John Tooby on Coalitional Politics in Science

John Tooby on Coalitional Politics in Science
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John Tooby (1952–2023) died on November 10. Hearing about this brought back a whole lot of memories, many none too pleasant. As will be obvious, we disagreed about pretty much everything. But I have to say that in my experience he was an affable enough guy even after he attacked me publicly, and even after I was being shunned by the good people at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. I wrote this originally in 2017.

John Tooby was a professor of anthropology at UC-Santa Barbara and, along with his wife Leda Cosmides, prominent in the field of evolutionary psychology. For a whole lot of reasons, we do not see eye-to-eye on pretty much anything related to evolutionary psychology, but Tooby has also criticized me for my work on Judaism and for around ten years they had a note on their website that they were going to refute me—since removed. But I am happy to say that I finally agree with him about something. But first a little background.

Our differences long predate my study of Judaism and go to the heart of how to conceptualize evolutionary psychology. At a time when E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology was still under fire from the left, Tooby and Cosmides designed an evolutionary psychology that would fly under the radar of political correctness. The vicious assault on sociobiology by the left was a sight to behold—culminating in a woman pouring a pitcher of ice water over Wilson’s head at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But the left succeeded. Evolutionary psychology became ensconced as the heir of sociobiology. The word ‘sociobiology’ was virtually expunged from the lexicon, and the most important academic journal in the field changed its name from Ethology and Sociobiology to Evolution and Human Behavior. I heard it on good authority that Wilson described those who carried out this coup as acting like “beaten dogs.”

Without the baggage of the term ‘sociobiology’, the field was free to reinvent itself.  The trick was to loudly proclaim the idea that evolution did indeed sculpt the mind, but that all humans were essentially alike because we all evolved in the same Pleistocene environment. This takes issues like race differences completely off the table, and individual differences, as in personality and intelligence, become mere “noise.”

And since we were all the same, the only interesting source of differences between humans was that people were exposed to different environmental contexts in their lifetime. Why is one person more aggressive than another? The evolutionary psych answer is that some people are exposed to contexts that bring out aggression, such as poverty and low social status, or their muscular build makes aggression have greater payoffs — explanations that fit well with a leftist zeitgeist. The  fact that some people have genes that predispose them to be more aggressive than others was out of bounds, along with the entire field of behavior genetics.

Evolutionary psychology also posited the “massively modular” mind — the idea that the mind was nothing more than a set of mechanisms each designed to solve a specific problem in our evolutionary past: a mechanism for falling in love, a mechanism for finding someone sexually attractive, one for fearing snakes, etc.

This neatly avoids talking about IQ — the one measure that is most feared by the left. That’s because differences in IQ are powerfully associated with success in modern societies, because IQ is strongly genetically influenced,  and, most importantly, because we don’t have any environmental interventions capable of getting rid of race differences in IQ in developed societies. IQ doesn’t fit well with evolutionary psychology because intelligence was not designed to solve any particular problem from our evolutionary past. Rather, as discussed in my 2013 paper (my last statement on the topic), it was designed to integrate information from a wide range of areas and use this information to solve novel problems and create imaginary worlds. Humans can solve a whole lot of problems that were not around in the environments we evolved in. That’s why it’s important  for success in school — and modern life.

There are other differences as well, on the theory of learning (here, p. 29ff), as well as prefrontal control of evolved modules sensitive to cultural input, and the theory of culture generally. My theory of culture emphasizes that intellectual endeavor and quite a bit of what passes as science is actually the result of coalition of interest. My book, The Culture of Critique, essentially argues that strongly identified Jews formed the backbone of intellectual coalitions that were intended to advance Jewish ethnic interests. Seems like a natural thing for an evolutionist to think about. So I was pleased to read the following from Tooby’s Edge article on “coalitional instincts.

Coalition-mindedness makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals. Paradoxically, a political party united by supernatural beliefs can revise its beliefs about economics or climate without revisers being bad coalition members. But people whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to “rational,” scientific propositions have a problem when—as is generally the case—new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member—at risk of losing job offers, her friends, and her cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.

Forming coalitions around scientific or factual questions is disastrous, because it pits our urge for scientific truth-seeking against the nearly insuperable human appetite to be a good coalition member. Once scientific propositions are moralized, the scientific process is wounded, often fatally.  No one is behaving either ethically or scientifically who does not make the best-case possible for rival theories with which one disagrees.

