A provocative new study claims that more intelligent persons are more likely to become political liberals and atheists. And bright guys are more likely than dimmer chaps to value fidelity to their spouse, although that's not true for women.
The study is the work of evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who has rattled the cage of the intelligentsia in the past, to mixed revues from his peers.
In this particular paper, published in the current issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, Kanazawa sets out to answer a question that many other researchers have found unanswerable.
"Where do individual values and preferences come from?" he asks in the opening sentence of his lengthy study. A few sentences later, he says, "there currently is no satisfactory general theory of values."
Why do we believe so strongly, sometimes with little evidence, in such things as God, or the absence thereof, or basic political philosophies that can drive otherwise calm individuals into rage and indignation?
The answer is complex, of course, if there is an answer. Our values surely stem from many things, including family traditions, culture, life experiences, and according to Kanazawa, intelligence.
Kanazawa arrived at his answer by a circuitous path. As an evolutionary psychologist, Kanazawa thought the answer could lie in how persons develop values that are different from our ancient past.
We all cling to some values, he argues, like taking care of our families, because that is part of our evolutionary history. If we hadn't, we wouldn't be here.
That led him to ask why some persons become atheists, in spite of the fact that religion has played a dominant role in all cultures throughout human history. He also asked why some persons become political liberals, which he defines as having "genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others."
Liberals are even willing to pay more taxes to take care of less privileged unrelated folks they may never meet, despite the fact that historically -- and evolutionarily -- humans didn't need to take care of anyone but their own kind.
To do otherwise, Kanazawa argues, is "evolutionarily novel."
He set out to find evidence that brighter folks are more likely to adopt "evolutionarily novel" values than duller folks. So he turned to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, an ongoing study involving 20,745 adolescents in 80 high schools and 52 middle schools across the United States. The kids were interviewed in their homes several times in the mid-90s, and they were given intelligence tests.
Kanazawa wasn't interested in what they thought about God or politics at that time in their young lives. What he wanted was their IQ.
Years later, when the adolescents were in their 20s, they were interviewed again, and at that time they were indeed asked about their values. By linking their answers to their performance in the IQ tests, Kanazawa came up with the support for his argument.
The higher the intelligence in junior high and high school, "the more liberal they grow up to be in their early adulthood," he concluded. Likewise, for their belief in God. The brighter kids accepted the "evolutionarily novel" concept of no god, or at least they described themselves as caring very little or not at all about religion.
But what about that claim that bright guys, though not necessarily bright gals, value fidelity -- or "exclusivity," as Kanazawa put it -- in their relationships? Again, he found that the data supported his theory.
Throughout our ancient past, he says, humans have had a "mildly polygamous" evolutionary history. It was OK for a guy to have several females in the clan, so it wasn't important for him to be faithful to any one of them.
But the females were expected to remain faithful. Thus, for a man to value marital fidelity is "evolutionarily novel," but it wouldn't be novel for a woman to hold the same value because she historically has been expected to.
Again, Kanazawa found that smarter males valued "exclusivity" more than their less intelligent colleagues, but higher intelligence had no effect on the women's values, just as he had hypothesized.
The IQ difference was not all that great -- around 103 for the smarter kids and 97 for the lesser lights, but Kanazawa insists the difference is "statistically significant."
He concedes there is something of a problem with that data. The participants were all in their twenties, and "the findings from them may or may not generalize to all Americans across generations," he adds.
That's a reasonable point, considering that many of us probably hold very different values from those that we held in our twenties, before we fully entered the labor force, started our families, went off to war, and took a serious interest in politics.
So Kanazawa turned to a second study, conducted since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, called the General Social Surveys. Intelligence is measured by how each respondent answers 10 questions in which they are asked to select a synonym for a word out of five candidates.
They were also asked to select which position most closely matched their own. For example, for religiosity, the statements ranged from "I don't believe in God" to "I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it."
Again, Kanazawa found the answers that fit his theory. Participants "who are more intelligent are significantly more liberal than those who are less intelligent."
"More intelligent individuals have a significantly weaker belief in God." So not just bright kids, but brighter adults, as well, tend to be more politically liberal and less religious, he concludes.
It's safe to say that anyone who reads this is going to have many doubts about Kanazawa's findings. We all know too many exceptions.
Is the brilliant atheist Richard Dawkins really all that much smarter than the equally brilliant evangelical Francis Collins, both of whom have outstanding careers in science? And do our values remain constant throughout our lives? How many of us believe today what we believed when we were much younger?
Many of us are still left wondering why we believe some of the things we believe so fervently. Is it because we are smart enough to accept a "novel" position that goes against our evolutionary history? Most likely, it's not that simple.