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Friday, June 12, 2009

Spent, Miller and Kanazawa

I was wandering in the bookstore today and looked through a copy of Geoffrey Miller's book Spent: Sex, Evolution and Human Behavior. (I am a cheapskate, and I read pretty fast, so I often skim through entire books at the bookstore.) If you like evolutionary psychology, you will probably enjoy the book, which is well written and covers some novel topics. One point emphasized by Miller throughout his career is that the human brain evolved not just to survive, but to survive in competition against other human brains, and particularly in the context of sexual selection. Working out the implications of this observation seems to be one of his main interests. This book concentrates on marketing, consumer behavior, signaling and related subjects.

If you hate evolutionary psychology, perhaps because you feel it's unrigorous and consists of a collection of just-so stories, then you might not like the book as much. Nevertheless, much of what Miller writes remains interesting, particularly his discussion of what he calls the Central Six personality traits -- g (or IQ), Openness, Extraversion, Stability, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness. The "general factor" g is defined as the largest principal component that arises in analysis of the correlation between performance on cognitive tests. Similarly, the Big Five factors are the largest components that arise in the analysis of personality -- it is claimed that they capture most of the variation in personality (see here for more detailed discussion of Big Five). Miller argues that marketers don't make as much use of these principal components as they could.

You can take a brief Big Five test here. My scores were (percentiles): Openness 88, Conscientiousness 94, Extraversion 89, Agreeableness 74 and Neuroticism (opposite of Stability) 1.

Looking at Spent reminded me of a debate between Miller and LSE researcher Satoshi Kanazawa I read a few years ago. Each part was published separately in the journal Evolutionary Psychology (click title for PDF).

The Asian Future of Evolutionary Psychology, by Geoffrey Miller

Abstract: Asia’s population, wealth, cognitive capital, and scientific influence are growing quickly. Reasonable demographic, economic, and psychometric projections suggest that by the mid-21st century, most of the world’s psychology will be done in Asia, by Asians. Even if evolutionary psychology wins the battles for academic respectability in the United States and European Union, if it ignores the rise of Asian psychology, it will fail to have any serious, long-term, global influence in the behavioral sciences after the current generations of researchers are dead. ...

No, It Ain't Gonna Be Like That, by Satoshi Kanazawa

Abstract: For cultural, social, and institutional reasons, Asians cannot make original contributions to basic science. I therefore doubt Miller's prediction for the Asian future of evolutionary psychology. I believe that its future will continue to be in the United States and Europe.

Asian Creativity: A Response to Satoshi Kanazawa, by Geoffrey Miller

Abstract: This article responds to Satoshi Kanazawa’s thoughtful and entertaining comments about my article concerning the Asian future of evolutionary psychology. Contra Kanazawa’s argument that Asian cultural traditions and/or character inhibit Asian scientific creativity, I review historical evidence of high Asian creativity, and psychometric evidence of high Asian intelligence (a cognitive trait) and openness to experience (a personality trait) – two key components of creativity. ...

I find this debate amusing and thought provoking, although I am not at all convinced by most of the arguments presented. One wonders how careful Miller and Kanazawa are about deriving strongly held beliefs from limited data. To what extent do priors dominate their beliefs?

One interesting thing about Miller's first essay above is that he takes a quantitative stab at estimating the population of high-g (IQ > 130) individuals in different parts of the world. You can't get more un-PC than that :-) Of course, to make this estimate he needs to make assumptions not just about average IQs by population, but standard deviations as well!

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