I hear myself. Is that normal?

Satoshi: I hear myself. Is that normal?

Russell: You’re getting a little bit of feedback?

Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa, author of "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters"

Yes, it would seem Satoshi Kanazawa has gotten some feedback of late. In December 2008, I sat down with the author of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire—Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do, as well as Why Men Gamble and Women Buy Shoes: How Evolution Shaped the Way We Behave, however since that interview, he has been getting a strong reaction to his work and theories.

In 2011, Kanazawa offered a lead zeppelins in the form of an article in Psychology Today where he surmised that the reason Black women were considered less attractive than other races (according to a study on adolescent health) due to an estrogen deficiency. In past writings, he’s also theorized that poor health can be linked to lower intelligence and that attractive people are 26% less likely to have male offspring.

In all three cases independent studies have discredited his writings, however, with his publication of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, the London School of Economics reader popularized the study of evolutionary psychology.  Kanazawa’s particular field of study suggests that the human brain has not evolved as quickly as the environment around us, especially in the 100 years, and so many of our impulses are guided by a brain that still thinks we need fat and sugar to survive long winters, for example.

I spoke with Kanazawa in the wake of the election of Barrack Obama as President of the United States. In Kanazawa’s book (co-written with Alan S. Miller), he seemed to be suggesting that humans weren’t as capable of radical changes in behaviour due to our preference for established and imprinted patterns that require a great deal of discipline and will power to overcome.

After some chatting about weather and travel, and sorting out the audio problems of our recording, we settled in for an extended conversation about Change.


RUSSELL BOWERS: What’s the weather like? Are you in London itself?

SATOSHI KANAZAWA: Well, near London, a suburb . I can’t afford to live within London.

RB: I was just in London at Christmas and it was my first time overseas so it was a quite an experience for me. I didn’t travel much when I was young and had the chance.

SK: Did you like it?

RB: I loved it.

SK: Was the weather good?

RB: The weather was excellent. I was there for the last 2 weeks of December.

SK: Let me know if you ever come back to London. I’ll show you around.

RB: Oh, that would be great. I’ll give you a shout.

All right, we’re rolling tape so I’ll start with the good afternoons.


Satoshi Kanazawa, good afternoon.

SK: Good afternoon.

RB: Why don’t we start with I guess a bit of a primer on the subject of evolutionary psychology? Give me the basic premise behind it.

SK: Evolutionary psychology is the application of evolutionary biology and zoology to human behavior and cognition. Biologists have always used the principles of evolution to study and analyze all species in nature except for humans, and somehow scientists have made an exception for humans and thought that biology didn’t matter to humans. Evolutionary psychology came about when scientists realized, “Why not? Why not use the same principles of evolution to study and analyze human behavior?” and that was the birth of evolutionary psychology.

RB: Well, as humans are animals as well, why do you think that exception persisted for so long?

SK: That’s precisely it. Humans are animals, and we know that now, but until recently people refused to believe it. It probably has to do with the academic separation of division, and in universities we always have social scientists, sociology, political science and anthropology that studied only human behaviour. And then we had the departments of biology and zoology consisting of scientists that only studied other species of nature. Biologists didn’t study humans and sociologists didn’t study other species, so probably because we are humans, we somehow felt like we didn’t belong in zoology and biology. But now we know better.

RB: Is it fair to say that evolutionary psychology is somewhat about understanding the root of our behaviors?

SK: Yeah, exactly. The root of our behavior and how we see things, the human condition. So evolutionary psychology is about explaining the biological and evolutionary roots of how we behave.

RB: Inside the book you kind of take a look at some of the more basic, somewhat instinctual things that many humans do – maybe not all – but certainly many. That ranges everything from having a taste for sweets or fatty foods, or even what makes someone jealous. How does evolutionary psychology explains those things?

SK: Because we are an animal species – no different from any other species – we are the product of many millions of years of evolution, and certain things work throughout the course of evolution. For example, eating sweet and fatty foods always gave our ancestors more calories, more energy to survive when food supply was scarce and precarious and anybody who preferred to eat sweet and fatty foods always survived longer and stayed healthier. As a result, they had a reproductive success.

