The Parasitical Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense. Gad Saad. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2020. 235 pp.
The author of this book under review, Gad Saad, is an academic teacher and scholar whose research of evolutionary psychology has focused on the evolutionary factors that shape and direct consumer behavior. His is formal position is not in a Psychology Department. Rather he is a professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Canada. He is also very well-known not only as a blogger for Psychology Today but also as a well-subscribed YouTube commentator (with over 199 thousand subscribers). On that YouTube channel, he tackles issues of unreason and bad science. A passionate defender of truth and scientific reasoning, he turns to comic satire on the various forces of unreason he is confronted with. Over time the focus of his criticism has been the declining rationality of those who profess themselves as the progressive left. Their dominance and control over the academy over the past two decades has empowered the progressive left and the “woke” to start targeting the Business Schools and Science Programs (that the progressive left mostly left alone in the 90s). That his day-to-day academic and teaching world has been increasingly encroached by those forces was one reason why Saad started to publicly respond to and confront the progressive left and their woke allies. So, his career as a YouTuber with his “THE SAAD TRUTH” videos have since 2013 has brought attention and renown to a scholar that few outside circles of evolutionary psychology, business psychology, and marketing studies where his work was known and widely read. What started out as an April Fool’s joke turned into a powerful platform for Saad and he used it to make the most of it.
It was from watching his commentary I heard about this book and many of the underlying points he introduced in his various video commentaries and it grabbed my interest. As a student of political thought and a student of evolutionary bioscience I am rather interested in the impact of human biology and evolutionary theory has on our ability to understand and explain human behavior. The book’s central thesis is how Social Justice Ideology, in its many different manifestations, have “infected” the human mind, as a parasite would attack a living host. And any new approach that allows us to have an understanding how the human mind affects and shapes our life actions would be very welcome. Especially if it also offered us a working model to explain how perverse ideologies (or merely bad ideas) captures the mind, to explain why human actors will not engage in beneficial actions but rather choose dysgenetic ones that harm not only the actor’s ability to successfully benefit themselves but condemn their posterity to decline and eventually oblivion. So, the very title of this book promised a powerful model to understand why and how negative ideologies so capture the mind of human actors that it causes them to choose not what is beneficial and advantageous for them, but rather disadvantageous and harmful—if not immediately, then later and affecting their offspring as well as their genetic heritage.
Reviewing this book has been a difficult act, as it was not the book I expected. Although the book is very beautifully written and very engaging, as the stories and examples he offers us here are both interesting and thought provoking, yet something important is missing. And because the book is framed for a wider popular audience and not really targeted to one more interested in understanding the precise working of the phenomena he is addressing, perhaps I was expecting more than I should. Yet, to defend the kind of claim, he seems to be making, would seem to require a fully fleshed out account of the logic and system of the model that underlies much of what is talks about in this book. Instead, what he offers us are a series of examples and analogies from biology and the evolutionary sciences that come off less as an actual causal explanation (which one would expect in scientific analysis) than a series of metaphors and analogies used more for rhetorical effect.
The book starts off introducing Saad and his story. As he tells his story we experience his wit and storytelling ability, which captures the reader. So, this book will do rather well. Yet in many ways what Gad Saad gives us here the same kind of Anti-Social Justice Warrior/Woke Progressive Left stories that the likes of Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D’Souza, Charlie Kirk, or even a Dave Rubin offer to people on a daily basis. For those authors, the Anti-Social Justice/Woke Progressive Left stories are “Red Meat” for the consumption of the Conservatives and what remains of the Anti-Woke Centrist Liberal Left. What those authors produce is less analysis but a kind of “preaching to the choir” that offer little lasting value and rarely stands up to the changes of time. I was expecting something different from him, hence my disappointment.
Saad’s book has eight chapters, each of them interesting and engaging. The first chapter is autobiographical, telling the story of his childhood in Civil War-ravaged Lebanon and his family’s escape to Canada. He then recounts his path in life and what brought him to the academy and what interested him to take the course of studies he decided to take. As a centrist liberal, he finds himself in confrontation with the forces of the left that earlier in his life he had great sympathy with. Now Saad sees them as an enemy of reason and scientific truth. In this first chapter, Saad makes it clear that he is a warrior for “truth,” scientific, and rational truth. And thus, a foe to anything that obstructs or harms either of these things.
It is also here Saad introduces some of the biological analogies, such as how “idea pathogens are parasites of the Human Mind”–hence the title of the book. Here he raises the account out of animal biology how certain viruses act as pathogens infecting the mind of animals which leads them to engage in behavior that is destructive to well-being but also their very survival. Now, this is interesting and a powerful explanation of the way how bad ideas and their ideological equalizing can be rather destructive for human beings. But what Saad raises here is more an analogy rather than a real causal explanation.
Right in that first chapter, he brings in Richard Dawkins’s famous treatment of memes as framework that he thinks helps connect the various point in the analogous argument he is advancing regarding the dangerous impact that bad ideas have on the human actors. Yet the problem with Dawkins’s account of memes is that Dawkins himself walked back from it. Also, Dawkins’s initial treatment of memes that Saad is piggybacking for his causal mechanism is not universally accepted among either the behavioral psychological community or among evolutionary biologists—in fact, the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr argued against Dawkins’s treatment of memes. Saad merely introduces Dawkins’ concept and then moves on, never doing the heavy lifting, justifying and validating it from the many criticisms weighed against it. And here is where my dissatisfaction with Saad’s argument begins—not only does he inadequately explain the causal model to explain why bad ideas do what they do, he drops Dawkins’s account of memes (and not really fully addressing it as one would expect him to do given how he is going to be relying on it as he does) and moves on.
