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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Do colder climates result in greater intelligence?

It seems to be almost an article of faith among those who study and theorize about such things that those peoples who had to adapt to colder climates developed greater intelligence as a result.

If you look at the general distribution among the races, the highest average IQs did develop among races which evolved at a good distance from the equator, i.e., the northern Europeans and the northeast Asians. At a certain level, that makes sense: surviving a long, frigid winter required planning and foresight in a way that living in the tropics did not. People in colder climates had to figure out how to build fires, built shelters, dress themselves in animal skins, and wrest a living out of much harsher, bleaker landscapes.

But the pattern is far from perfect.

The southern Chinese -- the Han -- seem to be just as intelligent as northern Chinese, on average. And the Nepalese and Mongolians, both of whom lived in cold climates, aren't known for their high average IQs. Both are admirable, hardy peoples, but neither group, to my knowledge, ever invented anything which has benefitted mankind overall. The Mongolians, by dint of their ferocity and hardiness, at one point conquered most of the known world. But the Chinese, including those who lived near present day Shanghai, seem to have won out on the IQ sweepstakes.

Why aren't Native Americans -- who, after all, came across the Bering Strait -- known for their high IQs? By the cold climates result in higher IQs line of reasoning, Eskimos ought to be the smartest people of all; but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Nothing of significance was ever invented in Siberia, either, for that matter.

India, despite its reportedly low average IQ (as referenced five posts ago), developed a relatively advanced culture. Angkor Wat was built in the hot, steamy jungles of Cambodia. And the Mayans not only developed the only known written language in the pre-Columbian Americas, but built pyramids to boot -- all in hot, steamy Central America.

Speaking of pyramids, the most sophisticated ones were built in Egypt, as long ago as 2600BC. Egypt is located right below the Tropic of Cancer.

Two thousand years ago the original Greeks and Romans, who lived in a more temperate climate then the northern Europeans, had the most advanced civilizations in the world. They subsequently interbred with their slaves, and their average IQ went down. But before that, they both led -- and conquered -- the world.

It's true, you don't have to plan ahead quite as far where there is no winter. But there's no reason intelligence would help just as much in the tropics as elsewhere. Wouldn't the ability to track animals, to build solid two story houses, to invent the wheel, to make better weaponry (for both hunting and waging war), and to domesticate beasts of burden have all have helped in conquering (and outbreeding) one's neighbors in the tropics?

Hot climates -- both arid and humid -- come with their own set of challenges. Wouldn't inventing irrigation and agriculture have helped people in sub-Saharan Africa or (pre-colonial) Australia? And wouldn't those who knew how to use them gradually displace those who didn't?

The different races did end up with varying levels of intelligence. But it seems to be just genetic chance, the great roulette wheel of mutation, that dictated which peoples developed greater intelligence.

It's easy to see why pale skin and thinner nostrils evolved: they were direct adaptations to less sunlight and the cold.

But intelligence? It helps everywhere. I think it's just chance that some races evolved more than others.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always suspected a correlation between IQ and agriculture, whereas nomadic/hunter gatherer societies never evolve(d).

John Craig said...

I think there's definitely a correlation between IQ and the development of agriculture. Also the domestication of beasts of burden, written language, the building of two story houses, the invention of the wheel, the smelting of metal, all the other things we associate with civilization.

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. Another "running broad jump" of evolutionary theory exposed.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Ed --
I don't think we agree on evolution, but at least we can agree that the correlation between cold weather and IQ is not perfect.

Anonymous said...

Evolution as the sole function of chance and extended periods of time is much more conjecture than science, yet most people consider it proven science. Since Evolution is based mostly on "correlation implies causation" observations (which ironically would generally be considered one of the hallmarks of weak science prone to incorrect conclusions), the sort of argument that high IQ necessarily resulted from the demands of surviving in a cold environment are both appealing and easily thrown about.

- Ed

Anonymous said...

You have to understand the evolutionary building blocks where set before the white man brought medicine. Sickle cell disease lets blacks survive malaria without the quinine brought to africa, but despite sharing the knowledge a black child still dies of malaria every 6 seconds. Outbreeding disease was more important than IQ in the tropics, and as long as a single mom could feed all the kids that survived tropical diseases there is no need for planning or shelter.

Anonymous said...

Idea- brain volume/activity requires cooling.

Correlation- though not outstanding, the Eskimos are the most intelligent of the Native Americans, and have the largest cranial capacity of any people on earth (I say it's all motor cortex).

John Craig said...

Anon --
That's interesting; hadn't known that Eskimos had such cranial capacity. Genetically, they are more closely related to East Asians than the other Native Americans are (and look it), and East Asians in general have a larger cranial capacity than Caucasians, who in turn have a larger cranial capacity than Africans.

I have a friend who went to Anchorage once and said he'd never seen so many drunk Japanese in his life.

Anonymous said...

