We can measure what people prefer and value, but do we know why? And can we predict whether a nation will be liberal or conservative, atheist or religious, polygynous or monogamous?

While researching for a forthcoming article I stumbled upon a paper by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, on the origin of individual values and preferences that indicate that the values of a nation are tied to its IQ.

The article, to be published in the July issue of Journal of Biosocial Science, is a quick read (despite being 20 pages long), and offers one possible explanation of why people have individual values and preferences: the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis.

This is part one of three – in this article, I’ll explain the background and theories. In the second and third article, I’ll discuss how these theories, according to Kanazawa, can predict why people want what they want.

Who is this Kanazawa guy anyway?

I digress for a moment to delve into the author’s biography, as too often we miss the trees for the forest. Case in point: an effulgent and genial officer I met during a recent jaunt back to my previous hometown of D.C. said he would proudly let me take a picture of him with Theodore Douglas Bear because people need to see the face of the military to make it more real.

Kanazawa is a prolific author, writing books and journal articles with titles like “Why beautiful people have more daughters,” “Reading shadows on Plato's cave wall,” and “Bowling with our imaginary friends.” I detect a twinkle and a wink in the photo on his personal Web site, which also includes his intellectual lineage (which offers you a spot as his descendent), a link to his column, The Scientific Fundamentalist, on Psychology Today, and three telling quotes:
“If the truth offends people, it is our job as scientists to offend them.”

“If what I say is wrong (because it is illogical or lacks credible scientific evidence), then it is my problem. If what I say offends you, it is your problem. Prepare to be offended.”

“Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen!” (Or, “We must know, we will know!” Mathematicians may recognize this as the epitaph on David Hilbert’s tomb – as in the Hilbert famous for “Hilbert’s program,” the Hilbert linked to Gödel, and, as physicists may know, the Hilbert once engaged in the relativity priority dispute with Einstein.)

Back to the forest

Kanazawa asks, “Where do individual values and preferences come from? Why do people want what they want?” Obscene amounts of money are spent every year in advertising, trying to convince people of what they want. But, he says, while some social scientists have tried to account for these preferences and values, economists have responded with De gustibus non est disputandum: there’s no rhyme or reason why people want what they want.

While anyone can measure preferences, no one has come up with a satisfactory general theory of values – the why of the equation. Evolutionary psychology has been posited as a possible portal to the solution, as it can in theory explain both universal and individual preferences – the study of universal human nature, and the interaction with the environment.

An oasis in the Savanna

Kanazawa uses a simple thought experiment to illustrate the idea that adaptations are “designed for and adapted to the conditions of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, not necessarily to the current environment.” In other words, our very ancient ancestors’ environment.

Think of a banana. Yellow, right? Now look at it in sunlight, now moonlight, now in the rain, maybe on a cloudy day or at dusk. Still yellow. But, you say, shouldn’t the light reflect differently in these various settings? So wouldn’t the color of the banana change? Nope. The human eye and color recognition systems, Kanazawa says, can “compensate for these varied conditions because they all occurred during the course of the evolution of the human vision system, and can perceive the objectively varied colors and constantly yellow.”

But try holding a banana up in under sodium vapor lights in a parking lot at night. Egads! The natural yellow is no longer. Why? “Sodium vapor lights did not exist in our ancestral environment, during the course of the evolution of human vision, and is therefore incapable for compensating for them.” (Parking lots didn’t either, come to think of it. Anyway, he references the 1989 film The Abyss for an additional example; check out the paper for more on this.)

This is the Savanna Principle: The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. (This same hypothesis has been referred to as the Evolutionary Legacy Hypothesis and the Mismatch Hypothesis as well.)

Kanazawa says this principle can potentially explain why otherwise elegant theories like game theory, often fail empirically – “because they posit entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment.” People who watch “certain types of TV shows are more satisfied with their real friendships just as if they had actually socialized with those friends.” Why? TV and realistic images of other humans didn’t exist early on in the Paleolithic era. As a result, “the human brain may have implicit difficulty distinguishing their ‘TV friends’ and their real friends.”

Stay tuned for more on general intelligence, evolutionarily novel values, and why you want what you want - and how we know what you want based on where you live.

Article: Journal of Biosocial Science, Volume 41, Issue 04, Jul 2009, pp 537-556