Posted on Jul 31, 2012 by Tom Gilson
Why do liberals think they are more intelligent than conservatives? “Because they are
So says evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa in Psychology Today. Empirical research seems to support the belief, but why would it be so?
It is difficult to define a whole school of political ideology precisely, but one may reasonably define liberalism (as opposed to conservatism) in the contemporary United States as 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.
That’s a strange definition. It covers only a small part of the territory, and from my study and experience it defines conservatives better than liberals. Social research shows that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, are considerably more willing to give of their own private resources, including their time, than are liberals.
I could link to various sources, such as Arthur Brooks’s Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, or I could quote from Kanazawa himself: “The fact that conservatives have been shown to give more money to charities than liberals….”
The sentence continues, of course: “… is not inconsistent with the prediction from the Hypothesis; in fact, it supports the prediction.”
Which hypothesis is that?
General intelligence evolved as a domain-specific psychological adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems…. [so] More intelligent individuals should be better able to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily novel (but not evolutionarily familiar) entities and situations than less intelligent individuals…. Evolutionarily novel entities that more intelligent individuals are better able to comprehend and deal with may include ideas and lifestyles, which form the basis of their preferences and values. It would be very difficult for individuals to prefer or value something that they cannot truly comprehend. So, applied to the domain of preferences and values, the Hypothesis suggests that more intelligent individuals are more likely than less intelligent individuals to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values that did not exist in the ancestral environment and thus our ancestors did not have, but general intelligence has no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar preferences and values that existed in the ancestral environment.
Applied to liberalism and conservatism, Kanazawa notes that liberals are more willing to have the government mediate their giving, to give it to persons unrelated and unknown to the giver. He adds that this in itself is “evolutionarily novel,” because the existence and awareness of distantly connected persons is a recent event in natural history. So since
1. giving to unknown persons is evolutionarily novel, and
2. evolutionarily novel behaviors are hypothetically more associated with higher intelligence, and
3. giving to unknown persons is associated with liberalism,
we have a possible explanation for liberals’ higher intelligence.
What I don’t understand about that is how it explains Christians’ massive foreign relief giving, or our leadership in establishing hospitals among cultures different than our own, or our persistent educational efforts in distant lands. Apparently the Hypothesis supports the theory that Christian conservatives’ greater intelligence. I wonder if that was the finding Kanazawa was looking for.
I wonder, too, whether Kanazawa has taken various forms of selection effects into account. Higher education is very famously more friendly to liberalism than to conservativism. How much does that contribute to possible differences in the rates of conservatives and liberals pursuing graduate studies? How much does it function through social influence rather than reasoned argument to turn conservative students into liberals? Kanazawa surely knows of such effects.
Credit Kanazawa, at any rate, with appropriately tentative language: “may therefore be,” “possibly because,” “may precisely be why.” It’s an hypothesis, not a conclusion. It’s an interesting one. Apart from all my doubts about evolutionary theory, though, I still do not think Kanazawa has made his case that liberals give more to distantly connected persons than conservatives.