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It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychology. A few years back I did a lecture tour where I shared the most hilariously bad examples from the field, like “scientists” proclaiming that pink is a girl’s color because women were hunter-gatherers when our ancestors were roaming the Serengheti 10,000 years ago and they needed to pick the right berries, and berries are apparently always pink. This, of course, completely ignores the fact that pink was considered a boy’s color while blue was considered gentler and more appropriate for girls up until about the 1940s. It also ignores the fact that there’s no evidence for it, like many of the most trumpeted “discoveries” credited to evolutionary psychologists.
It’s been awhile since I’ve talked about evo psych, in part because there are more important issues attacking real science now, like our president thinking climate change is a Chinese hoax, and in part because every time I mention evo psych I get a horde of angry white male skeptics who attack me for being “anti-science” for criticizing the pseudoscience that makes them think they are biologically, genetically superior to women and people of color.
So yeah, I just haven’t thought of evo psych recently, but some news has cropped up that made me realize that ignoring it may be a mistake considering the current revival of white supremacists and misogynists in the national discourse. Throughout history, bigots have turned to pseudoscience to defend their beliefs, and today is no different.
Kevin MacDonald is an evolutionary psychologist who has published a book on how Jews are genetically or biologically predispositioned to hate non-Jews. He’s an out and proud friend of white supremacists, and racists like Richard Spencer and the Nazis of Stormfront look up to him because, again, he provides a semblance of “scientific” legitimacy to their bigotry. And despite the fact that his book was published in 1998 and promptly ignored by real scientists, twenty years later he’s seeing a bit of a resurgence. In fact, the mainstream journal Evolutionary Psychological Science has just last month published a defense of MacDonald’s work titled “Jewish Group Evolutionary Strategy Is the Most Plausible Hypothesis.” It claims, with no actual evidence, to show that Jews are more bigoted against “outsiders” than other groups.
I learned of this in an article on Undark written by Michael Schulson, who does a very good job of exploring the history and context of MacDonald’s particular brand of pseudoscientific bigotry. What made me legitimately laugh out loud, though, was the writer’s shock that Evolutionary Psychological Science was such a prestige journal — one whose board includes Steven Pinker and Sam Harris.
As anyone who has been paying attention knows, Pinker and Harris are hardly intellectual giants free from partisan bigotry. In fact, Pinker’s last few books have been an absolute embarrassment in scientific circles, which I talked about a few months ago, and Harris has fully boarded the train to Alt-Rightville, hosting discussions on his podcast with such luminaries as Charles Murray, also known as the guy who hung his entire career on arguing that black people are genetically inferior to white people. In that podcast episode, he also defended the neo-Nazi Milo Yiannopolous, arguing that he couldn’t possibly be a neo-Nazi because he’s gay and “half-Jewish.” Yeah, history and sociology aren’t exactly Harris’s best subjects. Which isn’t really saying much, as I’ve yet to figure out what subject would be his best. Is crying like a victim every time you’re criticized by an actual scientist a “subject”? If so, it would be that.
So yeah, of course a mainstream evo psych journal run in part by Steven Pinker and Sam Harris published an anti-semitic, anti-scientific screed. That’s what evo psych does, and that’s what these “skeptics” have been doing for far too long, while their fans sit and watch, desperately inventing excuses for them each time they do something more and more blatantly anti-intellectual and bigoted.
Interestingly, another piece was recently published criticizing MacDonald’s work — this one printed by Human Nature, where it got a tremendous response, downloaded more than 50,000 times (which the editor says is equal to what they expect to get for all manuscripts this year). Michael Schulson asks the writer of that critique, as well as the editor of Human Nature, whether or not they are worried that the critique might bring undue attention to a bigot who was otherwise forgotten by mainstream science two decades ago. It’s fascinating that neither of them seem to have even considered the question. The writer of the critique, Nathan Cofnas, seems to just think that it’s worth publishing because even absurd, racist, unscientific garbage deserves to be taken apart scientifically.
I certainly understand that, and I relate to it a bit. If you actually do get into a logical argument with a white supremacist who claims science is on his side, it can be helpful to have the facts handy to debunk what he’s saying. The problem is that you would only be debunking it for the sake of anyone listening, and not for the actual white supremacist. He doesn’t care if the facts are on his side — if they aren’t, he will find new, alternative facts to believe. And even then, it will take 100 times as long to debunk his “alternative facts” than it will for him to spout them, so it’s a frustrating project to undertake in the first place.
So yeah, I guess I’m glad someone is critiquing the bigotry, but at the same time we need to remember to not spend all of our energy on fools’ errands. How many more studies do we need to do showing that vaccines don’t cause autism, or that there is no Loch Ness Monster, or that psychics aren’t real? And how many more scientists need to waste their time showing that evo psych racists are full of shit?