In the second chapter, Saad gives us a Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin style account of the rise of hurt feelings, overthinking, and truth. Now the various stories and accounts of such examples are indeed powerful. But they are not really closely tied to or shown to be working out of the pathogen impacting the actor’s mind via Dawkins’s mechanism of memes. No, Saad gives us these powerful accounts but does not link them clearly to the central underlying claim of the book, which is more implied and alluded to than explicitly explained and elaborated on.
In chapter three, Saad sets up his account of the fundamental necessities of a free society. Here we get a kind of a repeat of classical John Stuart Mill liberalism, but should this not have been as kind of background of the book’s introduction and not one of its chapters? Isn’t what he raises here more background rather than a demonstration of the validity of the book’s supposed main claim? Here we get how the modern academic and cultural left have “problematized” classical liberal values such a free speech, social satire, and even comedy. Here is where he elaborates about the DIE–Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity–cult and how in the name of these three values not only is truth sacrificed but also people’s freedom to engage in speech and even comedy. Now through this chapter, he gives example after example, all of them powerful and compelling—yet one keeps on scratching one head wondering how this all connects with the implicit claim in the book’s title. Again, we get lots of powerful examples of bad ideas and how these bad ideas have bad consequences but the connection to this being a biological or phenotypical process is not clearly and directly addressed. Again, what Saad appears to be engaging in the use of the example of pathogens and parasites as an analogy of what bad ideas are up to rather than making the case that bad ideas act as these things in the mind.
If chapter three deals with free speech, chapter four deals with science and how science is threatened by the forces of the left. Here his examples of academic postmodernism, transgenderism, and feminism as agents attacking and threatening scientific endeavor by these groups’ success in making certain concepts, ideas, and even truths, off-limits. And woe be it to anyone who criticizes them, as the woke left and their allies in media, in entertainment, in the academy (both academics and administrators), and finally in the hand of the state and the courts will unleash all their collective power to punish and silence you. And if you do not submit or “bend the knee” to their satisfaction, they will destroy you. Again, the stories he raises here are powerful and hair-raising, but how do they connect to the implied central claim of the book? Saad seems to think the connection is self-evident. But here is where, as a scholar and scientist, he falls short. People engaged in such enterprises should not assume something is self-evident. Rather they need to leave no doubt or question in the readers mind how and why the claim they are making does what it does. And if there is any doubt or confusion, one is expected to resolve them before they move on to the next point.
In chapters five and six, Saad elaborates on some of many key psychological inspired concepts to help explain the kind of behavior that the Woke Left and the Social Justice “Cult” engage and promote actions that all too often work contrary to both common sense and reason. Saad’s coinage of phenomenon as “the Homeostasis of Victimology”, “Collective Munchausen”, “Sneaky Fuckery”, and “Ostrich Parasitical Syndrome” in these two chapters on one level gives the appearance that he is connecting the examples of bad ideas and the behavior they engender. It is in the last of those patterns—”Ostrich Parasitical Syndrome”, which is fully fleshed out in chapter six—that we get something that looks like the lynch-pin that would hold together the central argument of the book. It is rather late in the book for Saad to be raising this framework—it ought to have been the very heart of the book and presented right at the beginning. So the central chapters of the book should have been him showing how and why this process works the way it does and produces the outcomes it produces. But instead, we get an elaboration of this concept and various examples of it.
In the penultimate chapter of the book, chapter seven–entitled “How to Seek Truth: Nomologocial Networks of Cumulative Evidence”, Saad offers us a hermeneutic and system of reasoning to both connect the arguments and evidence, but also offer the means to be able to evaluate it. Here he gives us a framework that allows us to establish what is true and then to be able to evaluate it. In this chapter, Saad explains how to get the best evidence possible to effectively persuade others. This is one of the more powerful chapters of the book because it offers the systemic reasoning model that helps one make the argument he is trying to make in this whole book. But given this, perhaps this chapter would have been better and more effective if it was at the start of the book and could have framed the other aspects that the book raises?
The book ends with chapter eight where Saad gives the reader a “Call to Action”, exhorting the reader to take what they have learned here and go out in their day to day lives and fight the good fight against the forces of unreason and anti-common sense. Again, here Gad Saad and his charm can be quite persuasive. But for me, I was left thinking that what he says here is no different from what a whole other list of commentators, have said and will say again in some soon-to-be-released book. And what was actually original and his actual contribution was rather disjointed and comes across to the more critical reader as more metaphorical and analogous reasoning than an analytical argument utilizing a scientific model to support and validate the claims being made in the argument. While the many examples and stories that Saad offers here will be well-received among certain audiences, they are not as compelling as they ought to be given his claim that he is engaging in a scientific endeavor to discover and defend the truth. The fact that Saad is an outstanding writer with the ability to not only grab the reader’s attention but also rather able at explaining complex concepts in ways that most readers can understand. Thus, given these skills, one expected much from him on this topic. Hence my frustration with this book and why I doubt that this book offers any lasting value to those trying to understand how and why ideas operate in a manner similar to biological parasites producing behaviors in actors leading to unproductive and unbeneficial outcomes detrimental to them and their progeny. One wonders if the desire to deliver a bestseller (with all the attention and popular success that comes with it) overpowered the desire to produce the truly useful book that actually delivered what the title proclaims.