“As somebody who escaped Lebanon and actually hid under desks to avoid death squads, I don’t take well to these idiots from Wellesley College who say, ‘I’m scared to go and buy my hamburgers now that Trump won,’ because it trivializes what true trauma is.” — Gad Saad
Gad Saad (@GadSaad) is an outspoken social critic of the lunacies found in the extremes of both political sides. A controversial figure to some, his family fled the Lebanese civil war under threat of persecution for their Jewish religious heritage. He’s a Professor of Marketing and holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption. Dr. Saad hosts a popular YouTube show called The Saad Truth, and has appeared on shows such as The Rubin Report, The Joe Rogan Experience, and the Adam Carolla Show. He writes a column for Psychology Today titled Homo Consumericus.
I spoke to him about the hysteria around a Donald Trump presidency, speaking out as an academic, and the field of evolutionary psychology and its detractors. The following is our conversation transcribed and edited for clarity.
[An audio version of this interview is above, courtesy of Gad Saad]
Malhar Mali: There seems to be an extreme strain of thought held by some that Trump’s inauguration will signal the apocalypse and return of the third-reich, that people of color will be rounded up, women will be sexually assaulted en-masse, and LGBTQ citizens will be executed on sight. What are your thoughts on that?
Gad Saad: Early last year I introduced a theory to explain the mass hysteria associated with social justice warriors. I called it “collective Munchausen” syndrome. Munchausen disorder is when somebody feigns a medical illness or injury to garner sympathy and empathy. Munchausen syndrome by proxy is when you have somebody under your care — say your child — and you harm that third party to garner sympathy. “Look, my child is hurt!” So it’s a really morbid, grotesque psychological desire to draw attention to yourself because you enjoy the sympathy you receive.
I took this psychiatric disorder that I’d written about in a medical journal and then I argued that the manner in which social justice warriors respond is really a manifestation of collective Munchausen. It’s more than just mass hysteria — which is a known psychological mechanism. It has a specific goal which is to turn the attention inward to: “Oh my god, we’re such victims.” So the faux-fear we’re seeing now with all of these, for lack of a better term, schmucks is a form of collective Munchausen. It’s: “Oh my god, we’re going to be gang-raped, the third-reich is coming for us.” I put up a satirical video where I reported that the inauguration death patrols were coming for me whilst hiding under the table in my study.
The naturally lobotomized individuals do not understand the gist of my position: I do this not because it’s not reasonable to have concerns about anything Trump may or not do. I could say, “I really dislike his education cabinet for the following reasons.” And that’s reasonable. Any candidate you bring before me, I would have agreements and disagreements with.
The problem arises when you have a discourse fully detached from reality. It’s beyond satirical and grotesque in how much stupidity is exhibited. A typical comment on my social feed might state something to the following effect, “I’m a woman of color,” she’s attending some school in Maine and she’s saying, “I’m afraid. Can I still go to class?” Just work it through. What’s going to happen when Trump becomes president? He sets up roadblocks on every street corner whereby he whisks away all people of color to the designated gang-rape centers? What could explain that hysteria? The only thing that explains it is a departure from reality — and hence collective Munchausen syndrome.
MM: We value victims — which is a good thing — but there are groups popping up and individuals who seem to be vying for higher statuses of victimhood. You call this “victimology poker”.
GS: Everyone who is suffering from collective Munchausen and mass hysteria are obviously of a particular political bent — the ultra-Left (who typically belong to the Democratic party). And these people have built their whole ethos, edifice, zeitgeist on Identity Politics. Identity Politics leads to victimology poker and the oppression olympics. These groups just end up competing to see who is more oppressed because it is the mechanism through which they attempt to solve problems. If you and I are having a genuine debate, I would present my evidence and you yours. The better evidence would win out.
That’s not what happens in an Identity Politics debate. My victimology card has to trump yours! (Laughter) therefore people have to come up with ever stronger cards and hands and end up falling into victim mindsets. This leads to people thinking absurd lines of thought like — and I’m being satirical here — : “How will I go to the store and feel safe buying tomatoes once Trump is in office?” or “What will happen to my children? Will Trump cause us to cannibalize our children?” “Will sex still be permitted?” When you’re getting into that kind of delusional discourse it seems extraordinary that this is viewed as reasonable discourse. These are professors, these are colleagues of mine who feel perfectly comfortable departing from reality in this way.
Hate Trump as much as you want. Hate specific policies by him but don’t engage in this grotesque discourse. Especially because it trivializes actual lived trauma. As somebody who escaped Lebanon and actually hid under desks to avoid death squads, I don’t take well to these idiots from Wellesley College who say, “I’m scared to go and buy my hamburgers now that Trump won,” because it trivializes what true trauma is.
