IQ, Environment & Anthropology

It might come as a surprise to some people that intelligence is not as hard-wired as some of our teachers made us think back in grade school. 

Richard Nisbett, the long-time director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, wrote a recent editorial in the New York Times entitled, “All Brains Are the Same Color  Nisbett ably goes about dismantling the idea that the IQ differences between blacks and whites are genetic.  He notes that decades of research have not supported the assertion that one of our social races in the United States (for that’s really the only way to define them) is biologically inferior in terms of innate intelligence.  Rather, he argues, intelligence is a matter of environment (the impact of development and access to good education) and a matter of the biased standards that praise a certain type of “intelligence” (success on standardized tests) over another. 

As he notes about one study: “Whites showed better comprehension of sayings, better ability to recognize similarities and better facility with analogies — when solutions required knowledge of words and concepts that were more likely to be known to whites than to blacks. But when these kinds of reasoning were tested with words and concepts known equally well to blacks and whites, there were no differences. Within each race, prior knowledge predicted learning and reasoning, but between the races it was prior knowledge only that differed.” 

Nisbett then mentions the work of James Flynn, which Greg has also pointed out in his post on “Cave Men in Classrooms.”  I recently found this good description of Flynn’s work in a New Yorker piece “What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race.”  As the article notes, “I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter…” 

As the article magisterially documents, Flynn views this rise in IQ as due to environment and notes how his attention to method, rather than determinist assumptions, makes a difference: “Flynn comes back again and again to the fact that I.Q. scores are generated by paper-and-pencil tests—and making sense of those scores, he tells us, is a messy and complicated business that requires something closer to the skills of an accountant than to those of a philosopher.” 

Or an anthropologist, I think.  The IQ test is a cultural test, after all, a measure of what “we” value as intelligence.  For the most part a typical approach by cultural anthropology would be to attack the “IQ fundamentalists,” and examine their prejudices and the processes of power that help sustain this pernicious discourse.  An informed biological anthropology will continue to point out that there is no biological basis for our social classification of “races,” for the variations within races is greater genetically than that found between our socially defined races, as well as the fact that biological traits don’t fall into a neat “racial category” but vary in a non-concordant fashion over the world’s populations.  And neuroanthropology? 

Let’s go back to the New Yorker piece.  I particularly like this quote: 

“The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.”

On this site, Greg and I have repeatedly emphasized the overlooked role of “doing” and the over-emphasis on “culture” as a sort of cognitive IQ test.   

To continue, the New Yorker piece also notes this about Flynn: 

“The black-white gap, [Flynn] pointed out, differs dramatically by age. He noted that the tests we have for measuring the cognitive functioning of infants, though admittedly crude, show the races to be almost the same. By age four, the average black I.Q. is 95.4—only four and a half points behind the average white I.Q. Then the real gap emerges: from age four through twenty-four, blacks lose six-tenths of a point a year, until their scores settle at 83.4… That steady decline, Flynn said, did not resemble the usual pattern of genetic influence. Instead, it was exactly what you would expect, given the disparate cognitive environments that whites and blacks encounter as they grow older. Black children are more likely to be raised in single-parent homes than are white children—and single-parent homes are less cognitively complex than two-parent homes. The average I.Q. of first-grade students in schools that blacks attend is 95, which means that “kids who want to be above average don’t have to aim as high.” There were possibly adverse differences between black teen-age culture and white teen-age culture, and an enormous number of young black men are in jail—which is hardly the kind of environment in which someone would learn to put on scientific spectacles.”

 This approach is certainly amenable to a neuroanthropology that is attentive to brain development, the local demands and opportunities of an environment, and an awareness of the structuring processes that often put black children in unequal circumstances, say, both the “wrong” local rank and socially stressful environments to go back to my posts on Sapolsky and Blakey.   