Now that’s no longer the case. We have an abundance of food and nobody’s really starving in industrial societies. Yet, we can’t get away from the fact that we do have this desire for sweet and fatty foods that was implanted in our brain throughout millions of years of evolution. It’s only in the last couple of hundred years that food became abundant, however that’s not long enough for evolution to change our brains, so that’s why we’re still stuck with this stone-age preference and desire.

RB: So, over the last couple of days, lots of people that have been making their New Year’s resolutions to give up fatty foods or to give up sweets because they want to lose weight. But basically if we go off our diet in a little while, that’s just our evolution at play?

SK: Well, I don’t want to deny the will power of some people, and I’m sure some people do succeed in sticking to their diet plans, but as an evolutionary psychologist, I’m compelled to point out the difficulties inherent in swearing off sweet and fatty foods because that desire is innate and evolutionarily given. It’s not like we learn to like sweet and fatty foods.

We were born with the desire and compulsion to eat sweet and fatty foods because that helped our ancestors. So to swear off and try not to eat sweet and fatty foods is almost like parents to try and hate their children. It’s virtually impossible for parents to try to hate and not love their children because that desire was also given by evolution.

I hope many people succeed in their diet, in their New Year’s resolutions, but I would have to be on the skeptical side.

RB: People try and give up things like cigarettes or drinking at this time of year. How much of a factor are things like addiction?

SK: Addiction to tobacco and alcohol, and especially to harder drugs, is probably slightly different from eating problems, because sweet and fatty foods always existed throughout evolutionary history. We have a dedicated mechanism to seek out and consume sweet and fatty foods. Tobacco and alcohol and crack cocaine didn’t exist throughout evolutionary history, so it’s not like we have this innate desire to consume crack cocaine. It’s the other way around. The producers of cocaine and heroin somehow tricked our mind and then tapped into some other mechanism, the mechanism that makes us dependent on certain chemicals and using it to get us hooked to those drugs. It’s not like we’re born with the desire to even drink alcohol. I’m sure our ancestors consumed some mind-altering substances, but vodka didn’t exist through evolutionary history, so it’s not like we have this mechanism to want to consume vodka.

RB: I suppose for some of us, if it wasn’t for the potato, we’d have nothing to eat or drink.

SK: [Laughing] That’s true.

RB: I recall a quote from the Nobel Prize winning chemist, Ernest Rutherford. He once said of social science, the only thing you can say with certainty, is that some do, and some don’t. How does evolutionary psychology expand on those things?

SK: I’m convinced that evolutionary psychology does better than social sciences. It’s true that there are always exceptions. Some do, some don’t.

I think evolutionary psychology can improve on that and we can say, “Most do, but a few exceptions don’t.” We went from some to most or almost everyone, but not quite everyone. There are exceptions, but the exceptions are becoming fewer and fewer in number.

RB: Is this where things like will power comes into play when someone’s trying to give something up?

SK: Right. It is difficult for virtually everybody to stay away from sweet and fatty foods, and there are some remarkable individuals who can, but it’s not the majority. Most people have problems with diet. Most people fail than stay on the diet. The goal of science is to reduce the number of exceptions and try to include everyone in the power of explanation.

RB: Another avenue that your book expands on is the subject of religion. We’ve heard a lot about that lately from writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, about the irrational nature of religion in our society, how it has no place in institutions like government. However, in your book you posit a different view of religion that makes the case for it being a perfectly rational thing to believe in.

SK: Well, I wouldn’t say religion is rational. Rationality is not a concept that evolutionary psychologist’s deal with. I would say religion is natural and probably belief in God is innate. We are equipped with the mechanism to incline us to believe in supernatural beings.

There are various theories about that, but the theory that we like to espouse is the fact we have this mechanism to be paranoid.

When we see otherwise natural phenomena, we are inclined to think there may be some intentional being behind it. If you are paranoid, you never miss an enemy or friend that you should be aware of, whereas if it’s the other way around – if you’re always assuming that potentially intentional phenomena is natural – then you may get killed when your enemy, who you didn’t think existed, kills you.

