“At the time the aforementioned Heterodox Academy report was published, firings of conservatives had doubled, yet left-leaning professor firings had spiked by 950%.”
n his review of Douglas Murray’s recent book, The Madness of Crowds, my Merion West colleague Matt McManus wrote that “[t]he anti-Social Justice Warrior (SJW) monograph written by an up-and-coming conservative commentator is practically a genre of literature at this point,” and he points out that it also seems to have become almost a rite of passage. This is especially true at a time when so much of the public discourse has been set by the group of public intellectuals known as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), many of whom have made their careers criticizing social justice activism. Just this year, Dave Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Book and James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories were published. It is in this context that Gad Saad published his new book The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas are Killing Common Sense. Right from the start, then, Saad’s book comes into a highly crowded field. So, given that the subject matter is not very original, one ought to expect, at least, that the treatment of the topic was innovative.
The title and the premise of the book are certainly promising in this regard. As the title suggests, it proposes that we treat the ideas it seeks to criticize as pathogens that can infect the mind and, like real pathogens, propagate from one host to another. Now, this is not an entirely original idea; Lindsay and Pluckrose often use the metaphor of postmodernism as a virus in Cynical Theories, but at least it is one of the less explored ideas. Unfortunately, for Saad, this is one of the few strengths of the book. Other than this relatively novel idea, not much in the book is new. I do not believe it would quite be fair to say that if one has read one anti-SJW monograph, one has read all of them. However, this particular one does not offer anything new—other than the relative novelty of the pathogen metaphor. The rest of the book’s themes are essentially just familiar IDW tropes: Postmodernism and feminism are destroying the West; college campuses are ideologically indoctrinating students; SJWs prioritize feelings over facts; and we need to preserve the Western commitments to liberty, free speech, reason, and science. This—in and of itself—does not have to be an indictment of the book. All of these ideas could be addressed compellingly. The problem is that most of the book does not even meet the standards that Saad sets for himself in the beginning.
In the opening chapter, Saad describes—in no uncertain terms—how he adheres to intellectual standards well beyond the majority of people. He recalls: “Growing up, my mother repeatedly warned me that the world did not abide by my punishingly strict standards of intellectual, ethical, and moral purity, let alone follow my pathological commitment to honesty and probity.” Further, he explains that he finds science liberating because “[i]t offers a framework for auto-correction because scientific knowledge is always provisional.” While this kind of self-aggrandizement might be annoying to some—and there is a lot of it throughout the book—I think one can look past it if it is backed up by work that lives up to it. The Parasitic Mind, however, most certainly does not accomplish this.
As I mentioned earlier, Saad takes on some of the classic villains of the IDW. In his own words, “The idea pathogens that I discuss in this book stem largely if not totally from leftist academics. Postmodernism, radical feminism, cultural relativism, identity politics, and the rest of the academic nonsense were not developed and promulgated by right-wing zealots.” I would contend (and I imagine this would not be a controversial position) that someone with a “pathological commitment to honesty and probity” and who adheres to “punishingly strict standards of intellectual, ethical, and moral purity,” should present opposing arguments in the best possible light and then try to refute them strongly but fairly. Saad does not do any of this. In fact, he often does not even present a caricature of the opposing argument.
Saad’s discussion of postmodernism—if it can even be called a discussion—is telling in this regard. He argues that “[p]ostmodernist bullshitters like Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault succeeded in academia with their charlatanism because of the assumption that if something is nearly impossible to understand, it must be profound.” Now, it is certainly true that many of the French post-structuralist philosophers often used highly contrived prose that was very difficult to understand. Foucault is not even one of the worst offenders in this regard, but that is a separate matter. However, the extent of the evidence Saad uses to back up this claim is not only blatantly insufficient; it actually shows the opposite of what he claims it shows. Saad triumphantly writes that even Foucault confessed to using faux profundity in a conversation with the American analytic philosopher John Searle, in which Foucault told Searle that “[i]n France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep—they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.” This quotation is taken from an interview with Searle in which he discusses, among other things, different philosophical traditions.
Firstly, the quotation is not directly Foucault’s. It is Searle paraphrasing a conversation with Foucault during this interview. Secondly, Saad presents this as if it is damning proof that Foucault’s work is nonsense. While I cannot prove that Saad simply found the quotation somewhere and used it without reading the full interview, it certainly feels that way. The interview makes it clear that Searle respected Foucault as a thinker and that he even understood Foucault’s thought as having common ground with his own—more so than other analytic philosophers. In the interview, Searle continues by saying that Foucault’s writing got much clearer with age. Searle finishes that section of the interview with an interesting insight. He says:
“I am closer to Foucault, in many ways, than I am to [Donald] Davidson, even though Davidson is a close colleague of mine, and I’ve known him for thirty years. So there are traditions and styles, but the deep issues in philosophy cut right across those traditions. The deep issues in philosophy have to do with such things as the role of truth in representation, the role of truth in the analysis of semantics, and that issue is neutral between analytic and continental philosophy.”
