Santoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today. If I were as stupid as he is I’d probably shoot myself, but that didn’t stop someone at the magazine from letting him post the nonsense of Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? (The same people who don’t know how to use capitalization in titles, maybe…)
The article disappeared pretty quick (the link above is to the Google cache), so either someone at the magazine had a lucid moment or they don’t know how to work their Internet thingies, but either way, it’s out there and it bears the imprimateur of a pretty mainstream magazine.
Here’s the gist: During interviews for a longitudinal study of American adolescent health called Add Health, researchers assign a score for how attractive their subjects are, using a scale of 1-5. Kanazawa takes those objective-because-it’s-a-number-yo! figures and averages them by race, does a little factor analysis, and concludes that black women are objectively less attractive than all other women. And after discarding a few factors like the “fact” that black women are fat and stupid (which, he points out, doesn’t seem to hurt black men much, who are seen as the most attractive of men), Kanazawa concludes it must be because black women are so testosteroney.
We will NOT be seeing Mr. Kanazawa on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?
Missing in Kanazawa’s analysis is any consideration of cultural conditioning both his researchers and his subjects have received in a society where for four centuries black women have been consistently branded as chattel and animals and where the peril of sexual relations with them has been a constant drumbeat. For 200 of those years, the offspring of black women were legally slaves. Black men have also been denigrated, of course, but in a society that highlights power, strength, and the capacity for violence as key elements of masculinity, the same racist tendencies that reduce black men to their physical presence works in their favor where raw attractiveness is concerned.
This is easy stuff. Even if there is a biological component, you can’t derive it from Kanazawa’s write-up because he hasn’t done the science – he has selected a hypothesis that fits what he wants to say and put it forth as fact. In the absence of the consideration of alternative hypotheses, there’s no there there.
But you don’t expect to see science from someone who claims to be an evolutionary psychologist and unwittingly undermines a central premise of his own discipline! Oh, right – he accidentally throws a key theory, that the absence of genetic mutations is a factor in attractiveness, under the bus in his rush to be all racist and stuff.
…Africans have more mutations in their genomes than other races. And the mutation loads significantly decrease physical attractiveness (because physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health). But since both black women and black men have higher mutation loads, it cannot explain why only black women are less physically attractive, while black men are, if anything, more attractive.
This is a big deal in evolutionary psychology, that genetic health = attractiveness. Never mind that nearly everyone procreates except the most egregious outliers, which kind of undermines the selective pressure that attractiveness is supposed to provide (if ugly people procreate, then their ostensibly unhealthy genes stay in the gene pool). But even leaving that aside, there’s the problem of, if high levels of genetic mutations are so unattractive, why are black men rates so attractive?
I’ve already given one explanation: on a purely physical basis, the raw sexuality we’ve saddled cultural understandings of black maleness with is fairly compelling. But in the absence of a cultural explanation – which is to say, in Kanazawa’s worldview – the only explanation must be that the accumulation of mutations has nothing to do with attractiveness, and that therefore genetic health has nothing to do with attractiveness, and that therefore the factors that influence mate choice are not related to genetic health, and that therefore they must be non-biological factors – which is to say, cultural standards! (Man, Kanazawa, you got yourself coming and going with this one!)
PZ Meyers has more on this piece at Pharyngula, digging further into the basic problems inherent in research based on researchers ogling teenagers and assigning them attractiveness scores, but Meyers sticks largely to the biology. Kanazawa’s problem isn’t (just) that he’s a poor biologist, but that he’s a racist who has applied his meager intellect uncritically to a pile of suspect data in order to support his own prejudices. I’ve yet to come across an evolutionary psychological explanation that doesn’t have a corresponding – and often more plausible – cultural explanation; while the cultural explanation might not ultimately be right, if you’re going to build a science on the primacy of the biological over the cultural, you’re going to have to at least consider the cultural as an alternative hypothesis!