Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Last year I had a crazy idea about how winged insects might influence civilization. I only pointed to winged insects as an exemplar, not to suggest a "Mosquito Theory of History" or something stupid and sexy like that. The reasoning is simple: insects are more likely to be winged in certain climates, and that means more effective vectors of disease in such environments; and a greater disease burden makes you dumber, more tired, and more irritable, which stunts the growth of civilization.  A qualitative follow-up post looked at where civilizations have ever appeared, and in what climate types they existed.
Well, now I've done some quantitative work, and it turns out that I was right. One critique against an international study is that natural selection may have adapted people to be more or less civilized in different environments, so that the only influence of climate is as a selection pressure for genetic change. There are at least two such studies already out there: one by Templer & Arikawa (2006) and another by Vanhanen (2004). I'm arguing that it matters even when people start out pretty much the same genetically, so I will look just at the US. It varies enough in climate and degree of civilization that any correlation should jump out.
In particular, I will look at the correlation, on the level of states, between average annual temperature and the average IQ of Whites, post-secondary degrees awarded to Whites per capita, and the percent of the White population that's imprisoned. I only look at Whites in order to avoid the confound of climate with racial composition (for example, the cold Mountain states are heavily White, while Blacks make up a larger fraction in the hot Southeast).
The reason I look at basic measures like IQ or being in jail, as opposed to the loftier things we associate with civilization, is that smarts is the key determinant of propelling the institutions of civilization forward, while crime gives us a good rough idea of how barbaric we are on a personal level. I'm sure that governments can improve or screw things up too, but it's the raw cognitive and behavioral materials that matter most, as Lynn and Varhanen show in IQ and the Wealth of Nations (see all GNXP posts on this topic). Moreover, studies of representative samples of the population always show a strong influence of IQ on how cultured a person is. See, for example, a National Endowment for the Arts report on the demographics of arts attendees (PDF p. 19), which shows that attendance increases nearly monotonically by education level.
As you can see, hotter average temperature is associated with lower White IQs, fewer degrees being awarded to Whites per capita, and a higher percentage of the White population being imprisoned. The relationship looks pretty linear in each case, and the data are on an interval scale, so we check the Pearson correlation coefficient: between White IQ and temperature, it is -0.48 (p = 0.0005, two-tailed); between degrees to Whites and temperature, it is -0.57 (p = 0.00002, two-tailed); and between percent of Whites in jail and temperature, it is +.40 (p = 0.005, two-tailed). Even conservatively correcting for three independent hypotheses still leaves all results significant (and IQ and getting a college degree are not even independent). At any rate, average temperature accounts for 23%, 32%, and 16% of the variance in White IQ, degrees to Whites, and percent of Whites in jail, respectively -- pretty damn good for social science. 
I took the average annual temperature for each of the 48 continental states (Alaska and Hawaii were not included in the source, so I left them out). Next, I used Audacious Epigone's estimates of White IQ by state, which are based on NAEP data from 8th grade math and science test scores (read about his methods here). I turned to Statemaster.com for the per capita number of post-secondary degrees awarded to Whites. For the number of Whites in prison per 100K Whites in the state's population, I used the data from 1997 in a study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (PDF here), which separates non-Hispanic Whites from Hispanics, unlike most crime data from government agencies. 
Here, correlation probably is causation, as climate precedes the other three variables in causality, and again because these are unlikely to be genetic differences that reflect adaptation to different environments -- one of the few cases where natural selection "has not had enough time."
An objection is that the differences could reflect a "brain drain," whereby smart people flock to colder states, and their smart children boost the state's NAEP scores. Even in this case, where climate does not cause group differences in IQ, it still confirms the hypothesis that colder climates favor civilization -- why else would smarties flock there? But I doubt this anyway, since Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota are not exactly fonts of civilization that smarties pour into, yet they have White IQs on par with the highly developed New York City metro area.
If it is causation, as seems likely, the mechanism could be anything. Pathogen load is surely part of it, hence the fields of study called "tropical disease" and "tropical medicine." Also, you might sweat too much in hotter environments, bringing you closer to dehydration. As mild as these effects may seem, when accumulated over the course of development, they could result in your body spending more resources on bodily maintenance than on luxury items like IQ and toil. Heat could also just make you more fatigued -- that wouldn't affect IQ, but it would affect your work ethic, making you less likely to complete college and more likely to pursue quick fixes like crime to get what you want.
The correlation is stronger for getting a college degree than performance on 8th grade math and science tests, and that could be because college work is more g-loaded, because it also taps into work ethic aside from IQ, and because out-of-staters show up in the college figures but not the 8th grade figures. As tough as the environment may seem to natives, it must seem unbearable to college students raised in a different climate.
To the best of my knowledge, as the saying goes, this is the first demonstration of an association between climate type and IQ, civilization-related achievement, and crime, even among a population that's pretty homogenous genetically (for the traits of interest, at least). Even what genetic diversity there is among Whites would underestimate the effect -- Whites adapted to hotter environments, such as Italians and Greeks, are far more concentrated in the colder states within the US. To put the final nail in the coffin, though, you'd want to look at babies of Whites who are adopted into White families in a state of noticeably different temperature than that of the biological parents.
Still, it seems pretty unavoidable: hotter environments are less conducive to civilization, at least for Whites, and not just in extreme cases like the failed attempt to colonize sub-Saharan Africa. Civilization may have started in hot areas, but that was then. It apparently flourishes much more in colder climates. Just as we provide iodine in table salt to prevent a nutrient deficiency from lowering IQ, it might be just as well to encourage people to settle colder areas.
It's not like they'd be abandoning civilization -- just the opposite. They could take their accents, music, and whatever else with them, but they would not suffer the environmental insults that lower their group's IQ, lower their ability to get a college degree, and make them more likely to commit crime. Fortunately for them -- and unfortunately for current residents -- the Mountain states have incredibly low population densities and could absorb some Whites from hotter states. That would certainly burden the locals for a generation, but again since lower White IQ in the Southeast is probably due to largely treatable environmental causes, it won't take long for them to contribute as citizens on the same level as the locals.
 Underlying this is likely a tendency for all sorts of things to be more migratory in such environments -- winged insects were chosen because there's lots of solid data to illustrate the point. Basically, environments that are highly unstable favor migratory features since your environment may go from good to bad from one day to the next, or from one spot to the next -- and being able to quickly move on to greener pastures will be well worth it. When environmental quality does not change much in space or time, then the expensive wings (or whatever) will not pay off.
 If you don't have statistical software, you can do a lot for free on Wessa.net, including correlation.
 Although I didn't run a test of normality on the distributions for temperature, iq, degrees, or crime, I did check the skewness of all, and only crime was significantly skewed: for crime, skewness is +2.1 standard errors of skewness (SES); for temperature, +1.24 SES; for degrees, +0.35 SES; and for IQ, -1.51 SES.
Addendum from Razib: I put up a related post at my other weblog.