From this, it is easy to see that there are only two options. Either Saad did not read the full interview, which is intellectual malpractice at best, or he read it and simply chose to give a quotation that, without context seems like it supports Saad’s point. The latter would be a blatant display of intellectual dishonesty. If anything, Searle is making the opposite case of what Saad is trying to argue. Saad simply wants us to agree that postmodern thinkers are charlatans with nothing worthwhile to say and then move on. Searle gives an infinitely more nuanced picture of the differences in philosophical traditions which suggests that Foucault not only had worthwhile things to say—but also that the distinctions between seemingly opposed traditions are, to a large degree, a matter of style. It is of note that—other than this indirect quote from Foucault—he does not cite a single work by any of the philosophers he attacks in this section. This is the kind of intellectual malpractice that not even a high school student could get away with in an introductory philosophy course, let alone someone with “punishingly strict standards of intellectual, ethical, and moral purity.”
In contrast, the exact opposite happens when he discusses contentious topics that he agrees with. Saad is an evolutionary psychologist. Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a relatively new subfield in psychology that attempts to explain human behavior through specific ways of applying evolutionary theory to the human mind. In the way that it is currently studied, however, it remains highly contentious. Many evolutionary biologists, in particular, are highly skeptical about EP and the way it applies (and misapplies) evolutionary theory. Yet, if The Parasitic Mind was one’s first—or only—contact with EP, one would be forgiven for thinking EP is standard mainstream accepted scientific fact. This is a problem for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that it is not (more on that later). The second is that many of Saad’s explanations throughout the book come from EP, so one ought to believe Saad’s claims only insofar as one can trust EP as a whole.
Yet, evolutionary biology does not necessarily support the conclusions of evolutionary psychology.
Recall that in the introduction Saad explains that science is not absolute. It is self-correcting and all knowledge is, in some sense, provisional. Yet, this does not seem to apply to EP. Now, Darwin’s theory of evolution lies at the foundation of all of modern biology. It is to biology what Einstein’s theory of General Relativity or Quantum Field Theory is to modern physics: the most thoroughly tested scientific insights in their subfield. In that sense, the theory of evolution is as close as one can get to “settled science” within biology. Importantly it is a biological theory, and, as such, applications of evolutionary theory outside biology must always defer to biology, just like applications of Quantum Mechanics must always defer to its physical laws. This means that it is perfectly legitimate to try to apply evolutionary theory to human behavior and cognition, but it has to be done in a way that is in agreement with our best understanding of evolutionary biology. Yet, evolutionary biology does not necessarily support the conclusions of evolutionary psychology.
In “Evolutionary Psychology: A View From Evolutionary Biology,” Marcus W. Feldman, professor of biology at Stanford University, and philosopher of biology Elisabeth A. Lloyd take a look at some of the core assumptions of EP from the point of view of evolutionary biology, as the title of the paper indicates. In reviewing its foundational literature, they explain how the biological and genetic assumptions of EP rest on a specific view called “inclusive fitness theory.” They do not claim this to be an outright false view; however, they explain that inclusive fitness is an extremely narrow view compared to the much more expansive view of evolutionary genetics that is held in mainstream biology. Further, inclusive fitness is not—as evolutionary psychologists claim—foundational to evolutionary theory. Feldman and Lloyd analyze other core assumptions such as modularity, the view that human behavior is shaped by cognitive “modules” formed by the problem-solving issues faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They also examine the assumption of universality, the view that there is a singular human nature. In each case, they provide examples of how evolutionary biology has seriously challenged these core tenets. These critiques are echoed and furthered in “Darwin in the Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology,” co-authored by several biologists and psychologists. Importantly, the claim from these critiques is not that evolution has nothing to say about human behavior but, rather, that the specific discipline of EP rests on narrow and often misunderstood insights from biology.
