Last week news came out about a study linking intelligence with liberal attitudes and atheistic beliefs, oh and in men an increased tendency for monogamy. Today I read the NZ Herald‘s short take on the study, a semi-chauvinistic piece pointing out how we evolved intelligent men can think our way to monogamy while those sexually immoral women can’t. I felt just a little dirty reading it. Ok, perhaps it isn’t really that bad but having being familiar with the study before reading the story that’s how it stuck me.

The full published study is locked behind Social Psychology Quarterly’s pay wall but the lead author, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, rather nicely provides copies of his papers on his own website. I like him already. The paper, rather provocatively called “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent.”, discusses a concept Kanazawa calls the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis. Essentially this states that our behaviours were shaped by our evolutionary past and that intelligence may allow us to adapt these behaviours and introduce new behaviours that are “evolutionarily novel”. In this scenario general intelligence (IQ) evolved as a mechanism by which we could adapt to novel situations that our genes alone had not equipped us to deal with.

To investigate this principle three types of evolutionarily novel behaviours/values were examined to determine if there was any correlation with intelligence. To wit the behaviours looked at were liberalism, atheism and monogamy. Throughout the paper the relation of monogamy to men as being evolutionarily novel specifically excludes women, not because women’s behaviour in this regard cannot be moderated by intelligence but because monogamy is not a novel concept for women. In our evolutionary past women (according to the hypothesis) would always have been more monogamous and so this would be classed as an evolutionarily familiar strategy which does not require higher intelligence to change thus the prediction that intelligence would not be correlated with greater monogamy in women where it would be in men.

In fact multiple studies have already shown that across cultures women tend to be more monogamous so what this study implies is that men have to be more intelligent (in order to overcome our stupid genes) just to get on a par with women. Frankly though this is the least interesting part of the study. More fascinating (though also more potentially inflammatory) is the association of intelligence with liberal and atheistic modes of thought. For the purposes of the study Kanazawa simplified the definition of liberalism to:

“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.”

Stated in this way the concept actually looks a little unfamiliar to me as well as my hypothetical ancestor. But if I consider it for a while I can squint my eyes and see it as encompassing most of those values I generally lump together as being liberal. In any case Kanazawa’s argument boils down to the conjecture that our ancestors would not have lived in societies in which we would have been surrounded by large numbers of unrelated individuals such as we are now. In this case they would not have had much incentive to develop behaviours which valued unrelated strangers as much as ourselves, in fact I could see this sort of behaviour as actually being detrimental.

This may explain why liberal people are more intelligent than their conservative counterparts but it does not address the question as to why intelligence might lead to the adoption of these principles, why aren’t we just more intelligent conservatives? What’s so great about being liberal?

The question might be slightly clearer in the case of atheistic beliefs as those that espouse this point of view tend to make it into an argument about truth. Certainly there must be an advantage to knowing the truth about the world around us but how this might relate to a more or less abstract truth such as the existence or absence of a deity is not obvious. I would be interested to see if intelligence is more highly correlated with believing more concrete truths about the world independent of actual scientific training (which presupposes that the beliefs formed about the world in this fashion are approaching trueness).

Fun as these topics maybe to speculate about it’s difficult to say how much these sorts of studies tell us about the evolutionary origins of particular behaviours as I have seen in comments to this study elsewhere it smacks of just so stories. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist so I’d rather stay away from interpretation in this vein but perhaps we would do well to take any conclusions with a grain of salt, especially if those conclusions are what we want to hear.

Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent Social Psychology Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0190272510361602

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