All of the intellectual movements reviewed in The Culture of Critique involved shared adherence to doctrines that had a flimsy grounding (if any) in scientific research, and questioning the doctrines brought shame and ostracism. The fact that a century passed without any evidence for the Oedipal Complex had no effect on Freud’s followers, any more than research on ethnocentrism or race differences would influence the Frankfurt School or the Boasians.

In the intellectual world, group cohesiveness has facilitated the advocacy of particular viewpoints within academic professional associations (e.g., the Boasian program within the American Anthropological Association; psychoanalysis within the American Psychiatric Association). Rothman and Lichter (1982, 104–105) note that Jews formed and dominated cohesive subgroups with a radical political agenda in several academic societies in the 1960s, including professional associations in economics, political science, sociology, history, and the Modern Language Association. They also suggest a broad political agenda of Jewish social scientists during this period: “We have already pointed out the weaknesses of some of these studies [on Jewish involvement in radical political movements]. We suspect that many of the ‘truths’ established in other areas of the social sciences during this period suffer from similar weaknesses. Their widespread acceptance . . . may have had as much to do with the changing ethnic and ideological characteristics of those who dominated the social science community as they did with any real advance in knowledge” (Rothman & Lichter 1982, 104). Sachar (1992, 804) notes that the Caucus for a New Politics of the American Political Science Association was “overwhelmingly Jewish” and that the Union of Radical Political Economists was initially disproportionately Jewish. Moreover, as Higham (1984, 154) notes, the incredible success of the Authoritarian Personality studies was facilitated by the “extraordinary ascent” of Jews concerned with anti-Semitism in academic social science departments in the post– World War II era.

Once an organization becomes dominated by a particular intellectual perspective, there is enormous intellectual inertia created by the fact that the informal networks dominating elite universities serve as gatekeepers for the next generation of scholars. Aspiring intellectuals, whether Jewish or gentile, are subjected to a high level of indoctrination at the undergraduate and graduate levels; there is tremendous psychological pressure to adopt the fundamental intellectual assumptions that lie at the center of the power hierarchy of the discipline. As discussed in Chapter 1, once a Jewish-dominated intellectual movement attains intellectual predominance, it is not surprising that gentiles would be attracted to Jewish intellectuals as members of a socially dominant and prestigious group and as dispensers of valued resources. Group cohesiveness can also be seen in the development of worshipful cults that have lionized the achievements of group leaders (Boasian anthropology and psychoanalysis) (Chapter 6, 224-225)

Real science is individualist, not a product of coalitions:

I propose that a minimal requirement of a scientific social system is that science not be conducted from an ingroup-outgroup perspective. Scientific progress (Campbell’s “competence-of reference”) depends on an individualistic, atomistic universe of discourse in which each individual sees himself or herself not as a member of a wider political or cultural entity advancing a particular point of view but as an independent agent endeavoring to evaluate evidence and discover the structure of reality. As Campbell (1986, 121–122) notes, a critical feature of science as it evolved in the seventeenth century was that individuals were independent agents who could each replicate scientific findings for themselves.  Scientific opinion certainly coalesces around certain propositions in real science (e.g., the structure of DNA, the mechanisms of reinforcement), but this scientific consensus is highly prone to defection in the event that new data cast doubt on presently held theories. (Chapter 6, p. 235)

And as Tooby notes as a general rule, there were indeed strong moral overtones to being a coalition member in the movements reviewed in CofC. As I noted in Chapter 6 (p. 213)

Collectively, these movements have called into question the fundamental moral, political, and economic foundations of Western society. A critical feature of these movements is that they have been, at least in the United States, top-down movements in the sense that they were originated and dominated by members of a highly intelligent and highly educated group. These movements have been advocated with great intellectual passion and moral fervor and with a very high level of theoretical sophistication.

Dissenters were expelled and vilified as moral cretins (and intellectual morons). To dissent was to place oneself outside of polite society. These coalitions had access to the moral and intellectual high ground of the society — prestigious university presses, academic departments able to turn out compliant graduate students, and the elite media. Under these conditions, the coalitions become immune to criticism.

Finally, Tooby might want to think about the extent to which evolutionary psychology itself became a coalition of like-minded people able to marginalize dissenters and ignore unpleasant findings — findings that conflict with the leftist zeitgeist that dominates universities today. Coalitions are indeed the death of science, and prima facie,  designing an evolutionary science able to fly under the radar of political correctness is not a great strategy for discovering scientific truth.

Original Article


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