I think human beings are born with this paranoid tendency to think that there is an intentional being. So, for example, if a coconut falls and hits you on the head when you are walking in the jungle, you can think that’s just coincidence, or you can think maybe somebody was hiding up there and threw the  coconut at my head because he was trying to kill me.

The enemy may or may not exist, but if you assumed the enemy didn’t exist when he existed, then you’d be killed the next time. Whereas if you assume the enemy exists when he doesn’t, then you’re just paranoid, but you still survive. It’s always better for survival purposes to be paranoid and some people believe that religion, or a belief in a higher being, a higher power, is a by-product of our tendency to be paranoid and assume intentional design everywhere.

RB: Pascal’s wager.

SK: Exactly.

RB: If you think there might be a god, it’s better to believe in that person or that deity versus, “I don’t believe in God,” then all of a sudden you find out there is one.

SK: Not from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. It’s not because if you don’t believe in God when God exists, you burn in hell in eternity. It’s because the mechanism was placed in the brain to guard you against potential human enemies who might kill you. So you are born to be paranoid and religion is the by-product of that paranoia.

RB: How old is that relationship then with religion for most humans? How does that play into how we deal with things like war and conflict, and in a more narrow scope, how we deal with things like terrorism or insurgencies?

SB: War and terrorism and insurgency is probably different from our innate mechanisms for religion. We are also, unfortunately, born with a tendency to be ethnocentric. If you think about it, ethnocentrism, the tendency to favor other members of your group whom your children might marry and whom your grandchildren might marry, always paid off. Even though we, in the Western contemporary society, believe that ethnocentrism and racism is wrong, in the evolutionary past, it paid off in reproductive terms. We are unfortunately born with the tendency to be ethnocentric and to be racist and to believe that we are right and they are wrong, and I think war and any ethnic conflict or nationalist conflict is an unfortunate consequence of our innate tendency to be ethnocentric.

RB: Does that create arguments like the one George Bush made during the lead-up to the Iraq war, that the terrorists hate our collective freedoms?

SK: I’m sure George W. Bush knows nothing about evolutionary psychology, but he did tap very well into our innate mechanism to consider the whole world in terms of black and white, us and them. He did a very good job of tapping into our unconscious desire to be insular and to protect us and attack them.

RB: In terms of the nature of insurgency,  when you  compare the forces in Iraq versus the sort of terrorism that has been faced in other parts of the world, can you go into how polygyny influences Iraqi insurgents?

SK: From my perspective as an evolutionary psychologist, I think it’s wrong to call the current enemies that we’re facing as terrorists, because they’re not really terrorists in the traditional sense.

Terrorists in the past were people who had political-socio goals who said, “Do this for us or else we’ll kill you or destroy these things.” Our current enemies don’t do that. They kill first and then they sometimes make demands, but usually not.

It seems to me that the current Muslim insurgency that we’re facing – maybe destruction in itself is a goal. It begins to make sense when you realize that Muslims are the only world religion that condones polygyny. It’s been shown that young men in polygynous societies are more violent and they have to kill each other, eliminate each other, to have access to the few remaining reproductively available females.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the current enemies we’re facing are also polygynous and polygyny makes young men violent. I don’t think it analytically makes sense to equate our current enemies to the past terrorists who had clear political motives and, for them, achieving the political goals was more important than violence. Violence was just a means to achieve the political goals, whereas for these current enemies, violence and destruction seems to be the goal in itself because they have a different unconscious desire to kill other men, to monopolize the women who are there.

RB: But that sounds like the whole thing can be reduced to a bunch of people wanting to make sure that they can reproduce or get wives or have girlfriends, that kind of thing.

SK: That is, in essence, the history of human evolution, or evolution of any species. Reproduction is the bottom line of evolution so we are, in essence, designed to do whatever we can so that we can reproduce and have as many offspring as possible. That just doesn’t explain terrorism and insurgency. It explains everything we do.

RB: I want to shift to a subject that means something in Canada and that’s the subject of nationalism. In your book, you specifically mention Quebec nationalism. From that evolutionary psychology point of view, what makes you think that an independent Quebec come about?

SK: Well, this brings in the concept of “free-riders” people who don’t fight for a cause but they get all the benefits, and that comes from microeconomics and Russian Choice Theory.