Indeed, a letter “Human Hierarchies, Health, and IQ” by Deary et al. commenting on Sapolsky’s Science article notes that besides the physiological stress reactions, “In humans, there is another factor and other possible mechanisms to consider. It is surprising that there was no mention of intelligence (IQ). Childhood IQ is moderately strongly correlated with adult socioeconomic position. Lower IQ is also associated with increased rates of all-cause mortality (1, 2), cardiovascular disease (2-4), hypertension (5), contact with psychiatric services (6), and other negative health outcomes (7). These associations remain after controlling for socioeconomic position in early life. Stable population variation in IQ is perhaps more consistent with the highly graded socioeconomic position-health relation than are the shifting effects of small-group rank on psychosocial stress. The well-replicated, although relatively recent finding that lower childhood IQ is related to later morbidity (7) and mortality experience affords hypotheses about mechanisms linking cognitive resources to health differences. These hypotheses merit consideration alongside the psychosocial stress hypothesis (8, 9).” 

In a related comment on Nisbett’s piece, Paul Coleman writes, “Having seen many brains at autopsy and in teaching labs, I can confirm the statement that ‘All Brains Are the Same Color.’ But the discussion of genetic determination of intellectual capacity falls short of the mark.  It is not the genetic DNA in a cell that determines what a cell is and how it performs; it is, rather, which genes are turned on and when. Turning a gene on or off can be controlled by a wide variety of factors in life: toxins, learning, disease, hormones, drugs, diet — the list is numberless.  We now know enough about the fine structure of the brain, the proteins involved and the roles they play in learning, cognition, memory and other components of intelligence to understand that the DNA of genes are, generally, many steps removed from determining these capacities.” 

Thus, this type of neuroanthropology research would attend to the research that shows the heredity/environment argument is itself misleading, as this New York Times piece on IQ, adoption and childhood environment discusses.  It would also take seriously that brain biology is most definitely involved in the sort of “acquired intelligence” that one carries around, as another New York Times piece on differential growth patterns of “intelligent brains” points out. 

Finally, Greg has addressed the importance of skill acquisition in his post Cave Men in the Classroom, where behavioral skills (like sitting quality), language skills, thinking patterns, test taking, parental reinforcement, and learning incentives could all play a role.  I have spoken of interactions as a crucial way to understand technology, and the balance between involvement, a sense of control, and frustration.  Thus, a neuroanthropology is ideally situated to provide an ethnographically informed approach to the IQ gap, one that could take us beyond debates over genetic and environmental influence to an understanding of the varied outcomes across a wide range of our typical social categories. 

To put it differently, I see three ways anthropology might examine this problem: Processual (close examination of why the differences emerge), Macro (how social differences and particular environments drive the differences), and Critical (critique of the continued emphasis on biological determinism for social ends, particularly for those in power).  Neuroanthropology’s place is, in my mind, largely focused on the processual.  My hope, and belief, is that by doing so, we will open new ways in which anthropology can address the macro effects that also interest us and to have new voices and new arguments to continue with our vital critical role. 

Now, if you made it this far, and just want to have a fun read, check this funny take on research on IQ and siblings.  Well worth it.

7 thoughts on “IQ, Environment & Anthropology

  1. n the NYT article about brain imaging, it states: “In 2001, Dr. Thompson reported that based on imaging twins’ brains the volume of gray matter in the frontal lobes and other areas correlated with I.Q. and was heavily influenced by genetics.” The correlation between identical twins in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, if I remember correctly, was above 80%. Other behavioral studies show that identical twins become more similar to each other over time, not more different. If the environment were so important in shaping individuality, we would expect the opposite to occur, particularly for twins reared separately, but this is not what has been seen. For a citation, I suggest Segal’s book, Entwined Lives, which is about the Minnesota Twins Study, as well as her own research.

    The nature/nurture debate is indeed tedious, but you seem to be suggesting that the environment, which impacts development so powerfully, is wholly independent of the individuals living within it. That one could pluck an infant from one environment and raise him or her in a different one, and that individual would be much more like her adopted parents than her biological ones. That is simply not the case, as anyone who has adopted children would tell you.

