The Causes of Poverty (58): Low Average Intelligence in Poor Countries?

The claim that poverty is caused by the stupidity of the poor has an international equivalent: some people look at the fact that most wealthy countries in the world are mainly populated by white people, combine this fact with the claim that non-Western countries have lower average IQ, and conclude that they have found the reason why poor countries are poor.

This is of course a nasty piece of victim blaming on a global scale. It’s also borderline racist. Moreover, if successful, this view will make poverty reduction impossible, given the genetic determinism that is often paired with IQ analysis. If kids get their IQ from their parents, if IQ determines wealth, and if nothing else causes poverty, then why bother doing anything at all?

For example, a book by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen titled “IQ and the Wealth of Nations” suggests that the average IQ in Africa is around 70, much lower than in East Asia or the West. They also claim that lower average IQ scores are the cause of low levels of development, income, literacy, life expectancy etc.

There are many problems with this theory. First, most of their data are made up. IQ score aren’t available for many countries. At best, the scores are extrapolated on the basis of tiny samples. Second, the theory confuses cause and effect. It’s poverty that drives down IQ rates. The Flynn effect suggests that factors such as improved nutrition, health care and schooling improve IQ test performance. IQ determinism is simply wrong.

Even if the data could tell us that poor countries have indeed relatively low average IQ rates, that’s no reason to assume that low IQ causes poverty. Causation may go the other way, and it’s also possible that there’s something else, a third element that causes both poverty and low IQ, for example the experience of colonialism. The colonizers were no more interested in creating education institutions than in fostering sustainable, non-extractive economies. Don’t forget about the omitted variable bias. However, now we’re assuming that the data can tell us about IQ, and they currently can’t.

Other posts in this series are here.

5 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (58): Low Average Intelligence in Poor Countries?”

  1. “Moreover, if successful, this view will make poverty reduction impossible, given the genetic determinism that is often paired with IQ analysis.”

    While I don’t believe on it, I think it would actually make the end of poverty one of the easiest things ever. Fist of all, here are high-IQ people of every race, so this sensitive aspect is not really a problem.

    Then you could have government programs where those people would be employed to breed the next generations, donating sperm, babies, embryos for adoption by lower-IQ people (of all races and mixes), who’d be paid some generous welfare to be their adoptive/foster parents (also moderate walfare just not to have children, and no welfare to have their own children). On the hard-hereditarian view, the adoptive parents being poor and even having low IQs wouldn’t matter significantly, specially on the long run.

    Possibly with more genetic studies they could even provide universal CRISPR genetic editing, adding a few high-IQ genes and maybe stripping off low-IQ genes, so even low and not-particularly-high-IQ people could have their own biological children without the “damage” to the average IQ.

    It’s really a bit unfortunate that things are not that simple.


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