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I know our monthly topics usually happen later in the month than this, but there is a current event early this month that I think it’s better to cover sooner rather than later.

On October 2nd, the Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton died after a long battle with cancer.  This name might be familiar to people who follow psychometrics or evolutionary psychology.  Several obituaries of him have already been published, but as I’ve looked at them I’ve noticed trend that’s rather irritating: none of them accurately describe the research that he’s known for.  Some of the articles don’t even make an attempt at this, and simply bash a caricature of it.  Apart from the general rudeness of insulting a person who’s recently dead, I consider there to be a more general problem with this pattern, which is that every scientist deserves to be remembered for his or her work.  Some of Rushton’s theories certainly were controversial, but they still deserve to be remembered for what they are, regardless of whether or not they were correct.  With this in mind, my goal for this journal entry is to give Rushton an obituary that summarizes his work in a more complete manner than others have done.

J. Philippe Rushton was born in 1943 in Bournemouth, England, and split the years of his life about evenly between England and Canada.  He spent several years in Canada as a teenager, but returned to England to study psychology at the University of London and the London School of Economics, where he received his Ph.D in 1973.  In 1974 he moved once again to Canada, and taught for a few years at York University and the University of Toronto before eventually settling at the University of Western Ontario, where he was made a full professor in 1985.  He remained at the University of Western Ontario for the rest of his career, although he also continued to study under the famous psychologist Hans Eysenck at the University of London, where he eventually received his D.Sc in 1992.

The area of psychology first researched by Rushton was the psychological basis of altruism, the willingness to make sacrifices for others.  Altruism is a challenge to explain from an evolutionary psychology perspective, because on the surface it seems like a behavior that’s counter-productive to an individual’s survival.  Rushton’s theory about this proposed that altruism could be explained using a gene-centric view of evolution, in which evolution has given us the instinct to preserve other individuals who share the greatest number of our genes.  This theory has become known as “genetic similarity theory”, and predicts that the more genetically similar two people are, the more likely they are to have altruistic feelings or behavior towards one another.  This applies most obviously to a person’s family, but Rushton's research suggests that a correlation between genetic similarity and altruism exists outside of families as well.  According to this theory, racism and ethnic conflicts are what Rushton called the “dark side of altruism”, in which our instinct to favor others who share more of our genes causes us to also exclude others who are more different from us.

One consequence of this theory is that because altruism is essential in romantic relationships, one would expect there to be a trend of people preferring mates who are more similar to them genetically than could be expected based on chance.  (Although obviously not too similar—nobody marries their cousin if they can avoid it.)  Some of Rushton’s research suggests that this correlation also exists.  In this paper he has presented data that not only does genetic similarity mean people and animals are more likely to become a couple; among couples it also correlates with their likelihood of having children.

If Rushton’s research had focused on altruism and assortive mating for the entirety of his career, at the end of his life he would have been a respected, but not particularly well-known evolutionary psychologist.  The reason he became widely-known is because starting in the late 1980s, he began seeking an evolutionary psychology explanation for another aspect of humanity: the cultural and biological differences between human ethnic groups.

The original basis for Rushton’s research about this topic was the observation that for a large portion of the quantifiable traits that vary between human groups, Europeans occupy a position midway between Asians and Africans.  For example, African children tend to reach developmental milestones such as learning to walk before European children do, who reach it before Asian children.  Africans also have the highest rate of two-egg twinning, and Asians have the lowest, again with Europeans in between.  The same pattern applies to number of teeth (Asians tend to have the fewest), IQ (Asians tend to have the highest) brain size (Asians’ tend to be the largest) aggression (Asians’ tends to be the lowest), and various sexual characteristics such as penis size and age of virginity loss, which suggest Asians devote the least energy to reproduction, and Africans devote the most.  Rushton has proposed that these differences can be explained based on what characteristics historically provided the greatest selective advantage in East Asia, Europe and Africa.  According to Rushton’s theory, because infant mortality in Africa was very high and childhood was the most dangerous time of life, the best evolutionary strategy for Africans was to grow up quickly and have as many children as possible.  In other words, on the r/K selection scale, Rushton’s theory was that Africans were more r-selected and Asians were more K-selected.

Much of Rushton’s later research has focused especially on brain size variation between human groups, and other psychological characteristics such as IQ that correlate with it.  In some ways this topic is less speculative than most other aspects of Rushton’s r/K theory, because as is pointed out in this 2010 literature review published in Nature neuroscience, it is fairly well-established in the field of neurology that brain volume correlates with IQ.  This article in the New York Times describes a 2011 study showing that average brain size also varies between human groups, despite Stephen Jay Gould’s claims to the contrary, although it isn’t known yet whether this is an evolutionary adaptation or a response to some environmental effect such as prenatal conditions.  Prenatal conditions are a more likely environmental cause than most others, because one line of data documented by Rushton in this study is that differences in average brain size exist between human groups even in the first year of life.