Now, Saad is clearly aware that biologists have criticized EP and its predecessor, sociobiology. Yet, his attempts to address the criticism leaves much to be desired. At the beginning of chapter six, Saad writes that “Richard Lowentin [sic] and the late Stephen Jay Gould, two eminent Harvard scientists, were staunch critics of sociobiology, a precursor to evolutionary psychology, in part because it did not adhere to their Marxist worldviews.” Again, if an undergraduate student made this kind of argument in a term paper, he or she would rightly fail the assignment. To begin with, Saad simply claims that Gould and Lewontin (whose name he misspells the two times it is mentioned) were Marxists, but he never provides any evidence. This should not have been hard, given that they were open about it. But, secondly, even though they were, their being Marxists is irrelevant to whether their views on evolution, as eminent scientists specialized in the matter, were correct. Ironically, by their own admission, some of their most enduring insights into evolutionary theory were inspired by Marxism. This might be a petty critique, but the fact that Saad gives so little information about Lewontin’s actual views, coupled with the fact that he cannot seem to correctly spell his name, ought to make one question how much of his work Saad even read.
As we have seen, Saad does an extremely poor job at even defending the theory that is at the heart of much of his arguments in the book, choosing instead to simply give, at best, half-baked ad hominem refutations of what some of its critics have stated and simply ignoring the criticism at worst. Yet, Saad goes on to present EP as a theory on par with Darwin’s theory of evolution. In another passage, Saad writes: “[y]es, some conservatives reject evolution for religious reasons, but many progressives reject evolutionary psychology because it contradicts many of their secular ideologies including radical feminism.” This, again, is pure intellectual dishonesty. I do not doubt that there are progressives who reject EP for this reason. However, as some of the previously cited literature shows, EP has a long way to go before it is on similar epistemic footing as the theory of evolution, with which it is often at odds. EP is not, as Saad seems to suggest, synonymous with evolutionary theory or implied by it. It is a separate theory based on a very limited set of insights from it. So, to present a rejection of EP as equivalent to a rejection of Darwin is misleading at best. Further, even if there are people who reject EP on ideological grounds, to reduce every rejection of EP to ideology is not just misleading but flat-out false.
To close this already long section on Saad and his arguments (or lack thereof) in favor of EP, it should be pointed out that evolutionary biologists have developed theories of human behavior that directly challenge EP’s explanations. One of these is Dual Inheritance Theory, which focuses on the interaction between genetics and culture. This theory was developed by, among others, Marcus Feldman, one of the authors previously cited. In the final chapters of the book, Saad focuses on addressing issues that are central to EP, such as mating behavior. While Saad does a fair job of explaining the psychological mechanisms behind mating behavior and behavioral differences between the sexes as understood by EP, Dual Inheritance Theory offers explanations that directly challenge these views. Now, the point of this is not to say definitively that Dual Inheritance theory is correct and EP is not. I am not a biologist, and I am not qualified to make such an assertion. The point is simply to show that Saad does a poor job of contextualizing his claims and instead presents EP as the only game in town, which makes all of his claims either mischaracterizations of the present state of the science, or intentional obfuscations of it.
This does not cover the entirety of the book. However, I believe it is worth it to devote so much attention to it due to the overall importance of EP for the rest of the book—and because it neatly showcases a lot of the problems present elsewhere from a purely academic research perspective. Now, thankfully, The Parasitic Mind is not an academic work, but Saad is an academic. Not only that but he is one who, as shown before, often makes grandiose claims about his own intellectual rigor and ethical standards—standards which, as the previous section of this review hopefully showed, are rarely met. The rest of the book is similarly tendentious and one-sided.
It is certainly true that some conservative voices have been silenced on social media, for example, or that some conservative professors have been fired or reprimanded by university administrators, but these facts alone greatly change depending on the specific context in which they happened. In some instances, the issues he mentions as part of the broader context are unfairly represented or outright false, in keeping with the pattern described so far. As has become commonplace for people associated with the IDW, Saad claims that—thanks to political correctness—some areas of inquiry have now become forbidden knowledge. Two specific examples he gives in the book are research into the relationship between race and intelligence and biological sex differences in behavior. This is quite a common claim, yet, as a recent study published in the Review of General Psychology demonstrates, there is no such taboo, and people have continued to publish about race and intelligence. I am not aware of any similar study regarding sex differences; however, shortly after the Google Memo controversy, Scientific American, probably the largest popular science magazine in the world, dedicated an entire special issue to the topic, in which the magazine discussed the science both in favor of and against this claim.
