A Few Thoughts on IQ and the Wealth of Nations

I want to contribute some observations about the landmark book IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Richard Lynn of the U. of Ulster and Tatu Vanhanen of the U. of Helsinki. It was the subject of an extremely informative Feb. 27th VDARE.COM review by J. Philippe Rushton, which this is intended to complement.

The book's content is irresistible - at its heart is a table of the average IQ scores of 81 different countries, most drawn from studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The national average IQs range from 107 for Hong Kong to 59 for Equatorial Guinea.

Lynn and Vanhanen benchmarked their IQ results so that Britain is 100. America scores 98 on this scale, and the world average is 90. IQ's are assumed to form a normal probability distribution ("bell curve") with the standard deviation set at 15. Here are a few examples:

      Percentile of    GDP Per Cap
  National   Avg. Person    Purchasing
Nation Avg. IQ   Relative to UK    Power Parity
Eq. Guinea 59   0.3%    $          1,817
Nigeria 67   1%    $            795
Barbados 78   7%    $        12,001
Guatemala 79   8%    $          3,505
India 81   10%    $          2,077
Iraq 87   19%    $          3,197
Mexico 87   19%    $          7,704
Argentina 96   39%    $        12,013
US 98   45%    $        29,605
China 100   50%    $          3,105
UK 100   50%    $        20,336
Italy 102   55%    $        20,585
Japan 105   63%    $        23,257
Hong Kong 107   68%    $        20,763

Admit it, you want to know what the rest of the table says! Beyond satisfying sheer curiosity, though, the strong correlation between IQ and the wealth of nations is of world-historical importance. From now on, no public intellectual can seriously claim to be attempting to understand how the world works unless he takes IQ into account.

How much can we trust these IQ results?

As soon as I received the book, I turned to Appendix 1, where Lynn and Vanhanen describe all 168 national IQ studies they've found - an average of just over two per country.

Are the results internally consistent? In other words, when there are multiple studies for a single country, do they tend to give roughly the same answer?

I expected a sizable amount of internal divergence. I spent 18 years in the marketing research industry, so I know how expensive it is to come up with a nationally representative sample. Further, Lynn and Vanhanen use results from quite different IQ tests. They rely most on the non-verbal Raven's Progressive Matrices, which were designed to be used across cultures, even by illiterates. Yet, they also have a lot of results from the Wechsler exams, which are more culture dependent - the Wechsler include a vocabulary subtest, for example. And they report results from other IQ tests, including a few from the oddball Goodenough-Harris Draw-A-Man test. Also, sample sizes vary dramatically, from a few dozen in some obscure countries to 64,000 for one American study. Finally, some studies were of children, others of adults.

This doesn't sound promising. Nevertheless, the results show a high degree of internal consistency. Here are the first eight countries for which they have multiple scores:

Argentina: 93 and 98
Australia: 97, 98, and 99
Austria: 101, 103
Belgium: 99, 103, 98
Brazil: 88, 84, 90, and 85
Bulgaria: 94, 91
China: 100, 92.5, 103.4
Democratic Republic of Congo: 73, 72

That's not bad at all. In fact, leaving aside China, the results are remarkably consistent. There are, of course, a few countries for which different studies came up with quite divergent results, especially Poland, where the two scores Lynn and Vanhanen found were 92 and 106. Still, the correlation among results when there are two or more studies for a country is a striking 0.94.

You shouldn't take every score on faith. The reported IQ for Israel (only 94????!!!) has elicited much criticism. Lynn has replied that he wanted to publish the data as he found it, even if some of it looked implausible. His hope is to encourage further research to resolve seeming anomalies.

The IQ structures of the two giga-countries, China and India, demand more intense study, in part because the future history of the world will hinge in no small part on their endowments of human capital. The demography of India is especially complex due to its caste system, which resembles Jim Crow on steroids and acid. By discouraging intermarriage, caste has subdivided the Indian people into an incredible number of micro-races. In India, according to the dean of population genetics, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, "The total number of endogamous communities today is around 43,000…" We know that some of those communities - such as the Zoroastrian Parsees of Bombay - are exceptionally intelligent.

