Scientific Creativity, East and West

My friend Eugene Jen has sent me some links to a lively academic discussion. The topic is one that I am keenly interested in — evolutionary psychology — and the question at hand is what the future of the field might be, both here in the USA and in Asia.

The exchange takes places in the pages of the journal Evolutionary Psychology — “must” reading for anyone with an interest in the progress of scientific inquiry into what we really are, as opposed to what sociology departments would like us to be — and the principals are Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, and Satoshi Kanazawa, of the London School of Economics. There are three papers to read here. The first, titled The Asian Future of Evolutionary Psychology, suggests that for the nascent science to have any future at all, it will need to be transplanted to Asia, where, Miller argues, the ground will become much more fertile as the vast Asian population becomes more prosperous and educated, and where a number of what he sees at fatal obstacles to evolutionary psychology as a successful science are less prevalent. He makes quite a list of cultural traits that favor Asian countries as seedbeds where this field of study might thrive: secular humanism, lack of “political correctness”, lack of bioethical alarmism, sophisticated philosophy of mind, and sophisticated views of sex. Miller asks:

Consider this thought experiment: if evolutionary psychology didn’t exist, and you were an intelligent alien who wanted to spark the development of evolutionary psychology in one earthling country, which country would you pick? The U.S. is anti-intellectual and deeply religious, frenzied by consumerist self-indulgence and belligerent nationalism, veers between puritanical hypocrisy and pornographic narcissism, and has no serious national media or science journalism. China, by contrast, has a five-thousand-year tradition of intellectual progress, values education and ideas, is strongly secular, and will soon be the world’s most populous, prosperous, and progressive country. I would land my flying saucer in Zhejiang Province, not New Mexico.

In response, we have a rather startling response by Kanazawa. In his paper, No, It Ain’t Gonna Be Like That, Kanazawa argues that Asians, due to millennia of cultural selection, are at a sufficient disadvantage in creative scientific thinking that they simply will not make good evolutionary psychologists. The first section of his essay is headed “Asians Can’t Think”. Kanazawa writes:

And they certainly cannot think outside the box. Miller is correct to point out that East Asians have slightly higher mean IQs than Europeans (Lynn and Vanhanen, 2002). However, East Asians have not been able to make creative use of their intelligence. While they are very good at absorbing existing knowledge via rote memory (hence their high standardized test scores in math and science) or adapt or modify existing technology (hence their engineering achievements), they have not been able to make original contributions to basic science.

The next section is titled “Asians Can’t Write”, and in it Kanazawa continues:

It is true, as Miller points out, that English is universally taught as a second language in all Asian nations. But that does not mean that Asian students learn it. In fact, Asians are notoriously poor at acquiring foreign languages, particularly English, compared to the relative ease with which Europeans speak English. Their low verbal intelligence may explain their difficulty.

Their inability to express themselves in English is likely to hamper Asians’ contribution to evolutionary psychology, as long as it remains largely a verbal (i.e. non-mathematical) science, which, for better or worse, it is likely to remain for some time. East Asians might begin to make significant contribution to evolutionary psychology once it attains the level of formalization of the current evolutionary biology. Miller argues that we cannot worry about the accents of our successors, which is true. However, accents are one thing; impenetrably thick accents which prevent mutual intelligibility is another. That’s what many Asians have.

Kanazawa goes on to mention the conformist culture of Asian cultures, which he argues interferes with the authority-questioning needed for scientific revolutions, and then disagrees with Miller’s assessment of American religious fundamentalism as a serious problem for the progress of evolutionary psychology over here. His approach would simply to be to let the ignorant multitudes have their creationism and their intelligent design:

Americans are not up in arms about quantum mechanics or superstring theory the way they are about evolution, and they don’t demand that “alternative” Ptolemaic cosmology be taught in tandem with quantum mechanics and superstring theory the way they demand that creationism be taught. But this is entirely because they are not aware of what these theories entail.