MM: What would you say to your critics who would claim that you unfairly focus on left-wing lunacy and give right-wing craziness a pass — thereby “normalizing” Donald Trump?
GS: I call that the, “But what about Israel, bruh?” position. So I can’t talk about Islamic craziness unless I grant equal airtime to criticizing Israel? That’s not how life works. We create a hierarchy of things that compel us. Some people fight for Tibetan freedom, others for Cypriot rights from Turkish occupation. So we don’t have to grant equal time to different issues.
I inhabit the ecosystem of academia. The ecosystem of academia is not run by Right-wing craziness. The academic setting, media elite, and the Hollywood elite are all part of the Left-wing lunacy. So everyday I don’t face the threat of the KKK or Right-wing fascism but I do see the extraordinary harm that is caused by what takes place in universities. That reality is caused by Left-wing lunacy. Hence as a person with a functioning brain I don’t need to provide equal amounts of criticism — that doesn’t mean I’m condoning Right-wing craziness. When I see some Republican senator who comes out with a position that is anti-science and evolution denying, I will be the first to typically criticize that. It’s not as if I exist to pick on the Left and grant cover to the Right. The reality is, in my daily life, I see a lot more danger coming from the Left.
MM: You’re one of the most outspoken academics who speaks about Islam and “Social Justice Warriors”. Are your views rare in academia or do you think there are other academics who support your message but are afraid to voice it. What motivates you to be a part of this debate and speak out?
GS: Yes it’s rare. If we were to estimate the number of people who hold positions similar to mine, it would be higher than those who are actually speaking out — because they’re afraid of voicing their opinions. I get personal communiqués from academics where they say, “I support what you’re doing” or “I’m behind your message” but they’re not comfortable speaking out. But they’re scared to even “like” one of my Facebook posts because someone would see it and that would mean they’re supporting supposedly “fascist” ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, rights for Jews, and rights for gays. Those are supposedly all very “controversial” topics that they don’t want people to know they support because those are all “fascist” opinions. People with a “progressive” mindset don’t possess the correct moral compass in navigating these issues; they fear being accused of being a “racist bigot” for supporting freedom of speech and more generally foundational liberal values. It is astounding.
There is some change underway. Heterodox Academy is a collective organized by Jonathan Haidt precisely to recognize the fact we need to provide greater political diversity and more generally a greater diversity of opinions in academia.
Why do I do what I do? I think it’s my personhood; my unique constellation of genes that make me very angry and offended by un-truths. I get genuinely angered at profound bullshit. I feel I must give my voice to contribute to the debate and if everybody had that bent, bad ideas would not have as much airtime.
I think the loftiest pursuit in life is that of truth and therefore I try to honor that ideal at every opportunity.
MM: Moving on, can you explain the field of evolutionary psychology for us? Particularly how it operates at the ultimate level as opposed to the proximate level of the social sciences?
GS: Evolutionary psychology is basically the framework that tries to apply evolutionary principles to the study of the human mind. That should not be contentious to anybody who, frankly, has a brain. In the same way that we can explain how all biological forms have evolved through evolution, that process doesn’t suddenly cease to exist when we talk about human beings and their most important organ — the brain. Many people are perfectly comfortable using evolutionary theory to explain why we have opposable thumbs and why our liver functions in the manner that it does, but it’s: “don’t you dare apply evolutionary theory to study the human mind.” Somehow the human mind came to be through a magical process, or God, or culture, or socialization. An evolutionary psychologist argues that: “No, of course the human mind is the product of the forces of evolution.” That’s, in a broad sense, what evolutionary psychology is.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind is made up of domain-specific computational systems. The best way to describe that is to use the metaphor of a Swiss army knife: each blade of the Swiss army knife serves different functions unlike a domain-general (regular) knife that could be used to turn a flathead screw or cut butter. A Swiss army knife is built with the understanding that each of its blades solves a specific function. Let’s apply that to the human mind; evolutionary psychologists argue that our brain has evolved to solve specific adaptive problems: avoid predators, find a mate, retain that mate, build coalitions, invest in kin, and so on.
All of these problems would necessitate the human mind evolve specific computational systems to solve each of these problems — hence the human mind is an amalgamation of both domain general mechanisms, like general intelligence, and domain specific mechanisms. An example of domain specific would be the fact that a human child who’s too young to be socialized will stare longer at a beautiful face as opposed to one that’s not, This suggests that there is a innate mechanism already built into the brain.
