On the Smartness of Liberalism and Vegetarianism

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had an interesting post on intelligence yesterday.  He quotes an article in the Social Psychology Quarterly that claims, among other things, that

Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

Where to begin?  Perhaps with the obvious observation that the psychologists have lost none of their ancient skill in doublethink.  They are perfectly familiar with the meaning of the term “intelligence,” and consider it a “well known fact” that it can be measured using reliable tests when associated with, for example, liberalism, vegetarianism, and atheism.  At the same time they are just as certain that “intelligence” is a highly ambiguous complex that it is hopeless to even attempt to measure when associated with, for example, sex or race.  

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the first of these “truths” of the psychologists really is true.  In other words, let us assume that Mr. Kanazawa really does know what he’s talking about when he speaks of intelligence, and that this intelligence really is measurable.  What, then, are we to make of its association with such “value-loaded” categories as liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention a tendency to have fewer children?

To begin, allow me to enlighten Mr. Kanazawa on a matter touching on this discussion, but about which he seems somewhat confused.  In his abstract we read, “The origin of values and preferences is an unresolved theoretical question in behavioral and social sciences.”  I have no doubt that it is an unresolved theoretical question in the behavioral and social sciences.  For those of us who don’t move in such high intellectual circles, however, the answer is obvious enough.  Values and preferences reflect mental traits of various animals, one species of which happens to be Homo sapiens.  Mental traits originate in the brain, and the human brain exists in its current form because all of its essential features have, at one time or another in the past, promoted our genetic survival. 

Values and preferences such as liberalism and vegetarianism have not, of course, evolved in their perfect modern incarnations, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  Rather, they correspond to responses of the human brain to conditions quite different from those that prevailed during the long process of its evolution, moderated by cultural influences.  As values and preferences, they are morally loaded.  In other words, one doesn’t embrace liberalism and vegetarianism by virtue of a purely rational evaluation of whether they will promote one’s genetic survival or not.  Rather, they are adopted by virtue of emotional responses associated with those innate mental characteristics we associate with morality.  In other words, they are perceived as “good,” and not just good from a utilitarian point of view,  but “good in themselves.”  That’s how human morality works, no matter how smart one happens to be.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an objective “good in itself.”  Liberalism and vegetarianism certainly have a real existence as “goods,” but only as subjective, or perceived goods.  In other words, they do have a genuine existence as goods, but that genuine existence is in the form of a figment of our imaginations.

Liberalism and vegetarianism, then, can be considered artifacts of innate human mental characteristics interacting with an environment utterly different from that in which they evolved to begin with.  Those mental traits could not possibly have evolved fast enough to keep up with the profound changes in the human environment that have occurred over, say the last 10,000 years.  Furthermore, they are not perfectly malleable and adaptable to those changes, as the inventors of the New Soviet Man discovered to their cost.  Under the circumstances, it seems rather risky to assume that complex behavioral traits that have emerged as ancient human mental characteristics interact with the modern environment will continue to promote our survival. 

In the case of liberalism and vegetarianism, I would claim that they certainly do not.  According to the article,

Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

True enough.  However, as we often hear, the world has shrunk.  We are no more capable of altruistic behavior towards strangers and “other tribes” than we ever were.  However, thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, it has become possible for us to perceive a far greater number of others as belonging to “our tribe.”  “We” is no longer constrained by the environment to a small group of people who are likely to be genetically related to us.  “We” can now correspond to much larger social constructs, such as fellow citizens in a modern state, fellow members of huge political organizations, or fellow believers in massive religious denominations.  “We” can be such entities as “the proletariat,” or “the German people,” or “the oppressed masses.”  “We” can even include other species.  Liberalism and vegetarianism are only “evolutionarily novel” in the sense that they represent the response of a relatively unchanged human brain to massive and transformational environmental and perceptual changes.

Unfortunately, such modern “goods” no longer promote our survival.  In the case of liberalism, the result is the handing over of resources to those from whom the chances that we will ever receive any corresponding benefit in return are vanishingly small.  In the case of vegetarianism, it is the establishment of artificial taboos against certain foods that one can dispense with in certain developed countries that happen not to be at war, but which may be essential to survival elsewhere, or in those same countries in the event of war or one of the other types of social breakdown that occurred with such alarming frequency in the 20th century.  To the extent that a “good” no longer promotes our survival, it is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a serious threat.  Morality exists, like everything else about us, because, and only because, at some time in the past, it promoted our survival.  That being the case, nothing can be more immoral than failing to survive.  To anyone who would claim otherwise, I can only say, to borrow a phrase from E.O. Wilson, please “lay your cards on the table,” and explain why.

What, then, can we say about the association of higher levels of human intelligence with such survival threatening “goods” as modern liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention with such behavioral tendencies as having fewer children.  Apparently, we are forced to conclude that, as things now stand, human beings with above average intelligence represent a biological dead end.  Eventually they must either become more stupid, or more intelligent.  My personal preference is for the latter.  I have a hunch it will more effectively promote our long term survival.

UPDATE:  Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy has more on the Kanazawa article.  From his take:

I suspect that much of the public interest in Kanazawa’s study is driven by a perception that political views endorsed by more intelligent people are more likely to be true. This, however, is a dubious inference. Even intelligent people have incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. I do think that, other things equal, a political view is more likely to be correct if it is more likely to be endorsed by people with greater knowledge of the issue (controlling for other factors that may affect their answers). While knowledge and intelligence are likely to be correlated, they are not the same thing. Ultimately, the fact that a political ideology is more likely to be endorsed by more intelligent people is only a weak indicator of its validity.

Or, as Confucius once said, “Study without thought is vain; thought without study is dangerous.”

Interestingly, Kanazawa himself does not claim that intelligent people are more likely to endorse liberalism because it is true. Instead, he argues that the result is due to the fact that liberalism is more at odds with our genetic instincts than conservatism is, and intelligent people are more likely to endorse “novel” ideas.

Liberals are not different from conservatives because they are more rational, and therefore less subject to genetic instincts.  (“Genetic instincts” is imprecise, but we’ll use the vernacular for the time being).  Rather, liberalism and conservatism are manifestations of the same genetic instincts in the context of the modern world.  They differ only in such factors as identification of who belongs in the “in-group” and who belongs in the “out-group.”  These distinctions can have a major political impact, but, as far as human nature is concerned, they are peripheral.  They are both merely possible expressions of emotional responses whose fundamental origins in the brain are identical in both cases.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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