Saturday, January 03, 2009

More thoughts on The Economist & Sociobiology

I had  a few other thoughts about the recent run of sociobiological (or EP-influenced) articles in The Economist.

One was the prominent role played in them by the University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

Miller's main lines of thinking are 1)that the standard measure of intelligence (g) is a manifestation of some broader and more inclusive fitness; and 2) that the brain's growth--and the development of much of what we hold to be "human"--was driven by sexual selection rather than plain old natural selection.

I've taken a half dozen or so rigorous IQ tests in my lifetime, as well as a huge battery of other standardized tests that are built--more modestly--along the same lines, and frankly I have a fair deal of skepticism about how effective they are as a measure of anything. 

Because they are culturally skewed? Maybe, but in a way different than most people who write on this issue seek to claim. Standardized tests require a great deal of planning, concentration and effort to complete to the best of your ability--my own SAT-family scores fluctuated wildly from the disaster of the hung-over PSAT to the glory of the very well prepared GRE. My scores--all prior to the re-curvings of recent years--were hundreds of points apart, even on the same test. I improved a friends score on the GRE by 400 points by training her in basic test-taking method and running her through several timed mock-tests.

So, obviously, a lot more goes into the scores on the test than anything we would usually call intelligence--mental, emotional and physical preparedness; experience with similar tests; motivation . . .

The work of Miller & his colleagues is probably controlled for the wider variations in these factors, so i have no doubt that they may be on the trail of some more inclusive "fitness factor" and will follow future studies with interest. BUT the way this work will be applied by amateurs in the field--and there are LOADS of them, ranging from loutish loudmouths on the internet to editors for the Economist to scientists from related fields who wish to be able to say something about social policy, affirmative action, urban crime, whatever. But few of these amateurs will understand Miller et al's work well enough to see its limitations. And Miller, et al. will be rather reluctant to disabuse the amateurs of their illusions because those limitations tend to make the work rather uninteresting to a broader public (those very interested amateurs included).

In short, few people are interested in intelligence testing or in a more inclusive fitness factor unless it can be used as a tool in contemporary ideological and political discussion.

One place we'll probably soon see Miller's work employed is in combination with the work of Richard Lynn, who has used global IQ test scores to explain global economic disparities. Conveniently, he can draw on exceedingly low IQ scores for sub-Saharan Africans, which are based on tests which are the best we've got but, frankly, utter crap. Why utter crap?--because they are completely uncontrolled for factors like those I list above--familiarity with the test, motivation to do well, the effect of local rules of etiquette on face-to-face questioning, etc.

So, Miller et al.'s inferences--that their IQ scores may be related to more general fitness will be uncritically extended to, essentially, all existing IQ scores, no matter how crappy they may be. We will soon be being told that the economic outcome we have seen over the course of industrial modernization--rich west, rising east, decrepit Africa--is nothing more or less than the verdict of evolution on our species.

And Miller, if he holds true to form for the newly famous handsome young scientist, will smile, say nothing and negotiate a bigger book deal.