Dr. Gad Saad is a Professor of Marketing, and was the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption (2008-2018) in the John Molson School of Business.
Here we talk about evolution via natural selection, behavioural science, freedom of expression, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some brief background for those who may not know who you are, of course, many well, just given the Canadian context. So, what is your general story – family, personal background, and some the general context being geography, culture, language, and so on?
Professor Gad Saad: Sure, I was born in Lebanon, in 1964. A family of Lebanese Jews. We were part of the last waves of remaining Jews in Lebanon. At one point, there were several thousand Jews that lived in Lebanon.
But with each conflict that typically arose between Israel and the Arab countries, it became less and less desirable to be Jewish in Arab countries. Not only because of Israel, but because of the usual antisemitism stuff. By the time the civil war started in the mid-70s, then it was really impossible to be Jewish in Lebanon.
We had to flee while running for our lives. We moved to Canada. I was 11-years-old. I saw the first year of the civil war. Then, for the next few years, my parents kept going back and forth from Montreal to Lebanon, because they still had some business interests in Lebanon.
In 1980, several years after officially emigrating to Canada, they were kidnapped in Lebanon by one group called Fatah. One of the Palestinian terrorist groups. Luckily, we were able to get them out, to free them. They were able to get about 8 days in captivity.
After that, once they were able to leave Lebanon, no one from my immediate family has returned back to Lebanon. It has been since 1980 that no one has gone back.
Jacobsen: How did you develop an interest in things like behavioural science, things like evolution and evolutionary psychology?
Saad: Right, it had been a long time since I had been interested in behavioural sciences in general. I did an undergraduate in mathematics and computer science, so very technical and very quantitative background. I had always had a side interest in the behavioural sciences.
At one point, I thought about going into clinical psychology, even psychiatry. I was also very interest in criminal psychology. But then, I decided that, instead, I would go and study human behaviour, but specifically within a less dark context, not criminal behaviour and so on.
I didn’t think I had the right personality to do clinical work, because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to disassociate myself from all the misery that I might hear. And so, I decided to do an MBA after my undergraduate, and then I did an M.Sc. and then a Ph.D. I planned on being a mathematical modeller of human behaviour.
In other words, I would be applying my quantitative background on decision-making. I connected with a supervisor, doctoral supervisor, at Cornell, who himself was a well-known psychologist. He suggested or recommended that I take some psychology courses in my Ph.D.
During that first semester as a doctoral student at Cornell University, I took a course titled “Advanced Social Psychology” with a professor by the name of Dennis Regan. About halfway through the semester, he assigned a book called homicide written by two Canadians.
Now, we’re going back to my criminal interest. It was by two Canadian evolutionary psychologists from McMaster. In the book, they demonstrated that there are certain patterns of criminality that happen in a similar way across cultures and time periods. The reason there is this universal reality is because of some of these evolutionary mechanisms.
So, that was my first exposure to the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. That’s when I had my eureka moment. I decided that what I would do with my scientific work is to take this evolutionary lens and then apply it to consumer behaviour. That is how I became an evolutionary behavioural scientist.
Jacobsen: I have been told by a chair of a psychology department that, in essence, one good thing about psychology courses for those who may have an interest in taking those courses in their early years or more advanced years in undergraduate.
Basically, students are given epistemology courses, but they don’t call them epistemology courses. They’re called “Statistics” and “Methodology.”
Jacobsen: [Laughing] so, this quantitative background I could see being very applicable to some of the work that you were doing during your training.
Jacobsen: When we’re looking at criminality and the evolutionary origins of this criminality, how do we build this universal sense of criminality into the varieties of social conventions to be able to then label something criminal behaviour?
Saad: So, I will give two very explicit examples form the readers, to how you would apply the evolutionary lens to criminal behaviour. Take, for example, the dreadful reality of child abuse, which is, of course, a criminal reality. There are endless possible variables that one can study related that might predict child abuse.
Are you born on the wrong side of the tracks? Is there a characteristic of your parents? If they were abused, does that mean that you’re more likely to e abused? Is there alcoholism in the home?
There are all sorts of economic reasons, sociological reasons, possibly psychological reasons, issues dealing with reasons, historical reasons.
Some of these might have some predictive power. As it turns out, there is one characteristic that is 100-fold a greater predictor of a child being abused in the home. Do you know what it is? No idea. Watch now how incredible the power of evolutionary theory is going to, if there is a step-parent in the house, there is a 100-fold increase.
The reason I say this with such emphasis: because, usually, in statistics, if you say something has an odds ratio of 1.2, it means that it has a 20% greater chance.