    As for the notion that race is not supported by biology, I ask: Why do races differ so profoundly in so many different characteristics, such as IQ, lactose tolerance, the resistance to malaria, skin and hair color, the effectiveness of certain drugs? The old notion that within group variability is greater than between, as argued by Lewontin, is true for one gene. If one looks at a great many more markers simultaneously, the opposite conclusion is reached: This is from a recent paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics 6:268–275, 2005, by Risch et al:

    Attention has recently focused on genetic structure in the human population. Some have argued that the amount of genetic variation within populations dwarfs the variation between populations, suggesting that discrete genetic categories are not useful (Lewontin 1972; Cooper et al. 2003; Haga and Venter 2003). On the other hand, several studies have shown that individuals tend to cluster genetically with others of the same ancestral geographic origins (Mountain and Cavalli-Sforza 1997; Stephens et al. 2001; Bamshad et al. 2003). Prior studies have generally been performed on a relatively small number of individuals and/or markers. A recent study (Rosenberg et al. 2002) examined 377 autosomal micro-satellite markers in 1,056 individuals from a global sample of 52 populations and found significant evidence of genetic clustering, largely along geographic (continental) lines. Consistent with prior studies, the major genetic clusters consisted of Europeans/West Asians (whites), sub-Saharan Africans, East Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. ethnic groups living in the United States, with a discrepancy rate of only 0.14%.

  2. Agustinfuentes comments:
    This is a response to the post by Doublehelix re: races and human biology emerging out of Daniel Lende’s post on IQ and environment.. The issue of human biological units and intelligence/cognition is very old and seems to keep appearing despite serious problems in the way the positions are most commonly framed. This is a core factor in discussing neuroanthropology. It is extremely important to realize that if you are going to use race as a biological unit then you must define it! I would like to ask Doublehelix to present a definition of human groups that are consistently identifiable by a set of biological characteristics that separates them from other such groups. There is no argument that human populations, both regional and meta-populations, vary in a number of biological characteristics. However, are these evolutionary units or of evolutionary relevance? Are there functional differences across human groups (once you are able to define what you mean by group).

    Discovering shared frequencies of alleles in regional and meta-populations is expected via standard models of gene flow. However, globally humans break the standard models of gene flow by their very low inter-population variation relative to species wide variation (not to discount the reality of a lot of variation across the geographical distribution of our species and huge inter-individual variation)…Doublehelix uses the Risch and other articles to refute this, but ignores all of the work by many, many others (see below for a sample) that discuss and explain why one might see clustering of some allelic variation as associated with geography, and what that might or might not mean in an evolutionary sense. We are well beyond Lewontin 1972… Allele frequency clusters are not races or even biological units…the association of function with specific distributions of frequency patterns of various alleles can and should be done, but has to be done with extreme care and we must play by the biological rule book. If you are comparing biological units they must be biologically, not socially, defined.

    The statement “As for the notion that race is not supported by biology, I ask: Why do races differ so profoundly in so many different characteristics, such as IQ, lactose tolerance, the resistance to malaria, skin and hair color, the effectiveness of certain drugs?” is rooted in a severe simplification…for example, lactase production is widespread across 100s of human populations with peaks in Northern European, east African and even middle eastern populations…so what does it say about race? Malaria resistance via one of the 5 sickle cell mutations occurs with high frequencies in West Africa, but also South West Asia and the Middle East? What race is that? Hair color ands type are widely distributed…but not markers of unity…for example if having tight curly black hair unified groups then populations in Papua New Guinea and Nigeria would be linked…they are not. As for drug differences, this is a very important and complex area of investigation where we actually see some amazing integration of social, physiological and contextual patterns (see recent BiDil research) but not clear patterning of socially defined races as showing any specific identifiable bio-based markers.

