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.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains

Using modern brain scanning technology, researchers have found delays of about half a second between a person’s brain committing to certain decisions and the person becoming aware of having made them.

Benjamin Libet is famous – or infamous if you want – for his experiments in the 1980s, showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move. Apparently, brain activity – unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – precedes conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words, unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. If unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, then there is no free will; or if there is free will it shouldn’t be viewed as the initiating force.

If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. (source)

An example:

scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. (source, source)

How can a choice be free if scientists can predict it with relative certainty? It seems that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect, a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on our actions and reactions.

If this demotion of free will is correct – and that’s a big if – then rights violations aren’t caused by people who decide to violate them. They are instead caused by their brains. This is a depressing idea because it implies that we can’t do much about rights violations, short of clinical or chemical interventions in the brain. It also implies that we can’t hold violators responsible for their actions, since it’s their brains rather than their conscious volition that is the real cause of those actions.

More on free will here. More posts in this series are here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (5): Free Will

The concept of free will is usually viewed in a theological light. It’s the classical explanation for evil in the world. God has created the world. God is not evil (no one would want to live under the rule of an evil God). There is evil in the world. Why is it there, when a non-evil God has created the world? Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world, given that he is almighty? Isn’t the logical conclusion of the combination of omnipotence and evil that God must be evil?

Theologians traditionally use the “free will escape”: God has created man (and woman) with the capacity of free will. We have the power to do good and evil. When there is evil in the world, it’s our free choice, not the choice of God. Divine intervention in the affairs of the world and stopping evil things from happening, is undoubtedly what God, being good, would prefer to do, but doing so would mean taking away our free choice between good and evil and taking away our free will. The world would be a deterministic place where God drives everything. Human beings would be pawns in a chess play. It appears to most religious people (in the West at least), that this isn’t what God wants.

There has always been a tradition of determinism, but rather than God determining everything determinists nowadays believe it’s genetics, psychology, physics or whatever. People are said to be determined by their genes, evolutionary forces etc.

A strict determinism – all human actions, as everything else in nature, are determined by outside causes – is by definition religious, even if at first sight it seems incompatible with religious tradition (western religious tradition that is). If everything is determined by a pre-existing cause, then one has to go back to the beginning of the universe, to the first cause. Since determinism cannot go back indefinitely, to the infinity of the past, there must be a first cause. And this first cause, being the first, doesn’t have anything pre-existing causing it. Hence it is the causeless causer, the unmoved mover, the uncreated creator, the demiurge according to Plato. And this has to be some kind of God.

Strict determinism is a terrifyingly improbable idea. Imagine that the past rules the future, that we don’t have any choice in any matter. People would be mere billiard balls. It’s improbable because we all have the experience of making choices, of having had the possibility to do otherwise (there would be no regret without it). However, lack of probability doesn’t make strict determinism impossible. Maybe our experience and our regret are illusions.

A better argument against strict determinism is that accepting it would mean abandoning morality and criminal law. It is incompatible with responsibility – moral, legal and criminal. If you don’t control your actions and you cannot make a choice to do or not to do something – if, in other words, you couldn’t have done otherwise – then obviously you cannot be punished for having done something. It wasn’t you who did it. There was some pre-existing cause making you do it.

The fact that there is morality and criminal law indicates that people generally believe that we have at least some measure of free will. And the concept of extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility in criminal law, points to the fact that there is also a consensus that some level of determinism is present in our lives and that individuals do not in all circumstances have a free choice (they may be forced into to doing something by reasons grounded in genetics, sociology, psychology etc.). We probably shouldn’t be absolutists on either side. In the words of Sartre, we are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.

However, it’s not because something is abused that it doesn’t exist.

Strict freedom is as unlikely as strict determinism, so freedom and determinism seem to coexist. This is the theory called “compatibilism“, of which Thomas Hobbes is a known representative.

now, you may ask – if you remember the title of this post: what is the link with equality? Strict determinism is an extremely egalitarian theory. It makes it impossible to distinguish between people. Everyone is equally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In fact, we all have a praise and blame counter stuck at 0. There can be no praise or blame, no reward, desert, punishment or retribution, since nothing we do can be attributed to us. We are indeed all as similar as the next billiard ball. If we accept free will, then we accept inequality and the existence of people with different qualities and different levels of value and merit.

This, however, doesn’t mean that we can discriminate – discriminate in the legal and human rights sense of the word, not in the sense of “to distinguish” and “to make distinctions”. Or that we can treat certain people as without any value (that we can use them, abuse them, torture them, sell them as slaves etc.). There is a baseline, under which we shouldn’t go, and this line is defined by human rights. But above this line, the more distinctions, the better.