Even for someone who knows very little about Rushton’s research or the response to it, it isn’t difficult to imagine how controversial some of these ideas have been.  Rushton has been adamant that he does not believe any race is superior to any other, and that notions like “superiority” are impossible to quantify scientifically, but many people reading about Rushton’s research have come away with the impression that he was attempting to prove that Asians are superior to Europeans, and Europeans superior to Africans.  In interviews where journalists have accused Rushton of racism, he’s sometimes seemed confused by this accusation—it seems that he only thought of himself as researching an important question about human evolution, and the reactions to his research took him by surprise.

Although Rushton’s research about race differences had been appearing in peer-reviewed journals starting in 1985, most of the controversy over it began in 1989, when he presented his theories at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  In addition to journalists and student protesters, his research was also criticized by fellow academics, and subjected to investigations from the University of Western Ontario as well as from the police.  The ensuing public controversy was not mostly over whether Rushton’s ideas were correct or incorrect, but whether the principle of academic freedom should allow a person to present ideas that so many others found offensive.  The controversy has been rekindled at several points since then, including when he summarized many of his ideas in the 1995 book Race, Evolution and Behavior, and in 1999 when he mailed unsolicited copies of an abridged version of this book to several thousand other researchers.  Whether intentionally or not, his devotion to making his ideas known has consistently fanned the flames of controversy surrounding him.

Many of the journalists writing about Rushton have assumed that because his theories have been heavily criticized by other scientists, this means they are not taken seriously, but this actually isn’t the case.  When an idea is truly not taken seriously in science, other scientists tend to simply ignore it, which is why creationist arguments usually are not published in peer-reviewed journals or discussed there.  But unlike creationist ideas, papers describing Rushton’s theories about race differences have routinely passed peer-review in well-known journals such as Intelligence and Personality and Individual Differences, where they have been discussed and debated by other psychologists.  Curiously, some of the journalists attacking Rushton have actually pointed this out, yet still considered the papers unscientific and held it against these journals that they were consistently publishing his research.  It’s common for journalists to misrepresent peer-reviewed research by accident, but this is one of the only examples I’m aware of in which journalists have attempted to second-guess the peer review process itself.

A more significant sign that Rushton’s research about race differences is taken seriously among psychologists is how it’s been described in the most mainstream academic sources on the topic of human intelligence.  The Handbook of Intelligence, published by Cambridge University Press in 2000, cites Rushton’s Race, Evolution and Behavior along with several other sources to describe group variations in brain size, with the summary that these are the facts, but that politics make them very difficult to discuss.  Earl Hunt’s Human Intelligence, also published by Cambridge University Press in 2011, describes Rushton’s research as one of several possible explanations for group differences in average IQ.  Many textbooks about criminology that discuss racial disparities in crime rates also include Rushton’s r/K theory as one of a few theories about the reason for this, and his theory has been defended especially vigorously by the criminologist Anthony Walsh.

What I consider the most insightful commentary on Rushton is in this book review by Henry Harpending, one of the two authors of the 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion.  Like many of Rushton’s critics, Harpending is doubtful that Rushton’s r/K theory is the correct model to explain his data, but nonetheless praises Rushton for having proposed a theoretical model that makes testable predictions.  This is an essential point that many of the other people who've commented on Rushton have overlooked—for a scientific theory to be valuable, it does not necessarily have to be correct.  Even if a theory is ultimately shown to be incorrect, as long as it makes testable predictions it can often serve as the foundation for developing an improved theory, just as the testing and disproving of J. J. Thomson’s “plum pudding” model of the atom enabled Ernest Rutherford to formulate a more accurate atomic model.

In Rushton’s case, there is no better example of this than Harpending himself.  Much like Race, Evolution and Behavior did 14 years earlier, The 10,000 Year Explosion explains how evolutionary pressures on our ancestors have led to many of the differences between human groups that exist today, and also improves on Rushton’s data by incorporating genetic research that has become available after the turn of the millennium.  In addition to the indirect evidence that the book’s authors have decided to update some of Rushton’s research, its preface lists Rushton as one of the researchers to whom they are indebted.

There are probably many other researchers who are also indebted to him, whether they care to admit it or not.  All scientists see further by standing on the shoulders of giants, and in the fields of psychometrics and evolutionary psychology, one of those giants is J. Philippe Rushton.
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Paleo-King Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2012  Professional Traditional Artist
There's a lot of politics wrapped up in the issue of IQ and race, so for many reasons Rushton gets lumped in with people who bear little resemblance to him in their views. And just because some white supremacists tout Rushton's work as "proof" that other races are "inferior", doesn't mean they even have a clue about Rushton's work or data. Rushton's work may indeed be flawed and I haven't read it in detail so I can't judge it either way - BUT the fact remains, if Rushton was really a racist or a white supremacist, then why did his findings indicate that asians score higher than whites on an IQ test? That doesn't sound much like a man who's obsessed with promoting his own race above all others.