    So for neuroanthropology—we are always going to be tied to a historical context of trying to demonstrate differences between social races, but the terrific opportunity here (thanks to Greg and Daniel) is to break out of a dichotomy of nature/nurture and think out loud about the real processes and patterns extant in humans (individuals, groups, societies, etc…). Once we leave behind the notion of either “biology” or “society/culture” having more or less agency and try to look at integrative systems of development, actuation, emergent properties and how things might actually function (at physiological, behavioral, and genomic levels) then we can attempt to link these facets across levels and contexts in an evolutionary sense. This is very complicated and difficult but we are at a place in time and accumulated scientific knowledge where we can at least try. However, we must leave some of our historical roots to do so. I urge readers here to go to the AAA race site for current understandings and issues in the science and anthropology of race (

    Kittles, R. A., and Weiss, K. M. (2003). Race, genes and ancestry: Implications for defining disease risk. Annual Reviews in Humans Genetics 4:33-67.
    Peregrine, P. N., Ember, C. R., and Ember, M. (2003). Cross-cultural evaluation of predicted associations between race and behavior. Evolution and Human Behavior 24:357-364.
    Relethford, J. H. (2002). Apportionment of global human genetic diversity based on craniometrics and skin color. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 118:393-398.
    Templeton, A. (1999). Human races: A genetic and evolutionary perspective. American Anthropologist 100:632-650.
    Templeton, A. R. (2005) Haplotype trees and modern human origins. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 48:33-59.
    Weiss, K. M. (1998). Coming to terms with human variation. Annual Reviews in Anthropology 27:273-300.

  3. Thanks, Agustín —

    I was just gearing up to respond to the post, and you did a much better job than I could have. I would only point out that the article referred to in original comment is most probably:
    Eric Jorgenson, Hua Tang, Maya Gadde, Mike Province, Mark Leppert, Sharon Kardia, Nicholas Schork, Richard Cooper, D. C. Rao, Eric Boerwinkle, and Neil Risch.
    2005. Ethnicity and Human Genetic Linkage Maps. American Journal of Human Genetics 76(2):276-290.
    This piece by Jorgenson and colleagues (including Neil Risch) is a fascinating exploration of the techniques (and pitfalls) of using human gene markers to group data by geographic point of origin. In particular, they point to the large number of ‘null’ readings on alleles in African and Asian donors as there is not adequate data to match alleles from these groups. The researchers suggest that anamolies on chromosomes 8 and 12, with inversions showing up on white and (oddly, in my reading) Japanese populations (the stand-in for ‘Asian, which begs its own discussion; of course, so would using a US white population as ‘white,’ but that’s a different discussion).

    Of course, the Jorgenson article says exactly nothing about ‘race’ and intelligence, lactose tolerance, or sickle-cell anemia, all of which are FREQUENT topics of discussion — in the critical sense — in most responsible anthropological discussions of human variation. Agustín’s suggestions about other readings are great. And the AAA website also has great stuff on sports, which is a personal favorite for me.

    Agustín’s comments are far more measured and substantial than mine likely would have been. I recently did some investigating of the ‘science of race’ because of comments made here in Australia by Prof. Andrew Fraser, a now-retired law professor at my home institution, Macquarie University. He was calling for a return to ‘whites only’ immigration policies on the basis of ‘evidence’ of ‘genetic’ inferiorities of African populations. His numbers were so odd that I went looking for the source, realizing that the claim that sub-Saharan African populations had average IQs in the 70s (and Khoisan allegedly in the 60s) that he had to be quoting some source verbatim. The claim that a whole population was, on average, ‘mentally retarded’ was so ludicrous and illogical that, from years of spotting plagiarized information in student papers, I realized Dr. Fraser had to be swallowing someone’s information without even thinking it through (e.g., could a population with a mean intelligence in the ‘mentally retarded’ zone survive for many generations in a dessert on their wits and oral knowledge of hundreds of food sources?).

    What I stumbled upon was one of the great failings of Wikipedia: the entry for ‘Race and Intelligence.’ Unfortunately, excluding crackpots and persistent, obdurate racists is not something that a collective effort like Wikipedia does very well…

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