Why don't all animals evolve to have bigger and bigger brains? The answer is that it is simply not worth it. Brains takes enormous amount of energy to create and sustain. For certain races, larger brains were not worth it from an evolutionary standpoint whereas it was worth it for europeans/east asians. Only those with very large brains could survive in the environments of east asians/caucasians.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Good point. The cold climate people HAD to evolve bigger brains, whereas the tropical people didn't. But I still say larger brains would have helped in the tropics if they'd allowed people to build better traps, fashion better weapons, etc. Even with all the upkeep.

John Fox said...

Interesting point. It just seems that the sub-sects that have made influences i.e. the Chinese, Japan, Northern Europeans. All had to pass through a phase where they were in cold climate, whether they arrived in one or not, may be independent. That is there was never de-selection for trait after it arose.

Maybe it was leaving Africa and all the challenges, i.e. significant selection a long the way, because whatever groups left had to be entering significantly different regions --adapting, truly. Figuring it out as they moved--how much these groups actually moved, whether it was 25 miles a generation or some great marathon-like group. I don't know if they'll know that. I think the former (relatively slower migrating) is the status quo in Anthropology (whether it's valid? who knows).

You have some interesting arguments, there are just a few holes. Most notably in Africa. I don't believe --I know about Zimbabwe, the Zulus and some of the other relatively high tribal states they achieved pre-colonial. Correct if I'm wrong, but given their entire population, which at that time was pretty significant there are no significant inventions --at least ones that are so significant, so ground-breaking there useful to any environment. Stuff like guns (useful or not? another question for another time), combustion engines.

It's hard to get over the gaping whole that Africa never developed significant industry to the point of creating anything of significant value. Not to say, they haven't adapted--they have. They haven't been on the cutting-edge of really anything that helps anywhere.

I don't know. Interesting question. Wonder if it will ever be solved. Thanks for sharing.

John Craig said...

John --
Hmm, that's an interesting idea I hadn't considered, that ANY migration out of Africa, anywhere, would have resulted in a need for greater intelligence. (Though one argument against that is that Australian aborigines, who remained as primitive as sub-Saharan Africans, are descended from groups which would have had to have left Africa at some point.)

And yes, that stone structure (I assume you're referring to) in Zimbabwe was thought to have been built by explorers from another continent; it is the only structure of its type in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Anonymous said...

While I personally agree with the idea commented above above about 'requiring' cooling, I like to use a computer CPU analogy.

However some points - IQ is not definitive by any measure. Some of the regions you mentioned have very low population density, probably tests have low total counts from which to draw numbers, are often lacking in the infrastructure/wealth to grade well according to 'western-centric/biased' IQ tests, IQ tests on a whole being focused on traits considered worthwhile from a western cultural perspective, speed regarded perhaps more primarily than it should (accuracy is more important), 'mongols and nepalese and siberians' not contributing much 'overall' to humanity ... at the very least try mongols being smart enough to conquer a huge area of the world (I forget the ranking for it for land mass/empire size), providing us with THE most advanced form of singing on the planet (why sing one note when you can sing a four note chord coming out of one mouth), nepalese having perhaps the highest tolerance to altitude sickness in the world (one has 'climbed' without oxygen in a de-pressurised aircraft to some incredible height without blacking out and doing small motor skills with his hands as well as basic maths to assess his cognitive functions at different altitudes) - we could surely learn things to help our species if we understood the mechanisms better. Siberia, Mongolian and Nepal/Tibet were well regarded by Richard Feynman for their deep cultural and musical heritage - the shamanist/animist practices of this region are some of the earliest continuing spiritual practices in the world, next to the Australian native dreamtime and some remote places in Africa (I would imagine as I have not researched too much yet as far the theological and spiritual practices). Lastly the Siberian and Tuvan animist shamans have begun to use horse riding for therapeutic benefits, something which may not have been much considered previously. Similar to the way we receive health benefits from patting a cat, there appears to be some medical benefit to riding horses (I watch a documentary about a young boy with a form of autism and his family travelling to Siberia to undertake this therapy/treatment to see if it could help and it did seem to have a beneficial/positive effect). There are also more types of intelligence than those primarily focused upon in most IQ tests (logical, lateral, memory) - emotional, spiritual/philosophical, abstract, practical/street, social, small/large motor skill (athletics/hunting/survival), communication, romantic, creative..

Anonymous said...

Also the opposite may be true for cold blooded animals.. this was interesting.. hot weather increasing the intelligence of reptiles http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/warm-climate-helps-lizards-scale-new-heights-of-intelligence-20120113-1pzeb.html

Anonymous said...

One last point - there's always an optimal range for all things, so I'm not sure being born in Antarctica would make for the most intelligence person the world had ever known or something. Unless we're talking about Cthulu or something

John Craig said...

Anon --
You raise some interesting questions and make some good points, but I'm not sure they negate what I aid above. IQ tests have never purported to measure musical ability, which seems to be something separate. Adaptation to high altitudes is beneficial, and the hardiness of the Nepalese is admirable, but neither of those things correlate to IQ either.

But yes, unquestionably, intelligence is a multi-faceted and complicated thing.

Cthulu, or Superman, take your choice. (Though according to the movies I saw, Superman got his start at the North Pole, not Antarctica.)

markrod420 said...

You misunderstand. Developing agriculture is his proposed cause of greater intelligence. Not an effect of it.