That 1 to 1.2, not 1 to 100! To say something is 100 times greater predictor is unheard of in science, having a step-parent in the house is by far the greatest danger that a child faces, the reality is that the reason that happens is the exact reason for that happening in other species.
Take, for example, lion species, there will be 2 or 3 dominant males who will be protecting a pride. All of the sexually mature males that arise from that pride will be kicked out, eventually.
You will have a whole bunch of sexually frustrated young males running around the savannah looking to encroach on new prides in order to take over the females.
For many years, they won’t be able to do it, because the resident males will be bigger, stronger, younger, more experienced. Eventually, reality catches up to you. Those younger males are no longer young. They’re weak. They face two choices. Either they will be killed by the encroaching males or they will be kicked out.
What is the first thing the new prides do when they take over? They systematically go around and kill every single cub of that pride. Why do they do that? Because lions are the only social feline species. It means males will be investing in cubs. They don’t want to be wasting their investment in cubs not sired by them.
In other words, many species where you have a heavy investment by the parents, usually females invest a lot. But sometimes, males invest a lot. You do not want to invest in those who are not your biological offspring. Therefore, we have evolved this psychology that is discriminating in its solicitude.
We are not invested as much in our step-children as we are in our biological children. This doesn’t mean that most people who are raised by step-parents haven’t been raised by lovely people.
It doesn’t mean that every step-parent is an abuser. It does mean that if you have a step-parent, then you’re much more likely to be abused.
Hence, the Cinderella fable, it is a universal story precisely because it speaks to a universal truth. A second quick example, the most dangerous person in a woman’s life throughout the world and all time is not the serial rapist behind the tree about to pounce on you.
It is your long-term partner. It is your husband, your long-term mate. That is by far the most dangerous person in a woman’s life. He is often driven to homicidal rage, either kill or beat you, if he suspects or knows for sure that you have been sexually unfaithful to him.
The reason is very simple. To the extent that human males are biparentally invested in their children, they do not want to raise somebody else’s child.
Therefore, they have evolved, behavioural, cognitive system to not tolerate cuckoldry, “I do not want to raise the sexy gardener’s baby who comes to rake our leaves. Therefore, I am going to be territorial over my woman.”
You and I are both the descendants of males who really did care that their women did not go around. It did not mean women went around cheating. It doesn’t mean, by the way, that if you explain something scientifically that you’re condoning it.
A lot of people think that if I explain child abuse, or if I explain infidelity, or if I explain rape, that I am condoning rape or child abuse, which is, of course, ridiculous.
These are two examples whereby I have shown you how with a beautiful stroke of evolutionary theorizing; you can get rid of all the bullshit explanations that social scientists come up with.
Jacobsen: I like the heuristic there of description does not mean prescription.
Saad: [Laughing] of course.
Jacobsen: At the same time, if you’re looking at some of the evolutionary explanations that were being provided in terms of behavioural analysis as well, whether in criminality or in the ways in which child abuse can occur across species, e.g., lions, humans, how else does this play into some of the dynamics, the sexual dynamics, that people notice rather obviously upon reflection between the sexes and between the genders?
For instance, I am told, by watching some of David Buss and reading some of his stuff, university students love his material based on some of those dynamics.
Saad: How do we apply the evolutionary lens to explain the sex differences? Basically, am I rewording your question properly?
Jacobsen: That as well as the dynamics between the sexes as well.
Saad: Nothing exists outside of biology. Nothing exists outside of evolution. For all sorts of reasons, usually, always ideological and never to do with science, people have an aversion to the application of the evolutionary lens in explaining the human conditions.
Let me give you just a couple reason for these aversions, then I will answer the question fully, people hate the idea that the principles that explain the dog, the mosquito, and the zebra, also explain the behaviour of humans. Sure, the zebra is behaving because of these evolutionary reasons.
But surely, we transcend our biology. Surely, what makes us human is that we are cultural animals who not defined by our basal biology. That’s the argument that is typically given.
So, when it comes to sex differences or when it comes to the dynamics between the sexes, people think that these are driven by socialization, by learning, by culture.
Learning, socialization, and culture do not exist as a contra to biology; they exist in their form because of biology. Nothing is outside of biology. It isn’t either walk in biology world or walk in socialization world. It is not a coincidence that across all religions that I am aware of.
It is the women who are taught through whatever god you prefer that they should be chaste in their behaviour, they should be sexually restrained. Very, very different religions always seem to always come up with the same gods that are uniquely concerned with female sexuality.