In economic terms, it never makes sense to contribute toward a collective good like the independence of Quebec. When Quebec is independent, all the people in Quebec benefit but there isn’t a distinction whether you contributed toward that independence or not.

So economists will tell you that it never makes sense to contribute toward any collective good, like independence of any ethnic group like Quebec. Economists will always predict that every rational person will be a free rider and that the goal would never be achieved, whereas evolutionary psychology has a slightly different take on that.

Economists are right in the sense that it’s never rational for the individual to contribute toward the collective good, but evolutionary psychology is to the point now that maybe it’s rational for the genes to compel the individual to contribute if the nationalist movement has some benefit for their descendants. I think evolutionary psychologists are certainly more optimistic for any nationalist cause than microeconomists might be.

RB: The environment around us has changed dramatically in just the last 100 centuries and certainly the last 100 years. What do you think has happened with our ability to cope with that change?

SK: Evolution requires a stable environment for many, many generations. Humans are one of the slowest maturing species and evolution happens relative to how quickly or slowly that species matures. It takes humans 15 to 20 years after birth to begin reproducing, so humans, compared to all the other species, are one of the slowest maturing species. And combined with the fact that humans themselves have been changing the environment for the last 10,000 years, the conclusion of these 2 observations is that the human brain as we have it now has difficulty dealing with everything that we’ve created in the last 10,000 years.

Our brain still assumes that we are hunter-gatherers on the African savannah, and we can’t really recognize all the products of civilization that we ourselves and our ancestors have created in the last 10,000 years. If you look around, it’s very difficult for the human brain to really comprehend computers and airplanes and automobiles – virtually everything that exists in our society today.

RB: How much of it plays into the fact that for much of our existence, we were survivalists? The whole idea was about surviving from day to day and now we’ve got a quality of life in most of the Western world where we’re living into our seventies and eighties and a whole chunk of life is leisure time. It isn’t necessarily about surviving to the next day, because for a lot of people, they know where the next cheque is coming from to buy food. How much of that has changed our evolution?

SK: Survival, of course, is always important but only because you need to survive in order to reproduce. Reproduction was always the bottom line. Survival was the means toward reproduction. You can’t reproduce if you’re dead.

But you’re right. Survival has become easier in modern society because food is abundant and you don’t have to work so hard to survive, but we still have to work hard to reproduce. We still have to find a mate and keep a mate. In some sense, finding and keeping a mate may have become more difficult. The divorce rate is going up and many people are living in broken families. The survival part is taken care of, but I’m not sure if the reproduction part is taken care of. I’m not sure if reproduction has become easier as a result of modern society.

RB: But if we understand the root of behaviours, why we like sweet foods or why we get jealous over things – if we get that part, can we change how we move forward?

SK: That’s very difficult to say because you’re asking me to predict the future of species or of individuals.

I can say this: it will become a lot easier to change if you know where the behavior is coming from than if you didn’t. If you try to stick to your diet, if you try to change without knowing why that behavior you’re trying to change is there, it should be more difficult to change.

If you want to change your own behaviour, or even society, the first thing you should do is to understand why you behave that way in the first place, why that motivation was there to begin with. Without that, you have no hope. With that, if you understand it, you might have some hope.

I’m still skeptical that you can radically change your behavior, given our evolutionary legacy, but I would say it should be far easier to do that if you understand the root cause of behaviour.

RB: What questions do you think are now outstanding for evolutionary psychology?

SB: Evolutionary psychology has made great progress in explaining human behavior, but there are many unresolved questions.

One of the key, crucial questions is how do we explain homosexuality. Why are some people born gay? We know by now that homosexuality, at least male homosexuality, is largely genetic. If a gene spreads by heterosexual reproduction, how do we still have gay genes in 2008?

Why, if reproduction is so important, do some people choose not to marry or choose not to have children, or have far fewer children than they could afford to raise? Most middle-class families in the United States, Canada or Britain can easily afford to raise five, six, seven, eight children without compromising their health and survival. Yet most middle-class families have only two children, and furthermore, most families want one girl and one boy, and those are some of the remaining questions that we have yet to figure out.