The Life History Approach to Human Differences

Ulster Institute, July 27, 2015

The Life History Approach to Human Differences: A Tribute to J. Philippe Rushton, Helmuth Nyborg (Ed.), 2015, London: Ulster Institute for Social Research, 369pp. £20 (paperback), £5 (e-book).

J. Philippe Rushton (1943-2012) was unquestionably Canada’s most controversial academic when he died of Addison’s disease at the end of 2012. Upon his death, Canadian headlines termed him ‘controversial’ and one even asserted ‘Rushton’s Ideas Died With Him.’

This book is a testament to the inaccuracy of that assertion. Edited by Danish psychologist Helmuth Nyborg, himself no stranger to the trouble caused when academic research questions the dogmas of the Political Correctness, it brings together a series of essays by academic supporters of Rushton originally published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. These are preceded by an interview with Rushton, conducted by Nyborg and originally published in that journal, and Nyborg’s obituary of Rushton.

From these two sources, we learn that Rushton was born in Bournemouth but that his parents emigrated, first to South Africa and then to Canada. Rushton returned to the UK to do a degree in psychology at Birkbeck and then a PhD on the subject of altruism in children at the LSE. However, he first rose to prominence in 1989, by now working at Canada’s University of Western Ontario. At a conference in that year, at which the media were present, he advanced his ‘Life History Approach to Human Differences’ which gives this book its title.

Underpinning his argument was the notion of r-K selection. In an unpredictable though plentiful environment, animals will follow an r-strategy, a fast life history. In this context, it pays to have as many progeny as possible and to live fast and die young, investing little in individual offspring. At the opposite end of the spectrum are K-strategists, slow life history strategists. If an environment is stable but harsh then the maximum carrying capacity for the species will be reached and members of the species will start competing against each other. The ones more likely to win this competition will be bigger, stronger, healthier, more cooperative, and more experienced. So K-strategists invest less energy is procreation and more in caring for their (smaller number of) offspring so that these are more likely to survive this fierce competition and more in adapting to the environment. In this context, it pays to live life more slowly. Rushton’s major innovation, so argue the scholars in this essay collection, was to extend this model to humans, something Rushton called ‘Differential K.’

In essence, he argued that what he called ‘Negroids’ were the most r-selected race, ‘Mongoloids’ were the least and ‘Caucasians’ were intermediate, though closer to ‘Mongoloids.’ This was entirely congruous with the differing nature of their ancestral environments and he marshaled a huge amount of evidence to prove this, in terms of race differences in personality, speed of development, twinning and many other variables.

The result, in 1989, was outrage. The newspapers condemned him as racist as did many academics, PC campaigners stormed his department and scrawled graffiti on his door, the governor of his province looked into prosecuting him but eventually declared him ‘Looney but not criminal,’ and he had to appeal, successfully, against an unsatisfactory rating on his research. Later, he was banned from teaching, and even physically assaulted at a conference. Nyborg compares Rushton to Galileo, a thought criminal who was persecuted for questioning the doctrines of day.

A full summary of Rushton’s model was published in his 1995 book, Race, Evolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective. From the perspective of the authors in this essay collection, Rushton appears to be a hugely influential scholar–a genius–whose ‘Differential K model’ has passed the test of a genuine scientific, theoretical breakthrough, akin to Evolution. It has made sense of a huge amount of data in the simplest and most parsimonious way possible, it allows testable predictions (and thus a whole research program can be built upon it) and it unifies (conciliates) different fields of thought, in this case psychology and biology.

The essays themselves evaluate, positively, Rushton’s contribution to various fields in psychology. Many people argue that IQ tests are culturally biased against certain races. However, according to Arthur Jensen, Rushton showed that these races perform the worst on the most general intelligence (g)-loaded parts of these tests; i.e. on the least culturally biased parts of the test. In a particularly fascinating piece, Linda Gottfredson clinically dissects the hostile academic response to Rushton’s theory. She statistically sets out the degree to which fallacies–especially ad hominem ones–were used against him and provides a check-list of ‘Yes-but’ gambits used by PC scientists which Rushton rebutted up until the ultimate gambit of ‘your results may be true but they are unthinkable!’

Various studies provide further proof for Rushton’s arguments. Numerical, spatial, and verbal intelligence positively correlate because people, in general, who are smart on one measure are smart on all of them. This means we can posit ‘general intelligence.’ In a similar way, various authors argue that differences in measures of personality–Extravert, Neurotic, Conscientious, Agreeable etc.–are underpinned by a ‘General Factor of Personality’, the essence of which is whether you are high or low in K. One of them presents new evidence of personality differences between Europeans and Asians in the direction Rushton would predict. Other articles test Rushton’s theory using global behavior variation and even race differences in penis length and size. Rushton argued that being K-evolved meant low testosterone and thus smaller penis size among males.

Interestingly, Salter and Harpending look at Rushton’s contribution to the study of ethnocentrism. Rushton found considerable evidence for his ‘Genetic Similarity Theory’: people assort along genetic lines and show genetic nepotism, even within families*. Rushton showed that sexual partners are more genetically similar to each other than the population average, as are best friends. He also demonstrated the prevalence of ethnic nepotism, arguing that ethnic groups are divided along genetic lines and that ethnic nepotism is explicable in terms of Genetic Similarity Theory.

This book is obviously aimed at academics, but most of the essays are written so that they could be followed by somebody with no training is psychology. This will be a useful book for psychology students and the layman interested in what is at worst a controversial and thought-provoking and at best a ground-breaking theory. In particular, if you have readRace, Evolution and Behavior it is certainly worth reading this volume as a tight and select summary of how that work has been developed.

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