Saturday, July 18, 2009

Spent

I've been working my way through Spent, Geoffrey Miller's application of evolutionary psychology to consumerism.

Miller has written an outstanding pop-science book on an important subject, and when I have more time I would like to quote from it more extensively. But for now, I want to address myself to its most irritating feature: the author's snide leftism.

Stuff like this:

In traditional symmetric warfare both sides play be certain tacit rules of engagement. You line up your phalanxes, musketmen, or tanks, and we line up ours, and both sides fight it out until one concedes or flees, and the other declares victory. In asymmetric warfare, the side that is weaker by traditional criteria seeks victory by using new tactics or technology. The British longbowmen defeated the French knights at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 by firing volleys of arrows from absurd distances, rather than waiting honorably to be squashed by the cavalry charge . . . . Al-Qaeda terrorists on 9/11 infuriated the Pentagon by hijacking our airplanes, rather than buying their own from our arms dealers.

That's pretty typical.

Miller perhaps has his own reasons for wishing to buttress his left-wing credentials:

One of the most frustrating experiences in human life is to adopt an unfashionable new worldview after much evidence-based research, rational consideration of alternatives, and ethical soul-searching, only to have one's peers misconstrue that worldview as a personality signal that conveys the opposite of one's true traits and intentions. This is a common experience among evolutionary psychologists, and it nicely illustrates the way that ideology signals can fail under certain conditions.

Critics such as Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Rose, and Richard Lewontin have convinced a substantial portion of the educated public that evolutionary psychology is a pernicious right-wing conspiracy, with the hidden ideological agenda of reviving biological determinism, sexism, racism, and elitism. They conflate the worst excesses of 1860s social Darwinism, 1890s union-busting capitalism, 1930s Nazi eugenics, and 1970s sociobiology with the twenty-first-century science of human nature.

What the critics fail to explain, however, is why evolutionary psychology has attracted the support of so many socially conscious progressive thinkers, ranging from the animal rights philosopher Peter Singer to the economist Robert Frank, the archcritic of runaway consumerism. They likewise fail to explain why so many prominent evolutionists (E. O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, John Maynard Smith) have had strong ties to left-wing politics in their private lives. And they fail to explain why right=wing American fundamentalists see evolutionary psychology as an ultraliberal attack on family values and religion.

For the most part, the leftism is just background noise that doesn't really have much affect on his thesis. But the one exception to this is his confounding of the personality trait "openness" with political liberalism.

Now at one level, openness -- "curiosity, novelty seeking, broad-mindedness, interest in culture, ideas, and aesthetics" -- doesn't sound like a salient feature of the conservative temperament, given our stated preference for stability, practicality, and the tried-and-true. So his assertion that it correlates positively with "social tolerance" and political liberalism is certainly plausible. The problems start when he gets down to specifics.

For instance, he gives some examples of bumper stickers that he claims advertise levels of openness:

High Openness

  • Question reality
  • Legalize freedom
  • My karma ran over your dogma
  • Sorry I missed church. I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.
  • Reality is where the pizza delivery guy comes from

Low Openness

  • Live it up, sinner
  • Shut up, hippie
  • Welcome to America. We speak English. Learn it or leave
  • Stereotypes make life easier
  • If God didn't want us to eat animals, he wouldn't have made them out of meat
  • Gun control means using both hands

Let's take look at these in detail.

"Legalize Freedom", has been the conservative rallying cry for nigh 30 years, especially among "low-openness" religious people who want the federal government to leave them alone.

"Karma . . . dogma": so, are you Hindu? No? Then the bumper sticker doesn't really signal openness to Eastern religions, does it. It just indicates hostility towards Catholicism, a religion to which you are dogmatic in your lack of openness.

Are you a witch? A lesbian? No? See above.

Do you eat pizza? Yes? Then other than showing contempt for the people who work for low pay making your life easier, what's your point, exactly?

Among the "low openness" stickers, granted that the first four show "low openness" and appear to indicate conservatism. But what does eating meat and gun ownership have to do with openness? He could have made a more plausible assertion (that I would nonetheless dispute) that they indicate low agreeableness. But why should people who want to restrict the firearms and food of other people get credit for openness?

Miller repeated claims to be an individual of exceptional openness; however, in Miller's telling, being "open" only means buying in to ideas he already likes. It never means buying in to ideas he doesn't like. For instance:

Conspicuously displayed aesthetic taste is a convenient, visible way for people to display their deeper personality traits. For example, if I were rich, I would collect paintings by the contemporary artist Fred Tomaselli, rather than the usual Post-Impressionists or Abstract Expressionists collected by Upper East Side hedge-fund mangers. Why? Because I find Tomaselli's work visually and intellectually richer, and I appreciate the biological materials, compositional skills, and psychedelic themes. In other words, I would want my art collection to reflect my personal taste, meaning in this case I would (unconsciously) want it to proclaim my openness (to wierd hallucinogen-inspired art) . . . .

