Behold, the power of evolutionary psychology


Every so often, when I’m writing a post about how anti-science the modern conservative movement is, someone will pop up to declare that Democrats are also anti-science, and I should shut up. This used to be puzzling, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s about evolutionary psychology, and liberals’ refusual to buy the just-so stories that argue our evolution as hunter-gatherers on the savannas of Africa somehow selected for a 1950s lifestyle.

If there is a ringmaster in the three-ring circus which is evpsych, it is Satoshi Kanazawa, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters. The title of the book alone is a window into Kanazawa’s schtick: put forward an article claiming that some “taboo” subject is scientifically true, with just enough questionable statistical sleight-of-hand to make it plausible. Could be that feminism is horrible for everyone, or that it’s in America’s interest to nuke the Middle East, or that all women are prostitutes, or that only Islam creates suicide bombers; Kanazawa will put forward a muddled, statistically-questionable argument purporting to support the argument, one that will draw a bevy of press attention. Eventually, someone with an actual background in science will come along to decimate Kanazawa’s argument, but not before he’s received the adulation of those who really want to think women are dumber than men, or that Obama is a Muslim because of his parentage.

But even by Kanazawa’s shoddy, “politically incorrect” standards, his latest article is breathtaking in its frontal racism and complete disregard for human decency.1 The article was put up at — and swiftly pulled from — his “Scientific Fundamentalist” blog at Psychology Today. And in it, he attempts to answer the question nobody’s been asking: Why are black women so damn ugly?

Yes. He did. No, I’m not making this up. Seriously.

Kanazawa starts, as he usually does, with a thin veneer of sciencishness:

There are marked race differences in physical attractiveness among women, but not among men. Why?
Add Health measures the physical attractiveness of its respondents both objectively and subjectively. At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale: 1 = very unattractive, 2 = unattractive, 3 = about average, 4 = attractive, 5 = very attractive. The physical attractiveness of each Add Health respondent is measured three times by three different interviewers over seven years.

From these three scores, I can compute the latent “physical attractiveness factor” by a statistical procedure called factor analysis. Factor analysis has the added advantage of eliminating all random measurement errors that are inherent in any scientific measurement. The latent physical attractiveness factor has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1.

Yes, this all hinges on an objective measure of beauty. Can anyone see the fatal flaw in this? Yes, you in the back? The one shouting, “Didn’t the Romans coin the phrase, ‘De gustibus non est disputandum,’ literally, ‘There’s no accounting for taste?’” Yes, that’s exactly right: there is no such thing as an objective beauty.

Subjective beauty? Of course, everyone knows that exists. But Objective? Not a chance. Objective beauty implies that there is a set standard by which one can actually score whether someone is beautiful or not.

Don’t get me wrong, there may be women who are considered to be “prettier,” and men who are “more handsome,” by more people than not. But to pretend that such views exist in a vacuum, one in which there is pure beauty, is ludicrous.

Anyhow, continue, Dr. Kanazawa:

Recall that women on average are more physically attractive than men.

Okay, see? See what I’m talking about here?

Women are more attractive than men? I’ll agree with that, but I’m a heterosexual male. Most homosexual men and heterosexual women I know would strongly disagree with me, though. And of course, even accepting arguendo Kanazawa’s point, that couldn’t possibly be due to our view of women as being necessarily “more attractive,” and that being central to their worth, could it?

So women of all races are on average more physically attractive than the “average” Add Health respondent, except for black women. As the following graph shows, black women are statistically no different from the “average” Add Health respondent, and far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women.

And we get a graph with numbers that show…something. And paragraphs of data wondering why men of African descent aren’t considered ugly, while women are. And then, Kanazawa’s level of racism is dialed up to 11.

What accounts for the markedly lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women?  Black women are on average much heavier than nonblack women.  The mean body-mass index (BMI) at Wave III is 28.5 among black women and 26.1 among nonblack women.  (Black and nonblack men do not differ in BMI:  27.0 vs. 26.9.)  However, this is not the reason black women are less physically attractive than nonblack women.  Black women have lower average level of physical attractiveness net of BMI.  Nor can the race difference in intelligence (andthe positive association between intelligence and physical attractiveness) account for the race difference in physical attractiveness among women.  Black women are still less physically attractive than nonblack women net of BMI and intelligence.  Net of intelligence, black men are significantlymore physically attractive than nonblack men.

“Net of intelligence” is an odd phrase; what it means is, simply, that black men are really stupid, but if you adjust for that, they’re pretty attractive.

And this is the point at which Kanazawa should lose his column, his position at LSE, and any respect from anyone, anywhere, ever again.

Why are black women considered unattractive on average? Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that racism could be the overriding factor. We’ve built up any number of cultural myths around race, and one of the most durable is that African-American women are undesirable. Does this have any basis in reality? Anyone who’s seen a picture of Michelle Obama knows it doesn’t. Why do African-American men show up as more attractive? Well, our cultural myth is that African-American men are full of dangerous, uncontrollable sexuality, which is why we have to lock up our white women. It’s just as pernicious — and just as false.

Nobody denies that humans evolved, nor that evolution shaped our cognitive abilities — mostly by making us more adaptable and better at problem-solving. But far too much of evolutionary psychology begins with the answer and works backward to the question. In Kanazawa’s work there is no questioning of whether the view of black women as unattractive has a cultural factor, no thought given to the role of racism or sexism as a factor in “objective” measures of beauty (or intelligence, or behavior). The view of black women as unattractive is a given, and he works to explain why that’s not racist, but scientifically valid. By not pausing to question the culture of those men and women “objectively” rating beauty, he completely undermines his argument. If you put bad data into an equation, you get the wrong result, every single time.

There have been scientists throughout history who have worked to justify racism and sexism. And over and over again, they’ve been proven to be charlatans and frauds, working to put a scientific sheen on what are ultimately irrational prejudices. Kanazawa is part of a long line of “thinkers,” from Sir Francis Galton to Charles Benedict Davenport to A.O. Neville to Alfred Ploetz, all of whom have claimed rational reasons to discriminate against the lesser people of society. It is a lineage that Kanazawa is heir to; let him own it.

1 If the Google cache goes wonky, as I fear it might, I have also preserved the article at my Tumblr. I don’t want this to vanish into the intersphere; this should be central to Kanazawa’s legacy.