Furthermore, IQ is not the same thing as intelligence. It's a form of testing that was originally designed to identify the best educators and teachers. And it's geared towards a "classification relationships" understanding of spatial thinking. This form of thinking is largely a product of the scientific method and industrialization, and the emergence of middle class living standards. The typical African child growing up in poverty is raised to think the same way as a European peasant child of 200 years ago - an "utility relationships" frame of mind which results from lack of access to higher education. They would both say, when asked "how is a dog related to a rabbit", that "one chases the other". Such people are raised with nature and hunting, but their lives have little time or practical use for modern science. Whereas a middle class child in a post-industrial society and a skilled-labor family that's not tied to the land would say "they're both mammals". Both are right, but the latter is a way of thinking more suited to passing an IQ test. IQ measures logic and ability to categorize, classify, exclude or overlap data sets. And those are skills that just aren't very useful in a subsistence society that hasn't crossed the scientific threshold yet, (or for that matter, a community that has been economically marginalized or disadvantaged for decades and for whatever reason is largely struggling at or below poverty level - the culture of scientific, philosophical or classificatory thinking just doesn't have the opportunity to emerge in such situations).
Agahnim Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2012
Maybe I wasn't clear enough about this in the post, but most of the research about this was actually conducted on African Americans living in the U.S. and Canada. The reason I said "African" instead of "Black" is because the term "Black" sometimes is also used for other ethnic groups like Australian Aboriginals, while Rushton's theory about r/K selection was specific to Africans and African Americans. When one compares average IQ between White Americans and African Americans with the same level of education and the same socio-economic status, the IQ gap shrinks a little but doesn't disappear. That doesn't prove the gap is genetic, but it demonstrates there isn't an easy answer to what's causing it.

Most of the research about IQ in relation to factors like education and socio-economic status is by people other than Rushton, but it's partly based on this research that Rushton proposed his evolutionary explanation about it. I think one of the best summaries about this topic in general is probably Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, which is the official statement of the American Psychological Association. One other thing pointed out in this statement is that IQ tests are good predictors of things like job performance and scholastic achievement, and they predict it about as well for both Black and White Americans, so the reason for the gap also probably isn't because the tests are failing to measure what they're meant to.

It's always irritated me what a large portion of the people who defend Rushton are people who obviously do it just because they're looking for a way to justify their prejudices. When I was looking at what other obituaries about him existed before I wrote this post, one of the few I could find that wasn't attacking him was at a website that also sells a book of poems dedicated to Hitler. It reminds me of how creationists are constantly citing paleontologists like Sankar Chatterjee who have ideas outside of the paleontology mainstream, even though if they really understood Chatterjee's theories, they would know he doesn't actually support any of their arguments.
Paleo-King Featured By Owner Oct 7, 2012  Professional Traditional Artist
Good point. Probably the last thing Chatterjee would propose is creationism. And Rushton didn't go into this with some conspiratorial plan to cherry pick evidence that supports racist conclusions. That's what makes the racist folks that defend Rushton for the wrong reasons look so stupid. White supremacists championing Rushton in spite of the fact that his study shows asians score higher than whites, I suppose they conveniently ignore that part of Rushton's findings, such people are beyond ridiculous. A lot of people also assume that IQ is the be-all end-all of intelligence, which it's not. It's a good predictor of academic performance, but exactly how you quantify "superior intelligence" has no simple answer. That's the problem with politicizing science so much, people already have made up their minds before they read the research.

It's just the same with genetic research and terms like "primitive" and "advanced". These can be very negatively charged terms in social discourse, but scientifically they are devoid of emotion. When some geneticists find that a "primitive" gene is more common in Africans and the more "advanced" form of that gene is most common in Europeans (with a lot of overlap both ways), they are not saying that either is superior to the other. I'm a dinosaur researcher, and in dinosaurs we find plenty of examples of a "primitive" trait that survived just fine alongside "advanced" traits over millions of years. Case in point - Brachiosaurs are clearly more "primitive" than titanosaurs, since they evolved/split off earlier, but they were not in any way inferior in an evolutionary sense, probably no less intelligent, and they survived for nearly as long (brachiosaur bones from as late as the Campanian epoch are known from Mexico). Abelisaurs are more "primitive" than Tyrannosaurs, but they were just as successful and produced far more species. "Advanced" traits are often no better or worse than "primitive" ones, natural selection weeds out less adaptive traits based on the climate, flora, and environment of the time. So in some cases advanced species or genes go extinct fast and primitive ones actually survive far longer. What defines "the fittest" can mean very different things at different times, it's just what is most suited to the environment of that time or the available niches - nature doesn't care if you're more recent or 'advanced', if you aren't suited to the changing conditions, you won't survive. It has very little to do with who is stronger, faster, or smarter, and within a single species the measurable effects of variation are often almost moot.
DawnEmperor Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2012
Well said. It often frustrates me how people often try to cherry pick the evidence that supports their beliefs. That's not how it works.
EbolaSparkleBear Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2012

People generally are too dumb and narrow minded to understand what's going on and anything that breaks the silence is bad.
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