Personal taste should not just attract like-minded individuals; it should also repulse differently minded ones. To be effective, in must be a high--risk, high-gain form of taste signaling, rather than a meek nod to the least common denominator. The Tomaselli paintings would be effective for my social-screening purposes because few people of low openness could bear to sit through a dinner party with such disorienting works on the walls. They would feel existential nausea and never come back. On the other hand, visitors who admired the work articulately, without gagging, would reliably signal their higher openness. Conversely, Christians can repulse atheist intellectuals like me by hanging black-velvet Jesus paintings on their walls, just as Van Helsing repelled vampires with garlic.

Leaving aside the relative artistic merits of Tomaselli and Jesus paintings, on what grounds can Miller claim high openness (as opposed to, say, low agreeableness) by displaying artwork he hopes will gag people he doesn't like, but his repulsion at images of Jesus does not indicate a similar hole in his own much-heralded openness?

To his credit, Miller identifies "openness" as conspicuous among the "Central Six" (intelligence, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, stability, and extraversion) as being dangerously maladaptive when taken to extremes, and he is at his funniest when he describes where the combination of high openness and low intelligence will take you. But the over-identification of openness with hostility to religious conservatism is the book's biggest failing.

Still, though, it's a good read.

6 comments:

PeterW said...

I'm reminded of a zinger from The Rawness:

"When people admonish you to “be more original,” what they really mean is “be more like me.” When people admonish you to “be a free thinker,” they really mean “try to think more like me.”"

Elusive Wapiti said...

"...evolutionary psychology is a pernicious right-wing conspiracy, with the hidden ideological agenda of reviving biological determinism, sexism, racism, and elitism."

Ugh. when will left wing nuts get it through their thick heads that biological determinism, sexism, racism, and elitism were left-wing hobby horses in the 19th and 20th centuries?

"But the one exception to this is his confounding of the personality trait "openness" with political liberalism."

I saw an article on exactly this a couple of months back. Basically, if you were open to new experiences, you are more likely to be a liberal. If you are a closed-minded hidebound reactionary, you are more likely to be a conservative.

I call it just having standards and morals. You know, like being able to tell right from wrong, and not buffeted by the waves to and fro all the time.

Oh, and stereotypes make life safer as well as simpler...

Φ said...

Oh, and stereotypes make life safer as well as simpler...

Indeed. What is a stereotype except the application of experience?

9/11 is what happens when we don't stereotype. That was certainly the death of my neocon fantasies about the universal brotherhood of man.

Trumwill said...

I think that in the abstract Miller is right about liberals being broadly more open than conservatives for the reasons that you indicate. But a lot of that depends on who and where you are. I can certainly agree that his examples were flawed. I'd also add that openness is in and of itself a relatively neutral thing. I think that there needs to be pressure coming from both the opened and closed sides to ferret out where we need to stand firm and where we need to introduce new and different ideas.

Brandon Berg said...

Critics such as Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Rose, and Richard Lewontin have convinced a substantial portion of the educated public that evolutionary psychology is a pernicious right-wing conspiracy, with the hidden ideological agenda of reviving biological determinism, sexism, racism, and elitism.

That must be some of that left-wing openness he was talking about.

The Tomaselli paintings would be effective for my social-screening purposes because few people of low openness could bear to sit through a dinner party with such disorienting works on the walls. They would feel existential nausea and never come back.

I have a vague memory of a scene from (perhaps) a TV show in which a parody of a hippy wanted to do something because it would blow the squares' minds. How full of yourself do you have to be to believe that your taste in art is so sophisticated that lesser men succumb to nausea in the presence of your favorite paintings? I expect this sort of thing from whiny goth teenagers, but not from adults.

Personally, I wouldn't be terribly offended by either type of painting. I guess libertarians are more open than leftists.

Anonymous said...

A lot of really great thinkers and writers, like Steven Pinker, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Joseph Heath and Miller feel the need to ostentatiously display their liberal (whether right or left liberal) credentials, and spew a lot of squid ink, to distract the academic and media commissars. Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate, much as I love it, is frequently hilarious in this regard, as Pinker hand holds the timid liberal reader through what must be some pretty shocking material.

But the fact remains that the conclusions of evolutionary psychology and related disciplines are, in fact, very conservative, when not downright reactionary. So, we traditionalist conservatives though need not feel any such compuctions in saying plainly and without embellishment exactly what these scientific discoveries actually mean.

- Thursday