notions, such as “attractiveness” or “smartness”, are taken for granted, as 100% waterproof, objective facts. Even old uncle Durkheim would be terrified – let alone Darwin.

Could it get worse? Yes. In this so called “research”, self-ascribed categories such as “I am liberal/conservative” are taken at face value, as legitimate signifiers of …well, of something, I am not sure of what, but these self-ascribed categories are then correlated with IQ results (also notoriously subjective and unreliable) in order to support a conjecture about smart people being liberal and dumb people being conservative.

“The basic premiss of evolutionary psychology is that the ultimate goal of reproduction is evolutionary success, and that includes human beings as well.”.

This and many other statements reveal the “trick”: in the middle of the statement, the subject changes. There is a slippage between two incompatible “subjects”: reproduction (which/who allegedly has a goal, i.e. is implicitly constituted as the subject of the process); and “human beings”. In Heidegger’s terms: an unacceptable conflation between “being” as an abstract category and “beings” as concrete, individual entities who are, i.e. who possess/exhibit “being”.

Last but not least, what is the purpose of the “research” – and what does it actually tell us? Let’s not forget that it is not what you know about something that is important, but rather how you use it (as that Zen master told his student).

The humour value – I am tempted to assume that the whole purpose of this research is to amuse and divert – is rather low, too. If forced to read such things, I would prefer to read that book about thalassophilia (love of the sea) by Charles Davenport (eminent American eugenicist). In Naval Officers, Their Heredity and Development published in 1919 (written in 1917), he theorised the “gene of sea-lust” that naval officers apparently inherit. At least it is old. At least it is amusing. At least at that time Gregor Mendel’s law of heredity were poorly understood. At least nazism had not happened… at least I have that gene, too.


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