But we can't say with any confidence what is the long run IQ potential of Indians overall. Their current IQ score (81) is low, especially compared to China (100), the other country with hundreds of millions of poor peasants. Yet, keep in mind just how narrow life in rural India was for so long. In 1952, on the fifth anniversary of independence, the Indian government commissioned a survey to find out if the average Indian villager had heard yet that the British had gone. The study was quietly cancelled when early results showed that the average villager had never heard that the British had ever arrived!

It appears likely that some combination of malnutrition, disease, inbreeding, lack of education, lack of mental stimulation, lack of familiarity with abstract reasoning and so forth can keep people from reaching their genetic potential for IQ. Lynn himself did early studies demonstrating that malnutrition drives down IQ. The co-authors conclude their book by recommending that

"The rich countries' economic aid programs for the poor countries should be continued and some of these should be directed at attempting to increase the intelligence levels of the populations of the poorer countries by improvements in nutrition and the like."

A clear example of how a bad environment can hurt IQ can be seen in the IQ scores for sub-Saharan African countries. They average only around 70. In contrast, African-Americans average about 85. It appears unlikely that African-Americans' white admixture can account for most of this 15-point gap because they are only around 17%-18% white on average, according to the latest genetic research. (Thus African-Americans white genes probably couldn't account for more than 3 points of the gap between African-Americans and African-Africans.) This suggests that the harshness of life in Africa might be cutting ten points or more off African IQ scores.

Similarly, West Africans are significantly shorter in height than their distant cousins in America, most likely due to malnutrition and infections. The two African-born NBA superstars, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, are both from the wa-benzi [people of the (Mercedes ) Benz]upper class. Only the elite in Africa gets enough food and health care to grow up to be NBA centers.

This also implies that African-Americans might be able to achieve higher IQs too, although the environmental gap between white Americans and black Americans appears to be much smaller than between black Americans and black Africans. As I pointed out in VDARE in 2000, the most promising avenue for improving African-Americans' IQs is by promoting breastfeeding among blacks mothers, who nurse their babies at much lower rates than whites.

In fact, we know that IQ is not completely fixed over time because raw test scores have been rising for decades, about 2 to 3 points per decade. To counteract this, the IQ test-making firms periodically make it harder - in absolute terms - to achieve a score of 100. Lynn was possibly the first scientist to make this phenomenon widely known, although New Zealand political scientist James Flynn has gotten more credit for this recently. And, indeed, Lynn and Vanhanen scrupulously adjust the test results in their book to account for when each test was taken.

While the causes of the Lynn-Flynn Effect remain rather mysterious, it does resemble several other ongoing phenomena. For example, human beings are getting taller, living longer, and having fewer of their babies die during infancy.

One might expect IQ scores to converge as the richest nations experience diminishing marginal returns on improvements in nutrition, health, and education. By way of analogy, consider how, after 1950, average height has not grown as fast in already well-fed America as it has in rapidly developing East Asia.

It's unlikely the Japanese will ever be as tall on average as, say, Lithuanians or Croatians or African-Americans. But the gap has closed. This partial convergence in height is why you now see 6'-2" East Asian baseball pitchers like Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park starring in the American big leagues. Last year Wang Zhizhi, 7'-1" became the first Asian ever to join the NBA.

Perhaps that kind of convergence will happen with IQ scores someday. But the evidence that it is happening now isn't terribly strong. The odd thing about the Lynn-Flynn Effect is that it doesn't seem to have had much impact on comparative rankings of IQ over time. The smart seem to keep on getting smarter.

For instance, one of the best-documented examples of a country with rising raw IQ scores is the Netherlands (current IQ: 102). But even as far back as the 17th Century, the general opinion of mankind was that the Dutch had a lot on the ball.

One potential explanation for why IQ gaps don't seem to be narrowing (for example, the white-black IQ gap in America has been about 15 points for 80 years or so) was offered by Flynn recently. He argued that smart people, because they find cognitive challenges pleasurable, seek out more mentally stimulating environments, which in turn exercise their brains more, making them even smarter. This suggests, for example, that the Dutch will tend to become, say, Internet addicts demanding constant fixes of new information and argument, and thus continue to grow in mental firepower. 