Regarding social media censorship and administrative sanctions in universities, there is a better case to be made. Once again, however, Saad presents the issue in a highly misleading way. The examples he gives of professors who were reprimanded or fired (or those of conservative figures being banned from social media) are all true, unlike his claims of forbidden knowledge. The problem, however, is that Saad uses these as evidence that university administrators are all progressive leftists who have been infected with the book’s titular mind parasites, which have made anyone who does not strictly adhere to leftist orthodoxy a target. Yet, as a 2018 report from Heterodox Academy argues, based on a dataset of faculty firings, actions against professors for voicing political opinions is a non-partisan issue. One might argue that it is valid for people on the Right to point to the cases when their side is being targeted, which is fair enough. What is dishonest is using these examples to construct a narrative that is not supported by facts. If one focuses on right-leaning faculty being fired, Saad’s narrative looks plausible, but once all the facts are taken into account, it falls apart. At the time the aforementioned Heterodox Academy report was published, firings of conservatives had doubled, yet left-leaning professor firings had spiked by 950%. This is totally inconsistent with the picture of the totalitarian, leftist university; it is more likely due to administrators who simply shy away from any controversy regardless of ideological leanings.
In fairness to Saad, however, and to others who continue to harp on these issues, I do think it says something about some sectors of the Left that this theme continues to be the subject of so much discussion.
It is also telling that Saad is willing to use the most hyperbolic of analogies when criticizing, for example, university administrators, yet he does not extend the same charity to, frankly, much more grounded analogies from the Left. Further describing college campuses, he argues that “[i]deological Stalinism is the daily reality on North American college campuses.” Yet, he also calls Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of border detention centers to concentration camps “foolish if not grotesque.” My goal is not to say what is the appropriate line for analogies and which of the two crosses that line, but it is worth noting that even some Jewish advocacy groups supported Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion. If comparing actual pre-trial detention centers, where there were even serious investigations into possible unwanted medical procedures, to concentration camps can rise to the level of “grotesque,” surely it is even more grotesque to compare universities to a totalitarian regime in which millions of people died and political opponents were frequently killed.
The previous examples are just two cases of misleadingly presented information or ideologically-driven double standards, but I hope those two (along with the discussion of Saad’s treatment of postmodernism and evolutionary psychology) will show that this book is far from a serious attempt to engage with opposing ideas, the same thing for which the author criticizes the Left. Instead, it is instead just another polemic dealing with the same issues that so many right-leaning authors have been holding onto for years.
In fairness to Saad, however, and to others who continue to harp on these issues, I do think it says something about some sectors of the Left that this theme continues to be the subject of so much discussion. What is disingenuous is to, as Saad does, simply talk about some monolithic “Left” that aggregates every negative quality of every segment of the left. This broad-brush characterization, once again, signals a kind of intellectual laziness that seems to be present throughout the book. It is not difficult to find many left-wing critiques of the very issues Saad rails against, such as Ben Burgis’s recently published Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left. There are also many readily available examples of thorough leftist analyses of ideas and arguments from the Right that, taking Saad’s word for granted, one would think are too scary for any leftist to even consider. There are, to mention just three, Nathan J. Robinson’s detailed critique of Jordan Peterson’s ideas, Natalie Wynn’s deep dive into the online “manosphere,” and the late Michael Brooks’ dissection of the Intellectual Dark Web as a movement. It should also be noted that all of these three actually acknowledge that the ideas they criticize often stem from valid concerns, another fact that is completely at odds with Saad’s characterization of the Left.
None of this is meant to imply that one cannot write about the exact same issues that Saad does while avoiding the many issues this book has. The point is simply that Saad does a very poor job of it. There are countless smart critiques of cancel culture and contemporary social justice ideology. Ben Burgis’ book is one. However, even from the Right, there are much more competent takes on the issue, such as Thomas Patrick Burke’s The Concept of Social Justice: Is Social Justice Just?. That is not to say I agree with all of Burke’s arguments, and I have written before about the ways in which I think it fails. But Burke does take the time to actually engage with the authors and ideas he criticizes. Similarly, a short article by Bo Winegard in ArcDigital does a much better job of addressing specific criticisms of evolutionary psychology. Again, it does not address all of the critiques from evolutionary biologists outlined previously, but it goes much further than simply arguing that progressives or Marxists reject EP because of their ideology.
And this is the ultimate problem with Saad’s work. I think it should be evident that I find myself quite far from Saad in terms of ideology, and that is fine. But even those who agree with the animating principles behind Saad’s book can do much better than The Parasitic Mind if they are looking for a fairly argued exposition of those ideas. This is even more true if one is looking for a set of arguments that has a non-zero chance of making ideological opponents see things from their point of view, given Saad’s almost non-existent exposition of opposing viewpoints.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.