… Physicists don’t have to deal with “certaintyists” or “three-dimensionalists” the way we must deal with creationists because they keep the civilians ignorant about the true nature of their theories. Any effort to educate them would only have deleterious consequences. It seems to me that evolutionary psychologists can learn lessons from physicists. Keep them ignorant (the civilians, not the physicists). Let them be taught creationism and “intelligent design” in schools along with evolution. The smart few will realize that there is something wrong with creationism and naturally opt for evolution. They belong with us. Who cares about the rest?

Kanazawa admits, however, that when the willfully ignorant are in command of the Congressional pursestrings, difficulties may ensue, but he points out that the needs of evolutionary psychologists are much more modest that those of, say, particle physicists, who lost the Superconducting Supercollider back in 1993, ceding American leadership in this field as a direct result of massive public ignorance. The real threat, says Kanazawa, comes from the universities themselves:

That is not to say, however, that we do not face obstacles or have enemies; we do. But our enemies are not fundamentalist Christians; they are instead our university colleagues in Women’s and Cultural Studies Departments. Our true obstacle is not the Christian fundamentalism in the wheat fields of Kansas; it is the political correctness in the ivy-covered buildings on our own campuses. The feminists and social constructionists, all of whom have Ph.D.s and no problems with the theory of evolution by natural selection (as long as it is not applied to the human brain), are in a position to do far greater damage to our science than the Christian fundamentalists. Really, what can Christian fundamentalists do to us? Refuse to pump our gas? Spit in our Big Mac? In contrast, our politically correct feminist and social constructionist colleagues control our recruitment, tenure, and promotion processes, and influence our research funding. If anything can interfere with the future of evolutionary psychology in the United States and Europe, it is the cultural insanity of political correctness. That is the true enemy that we must fight.

Finally, Miller responds. This post has gone on long enough, so I won’t summarize his rebuttal. You can read it here, and draw your own conclusions.

This discussion is a fine example of what a candid scientific conversation should look like, and an example also of the sorts of issues that are simply excluded from consideration by the thought police of the academic Left, such as those who pilloried and sacked Harvard president Lawrence Summers for raising similar questions.

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  1. bob koepp says

    My own experience makes me sympathetic to Kanazawa’s view, but I think cultural evolution could change the picture significantly. East Asian societies have become considerably more attuned to the value of individualism even in my lifetime, and I suspect that this will operate via positive feedback to accelerate innovative, “out of the box” thinking in those societies. Look to the arts to see the shape of things to come.

    Posted November 6, 2006 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob, and thanks as always for visiting.

    I’m inclined toward a more optimistic view than that of either Miller or Kanazawa; I think that you are right about the future of Asian societies, and I also hold out hope for the victory of rationalism over the doctrines of ignorance that have so much of our own culture in their grip (I may be wrong about that part, though).

    Posted November 6, 2006 at 10:10 pm | Permalink
  3. eugene says

    Hi Mal, thanks for citing it. I think fighting for rationalism in U.S. will take a long time after I saw Jesus Camp and Borat movie. It is the same for Chinese to fight for freedom of thought and speech. Unless during next 30 years I see counter culture development happening in China ( I experienced that process in Taiwan when I was in college time and knows what Geoffrey Miller’s application of Marslow’s theory in reality if China is keeping its development of economics as it does now) and possible another counter culture development against current Republicans led culture war here, I am keeping some reservation on both side of arguments.

    Even so, maybe the best way to fight for rationalism during the reign of darkness is just like what Asimov’s foundation series, by keeping the foundations of rationalism far away from the daily frivolous political interferences, both campus and congress, and waiting for the right time patiently. Of course in that sense, that means we need to keep the rationalism hidden here under protection and limited it to intellectual elites (I know Republicans hates intellectual elites :-) ) and spread them out to increase the chances of the survival of the discipline. Well, it was done before by accident. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle was preserved in Alexandria and Constantinpole and accepted by Islamic scholars and comes back to Europe in Renaissance era and it was triumphantly rediscovered. We just don’t like the idea that it may take another thousand years or several nuclear conflicts to come. It feel like messiah complex to me but maybe the future and survival is more important that the paychecks and life of true followers.

    Posted November 7, 2006 at 6:04 am | Permalink