While unproven, Flynn's suggestion seems possible. In absolute terms, it's a virtuous circle. But it seems unlikely to lead to the closing of the relative gap.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to avoid concluding that intellectual and income differences between nations stem to some extent from genetic differences. The results simply cluster too much by race. All the countries populated by Northeast Asians score between 100 and 107. The European-populated lands score between 90 and 102. Southeast Asian nations cluster in the low 90s. The Caucasian countries in North Africa and western Asia score mostly in the 80s. And so forth.

The correlation between national IQ and national income is very high. For the 81 countries, the r is .73 for GDP measured in purchasing power parity terms (which makes poor nations with lots of subsistence farmers look better off than they do in standard measures of just the cash economy). In the social sciences, correlations of 0.2 are said to be "low," 0.4 are "moderate," and 0.6 are "high." So 0.73 is most impressive.

This doesn't mean that a high IQ alone is the cause of a high income. Causation probably runs in both directions, in another virtuous circle. Rich countries tend to produce enough food to stave off malnutrition, for instance, which probably leads to higher IQs, which leads to even higher food production due to more sophisticated farming techniques.

Interestingly, per capita income correlates almost as strongly with a nation's level of economic freedom as it does with its level of intelligence. But that's in large part because economic freedom and IQ correlate with each other - at the high level of 0.63.

Freedom and brains probably contribute to each other. Although there are obvious exceptions, countries with smart workers (and smart leaders) tended to find that the capitalist system generated wealth. So there was less impetus to experiment with command economies than in places where free enterprise wasn't getting the job done.

But it could also be that freedom exercises the brain - West Germans averaged 103 while East Germans scored only 95. My pet theory is that having to make all the choices between products available in a successful capitalist economy stimulates mental development. (I believe this because, as I get older and stupider, I increasingly find shopping to be intellectually exhausting.) But evidence for this is not abundant.

Culture can play a role as well - at the extreme, contrast two countries with almost identical per capita GDPs: Barbados and Argentina (at least before Argentina's recent economic collapse). Don't cry for Argentina, because it is blessed with ample IQ (96). But it's dragged down by a notorious lack of economic and political self-discipline. In contrast, Barbados, despite an average IQ of 78, is one of the most pleasant countries in the 3rd World due to its commitment to maintaining a veddy, veddy English culture.

Still, these two countries are close to being the exceptions that prove the rule. The explanatory power of the "cultural realist" models like Thomas Sowell's are necessarily more limited than those of "biocultural realist" like Richard Lynn. In general, cultures that emphasize, say, foresight are generally found in countries where people have enough IQ to be foresighted. Maybe people in northern countries tend to have higher IQs because people too unintelligent to effectively prepare for winter tended to get removed from the gene pool.

The IQ-income correlation is not perfect either. But even where it breaks down - most notably with China - IQ helps explain otherwise puzzling developments like the recent headline in the New York Times announcing "Globalization Proves Disappointing."

Globalization, or the fast-paced growth of trade and cross-border investment, has done far less to raise the incomes of the world's poorest people than the leaders had hoped, many officials here say. The vast majority of people living in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and the Middle East are no better off today than they were in 1989..."

On the other hand, hundreds of billions in private investment have poured into China, which, despite its parasitical ruling caste, has enjoyed strong economic growth.

So what's the story behind this story? Apparently, capital flows to where wages are low but IQs are high - pre-eminently China, where the average IQ is two points higher than the U.S. already and likely to go higher as economic development continues.

In contrast, these other regions (with the exception of Argentina) average IQs of 90 or less, sometimes considerably less.

This is not to disparage free markets - there's no alternative. The point is simply that humans differ greatly in productive capacity, so not everyone benefits from economic competition to the same extent.

The implications for immigration policy are clear.

First, any conceivable level of immigration to America is insufficient to make any difference in the welfare of the billions of foreigners living in poverty.

Second, in a world where the average IQ is 90, America's nepotism-driven immigration system (legal and illegal) will continue to import primarily foreigners with two-digit IQs. These immigrants' skills are typically insufficient to compete with our native IQ elite, but are ample for driving down the wages of our fellow American citizens who were not blessed in the IQ lottery.

The morality of such a system I leave to the reader to decide.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]

April 14, 2002