So, everything, whether it comes to why men are the way they are, why we interact the way we do, it is all related to evolutionary dynamics. Feminists will hate that. Because they think that if you explain the biological bases of sex differences, then this allows the sexist status quo to persist.
Post-modernists hate evolutionary psychology. Because, to the extent that you argue that there are human universals, they’ll say, “No that can’t be because there is no such thing as a universal truth.” Religious people will hate evolutionary theory. Because if evolution is correct, “Where does my god fit into all of this?”
So, for all sorts of idiotic ideological reasons, people simply have a visceral hatred of evolutionary theory. The reality is that there is no other game in town. You can’t understand sexual differences. You can’t understand sexual dynamics. You can’t understand anything without the evolutionary lens.
Jacobsen: How does this inform or should this inform the evidence-based structuring of policy, of politics, and the like, or at least an understanding?
Saad: You got about four hours for that answer?
Saad: Look, think about a marketer, if he or she is a good marketer, then he or she is a good student of human nature. You can’t come up with products that are going to be successful if they are antithetical to some fundamental principle of human nature.
A company decides, “We no longer wish to create romance novels where it is the toxic masculinity stereotype that’s describing or depicting the male hero. He is tall. He is a count. He is a surgeon. He is physically aggressive. He wrestles alligators with a six pack. But he can only be tamed by the love of this one woman.”
I basically described almost every single story of every single romance novel that has ever been written. Let’s say a company comes out and says, “We no longer want this antiquated sexist stereotype of masculinity. We’re going to come up with a new type of male hero.
One who sucks his thumb while crying in a fetal position in a corner while listening to Taylor Swift music. Because we want a new sensitive definition of masculinity. What do you think the women readers around the world who consume this product are going to say?”
They will say, “I don’t think so. I want to be reading about the tall, reckless, aggressive, socially dominant male. That is what I fantasize about. Whether developing products, to answer your question in a roundabout way, or developing economic systems or sociopolitical systems, these have to be congruent with basic elements of human nature.
Socialism and communism, I love this quip by E.O. Wilson, the famous Harvard biologist.
Jacobsen: Oh right, I remember this.
Saad: You know who that is, yes. Do you know the quote?
Jacobsen: It was ‘nice theory, wrong species.’
Saad: [Laughing and clapping] excellent! Well done! Did you get that from me, or did you read it from the original source?
Jacobsen: Oh gosh, it was years ago. I am having source amnesia. But it is one of those things from a long time ago, but yeah.
Saad: Okay, that’s it. You got it. You preempted what I was going to say. Wonderful idea, great system, wrong species, for social ants, it is a beautiful system. He studies social ants. He is an entomologist.
You’ve got one queen. It is no so for humans. So, anything that you do. Whether you are designing health intervention strategies, let’s take an example, if I am trying to convince young men to stop heavy smoking because heavy smoking has all sorts of health consequences, 40 years from now you’re going to get heart disease and lung cancer, and so on.
The 21-year-old young guy who thinks he is invincible and immortal is not going to pay attention to that, “Who cares? It doesn’t apply to me. I am a 21-year-old buck.”
But tell him, and it takes much of an evolutionary psychologist to understand this point, the only group of people who are of his age who are likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction are heavy smokers.
Suddenly, you’re got his attention. In other words, target an evolutionary relevant message. If you are trying to target women to stop suntanning so much because women suntan more than men, even though they know the ill consequences of suntanning more than men, you cannot tell them about melanoma in 40 years.
Show them the aesthetic ravages to their skin. So, using evolutionarily relevant messages increases the efficacy of the health intervention, everything in politics, economics, in fiscal policy, in anything you want.
You’re only going to have a better outcome if your policies are evolutionarily informed.
Jacobsen: Let’s transition more now into some of the current affairs.
Jacobsen: So, there are issues in America – some conversation at least – around freedom of speech as per their First Amendment. In Canada, it is around Article 2(b), as we both know, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for freedom of expression.
Internationally, it is Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for freedom of expression. So, there is a framework of understanding here. There are conversations around it.
The first question would be, “Does this seem like a serious problem or a moderate problem at this time in terms of the ability for those that are in professional positions, such as yourself, or those who are in a laypersons position, like a regular Canadian citizen, to utilize their freedom of expression rights?”
Saad: Yes, it is a civilizationally important problem. Contrary to what many people think when they have a very myopic view of the greater issue, freedom of speech is not simply restricted to whether the government allows me to say what I want to say or not.
Although, that is a conversation to have. The United States has the First Amendment protection. Canada and Europe doesn’t. That’s a separate issue. Let’s talk at a much broader level, the fact that most students in a classroom are hesitant to speak their minds about issues that are truly important, and are certainly part of a conversation that should be had at a university.