Evolutionary psychologists operate at both the proximate and ultimate levels. Proximate explanations serve as the epistemological level where much of science operates at. Proximate explanations address the how and the what of a phenomenon. Ultimate explanations ask the Darwinian why. Why would that a trait, a behavior, or a morphological feature have evolved to be of that particular form (from an evolutionary perspective). Proximate and ultimate explanations do not compete with each other. You need both levels to fully understand the phenomenon in question.
MM: Can you provide us an example of an ultimate explanation and a proximate one?
GS: Pregnancy sickness is a very common universal reality that pregnant women experience whereby they are attracted to certain foods and repulsed by others. They feel the physiological symptoms of nausea; they vomit often. If you were to study this from a proximate level you might ask: How do the hormonal fluctuations of a woman affect the severity of her pregnancy sickness?
The ultimate explanation would ask: Why have women evolved this physiological reality? What adaptive problem is being solved? Well, we know that pregnancy sickness happens during a particular developmental time for the fetus. It’s not random. It’s as well timed as a Swiss clock. It happens during the first trimester during a period known as organogenesis, namely when the fetus’ organs are forming. During that crucial developmental phase, it is imperative that the fetus be protected from harm. So what is the main threat? Food pathogens and teratogens constitute this threat. Therefore the foods that she craves and those that she avoids perfectly map onto that reality.
Pregnant women want pickles. Well, pickles are a food source that serves an anti-microbial function. During organogenesis, women avoid foods that, on average, might have a higher load of pathogens and crave foods that might help their body resolve the fact that they could have ingested some teratogens. Women throw up as a built-in mechanism to guard against the possibility of having been exposed to pathogens, and they do this (without any conscious volition) to protect the fetus.
By having this ultimate level explanation we have a fuller and better understanding of pregnancy sickness. You might say, “So what? Who cares? What are some practical applications of this knowledge?”
Well, the more a woman experiences pregnancy sickness the higher her chances of having a successful pregnancy and avoiding miscarriage. Why? Because pregnancy sickness serves as a protective belt against these deleterious outcomes. So when a woman goes to see her OBGYN and says she needs a pill for pregnancy sickness, she’s doing exactly the wrong thing. Of course it makes sense if she needs to avoid throwing up for the day because she’s working etc. but from an evolutionary perspective, her reducing the symptoms is suboptimal.
MM: I see. So you’re in a field of study that tries to get as close as possible to the truth in terms of explaining human nature. I’m imagining that you’d receive quite a bit of pushback from other fields? Which ones are they?
GS: This question defines my daily reality in academia. What evolution does — but evolutionary psychology more so — is that it confronts the ideological positions of a wide range of people.
If you’re a postmodernist, who by definition is anti-science, you support ideas such as: “Science must fall,” “who are we to use science as the sole privileged way of knowing?” “decolonize your mind,” “everything is relative, there are no universals.” The whole enterprise of postmodernism is rooted in charlatanism and faux-intellectualism. The idiot who is a postmodernist gets on a plane to deliver a lecture of his “work” at a conference; the flight of the plane in question is not rooted in relativistic mumbo-jumbo but rather in scientific laws as uncovered by scientists. So the idea that all knowledge is relative amounts to a nonsensical starting point; Not surprisingly though, postmodernists hate evolutionary psychology because it’s rooted in the fact that there are universal laws in general and human universals in particular.
Radical feminists hate evolutionary psychology because only “Nazi bigots” would argue that there are innate sex differences. But of course, the way Homo sapiens is defined as a species is that we are sexually dimorphic, namely that we possess evolutionary-based sex differences. Yet you can attend radical feminist seminars where people espouse the notion that only “Nazi bigots and eugenicists” believe in innate sex differences.
If you’re a social constructivist — which is what most social scientists are — you believe that everything is a social construction; that we are born with empty minds (tabula rasa) and what makes us human are the socialization forces that mold us. So it becomes: “Why do women prefer tall guys? Because they learn it via Hollywood images,” or “Why do men prefer shapely women? Well it’s because of Nicki Minaj’s music videos.” If it weren’t for her videos, men would apparently be mating with trees. Of course, evolutionary psychologists recognize the importance of socialization. However, socialization patterns exist in their particular forms because of biological realities. Hence, socialization is not contrary to biology. It exists to support biological imperatives.
Religious people also hate evolutionary psychology because it goes against their idea of God as the designer of all things including our exquisite human minds.
There are all sorts of folks who line up to detract against my field — seldom because of the science but nearly always because evolutionary psychology attacks their fundamental ideological position. They are all on the wrong side of history. To paraphrase Theodosius Dobzhansky, nothing about the human condition makes sense except in the light of evolutionary psychology.