Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Kanazawa Question. Part II.

To continue our introductory tea-party with Satoshi Kanazawa, I was also struck by the ahistoricity of his arguments:

Blondes And Evolution

For instance, Kanazawa argues that men have always preferred blondes, because blond hair signals youth in women and young women are more fertile. Thus, men who were drawn to youth left more offspring and also passed on this desire for youth to their male offspring. But remember that these preferences were rigidly fixed about 30,000 years ago on the African savanna. Did blond babes wander around there, stroking mammoths and gathering flowers?

And if they did, how come aren't women blond all over the world today? They should be, based on that basic story.

To solve this dilemma, Kanazawa suddenly moves the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA, the term for the mythical place where all the gene-setting is supposed to have happened 30,000 years ago) to Northern Europe:

In Africa, where our ancestors evolved for most of their evolutionary history, people (men and women) mostly stayed naked. In such an environment, men could accurately assess a woman's age by the distribution of fat on her body or by the firmness of her breasts (as I discuss in a previous post). Men in cold climates did not have this option, because women (and men) bundled up in such environments. This is probably why blonde hair evolved in cold climates as an alternative means for women to advertise their youth. Men then evolved a predisposition to prefer to mate with women with blonde hair in response; those who did on average had greater reproductive success than those who did not, because, unbeknownst to them, they ended up mating with younger, healthier women with greater reproductive value and fertility.

See how easy that was? But what about the Aleut women? Surely they should have fair hair, too?

There's another problem with this explanation, and that is the fact that much of the Scandinavian fair hair doesn't actually change with age until the time when it goes gray. It's not a great indicator of youth. (I can't help trying to imagine what kind of a society these people were supposed to have in the EEA. Didn't they know anybody? Did men walk around on the frozen tundra, checking out heads? It seems much more likely that people 30,000 years ago lived in small societies where everybody knew everybody else.) -- Then there's the HUGE problem created if we allow for several EEAs as Kanazawa seems to be arguing. People would then have different evolutionary psychologies, right? Or could have them, depending on whether they were fixed on the tundra or the savanna.

I call Kanazawa's approach ahistoric because it takes something from the Western culture and interprets it as an evolutionary trait. But of course Kanazawa's field of Evolutionary Psychology is also explicitly ahistoric in that it ignores cultural evolution and all proximal causes for the events it studies. Good researchers in the field try to control for those. Others don't even try. Yet the proximal explanations are often the more obvious ones, and to simply not discuss them makes the offered evolutionary explanation look even iffier.

Take Kanazawa's discussion on polygyny (the practice of one man marrying several women):

Once married to a man, it is in the reproductive interest of the woman to monopolize access to all of his resources (material or otherwise) so that he would invest them in her joint children with him. Any sexual relationship he may have with other women might potentially jeopardize her exclusive access to his resources, so obviously it is in her interest to make sure that he does not have sexual relationships with other women.

The problem, however, is that, as I explain in a previous post, mating among all mammalian species (including humans) is a female choice; it happens whenever and with whomever the female wants, not whenever and with whomever the male wants. The more desirable a man is (the more resourceful, the higher his social status, the physically more attractive), the larger the number of other women who would want to have sex with him regardless of whether he is married, either in an attempt to steal him away from his current mate (mate poaching) or in an attempt to be impregnated by him so that their child will have his superior genes but then to turn around and pass off the child as their current long-term mates’ genetic offspring (cuckoldry).

The most cursory glance at the history of marital customs suggests that mating has not been a female choice in many cultures. Indeed, arranged and forced marriages were (and still are) common, and so were severe legal punishments of women who did make their own choices outside marriage. Kanazawa does not discuss this, because his approach is ahistoric and because he assumes no evolution in the last 30,000 years.

The Sterile Box Of The EEA

What is it that we get in place of history? The sterile box of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation.

Remember that evolutionary psychology is based on the arguments(not necessarily facts) that evolution stopped about 30,000 years ago, that human psychology was fixed at that time, and that all this happened (in most accounts) somewhere in Africa. It is obviously of tremendous interest to understand what that place, the EEA, was like.

But on the whole Kanazawa doesn't enlighten us on that. Based on his blog posts, it was just a large empty box into which goes anything Kanazawa likes and nothing he dislikes. A theoretical construct, if you like. But in reality those prehistoric humans must have had ways to make a living, a climate to contend with and some form of family or tribe to belong to. Many of the Evolutionary Psychology arguments ignore such constraints and replace them with parables coming from the sperm and the egg. A frequent assumption seems to be that the men had access to a vast number of female strangers and that they had to learn how to pick the most fertile ones quickly. But such a tribal setting sounds most unlikely to me.

It is this sterility of the EEA concept which is its main attraction to the many amateur Evolutionary Psychologists. It allows for all sorts of JustSo stories, intellectual games of trying to figure out why everything in today's society might have been an evolutionary adaptation once. But it is that very sterility which means that alternative JustSo stories can work every bit as well. The ones you pick tell a lot about your personal biases, by the way.

Which brings me to the final topic in this introduction to Kanazawa, to be described in the third and last post of this series.