Is Donald Trump a good president or not? That shouldn’t be such a controversial conversation to have. Certainly, by functioning normal adults in a university setting, but try to be a university student and simply say, “I really liked Donald Trump. Here’s the reason why I like him.”
Look what happens to your grade when your professor, who is likely to be completely leftist, grades your paper, many professors, many students, many staff members, many parents of students will refrain from speaking their minds.
Not because the government stops them from speaking, but because they are afraid of a wide range of repercussions. It might be that my good friends on Facebook will unfriend me, because I like Donald Trump.
It might be because they think I am a Nazi because I support evolutionary psychology. So, the freedom of speech issue in, at the least the way that I frame it, is much broader than does the government allow you to do x or not.
So, for example, when social media companies are deplatforming people and demonetizing YouTube channels and so on, that is not the government. When some idiot writes to me and says, “Come on, Dr. Saad, you know that YouTube is not the government.”
I know that. But the fact that you’re creating a chilling environment everywhere you turn where people are afraid to speak freely is a real problem.
To answer your question in the broadest possible sense, I think the attacks on freedom of speech are coming from many, many different sources; and we shouldn’t only be thinking of the government as attacking our freedoms.
Just the zeitgeist of society is currently very anti-free speech.
Jacobsen: In a professional context, in Canadian society, what have been negative consequences to those who are probably the most, or in theory, the most protected in society, tenured professors?
Saad: It’s great that you ask this question. I have a section in my book about the erroneous idea, “Oh, because I am protected by tenure, it is really not so courageous that I speak out.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sure, tenure in a very, very limited sense protects me tomorrow from the dean coming and firing me because I said, “Radical feminism is bullshit.” But I suffer professionally in endless other ways. I applied in the past two years for chaired professorships, which I should have easily gotten.
I didn’t. I could have predicted that I would not have gotten them. There were endless professorships that I wasn’t going to get, but I didn’t. Because someone complained that the Jewish Nazi Gad Saad is going to be applying to come to our university.”
There are many costs to bear, where tenure will not protect you. Let me give you another example, in the fall of 2017, I had to go into the university and always check in with security. They would lock the door from the outside; so, that if the student left, they could leave freely.
But then if they wanted to come back in, you had to unlock the door because of the number of death threats that I had received. The university asked me very forcefully to file a report with the Montreal police based on those death threats.
So, to those who think, “Oh, you are tenured. You have this cloak on invincibility around you.” To those people, I say, “Why don’t you give me your home address and speak against Islam the way that I do and then you can get back to me and tell me whether tenure protected you or not?”
So, again, the dangers are much more than simply if you have tenure or not. It goes from as banal as “I don’t want to say anything on Facebook because my friends will unfriend me” to “someone is threatening to boil you alive you dirty Jew.”
So, there is the whole gamut of possible repercussions. Frankly, I have had to bear all of those consequences.
Jacobsen: What is an evolutionary-behavioural solution to this?
Saad: To what? To getting people to speak out?
Jacobsen: To feeling and actually enacting more free behaviour in terms of expression.
Saad: It is a tough question. I think for many phenomena. We are pulled by different Darwinian pulls. You see what I mean? I have an evolved gustatory preference to eat fatty foods. But I also know that if I eat too much of that in the environment of plenty, then it can have downstream health consequences.
So, I also have the evolved capacity to think about the consequences. I have an evolved desire as do all people to stray from my monogamous union. But I also have an evolved moral calculus that stops me from doing so, because I have committed to this individual.
There isn’t this panacea evolutionary answer. Humans are cowardly, regrettably. Most humans are. Therefore, one could argue that it is evolutionary appropriate to not want to martyr themselves, to be part of the herd.
But there is also the evolutionary imperative to be the one who has the highest status. The one who takes the greatest risks becomes the one. All the ladies will line up to the one who takes the big reward. I do not think there is a singular answer.
That’s why I think it is so challenging. I think there are multiple evolutionary pulls pulling most people. So, regrettably, most end up being apathetic in their cowardous. One of the things that I try to do in my public engagement is to try to convince people that if they ignore the problem, then it is not going to go away.
That’s what I call Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome. It is going to catch up to you. Maybe, not in 5 years, maybe not in 50 years, maybe in the time of your children; but if you do not doggedly fight for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, every single moment of every single day, you will lose it.
I come from a culture where we lost it. I do not want it to be repeated here in Canada.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Saad.
Saad: Oh! Thank you so much! Cheers.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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