Variation in general intelligence and our evolutionary history

In a bit of “TMI”, I’m far more intellectually promiscuous than I am in my personal life. My primary focus on this blog, if I have one, is probably historical population genetics of the sort highlighted in David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. But I have plenty of other interests, from economic history to cognitive psychology. Like religion, I have precise and clear opinions about a topic like “intelligence.” Unlike many people with an interest in evolutionary genetics I have read psychometric work, am familiar with some of the empirical results, as well as being personally acquainted with people in the field of psychometrics.

A few days ago Nassim Nicholas Taleb opined on intelligence, and I was silent. Today some individuals who I know from within the field of cultural evolution, another one of my interests, discussed intelligence, and I was silent. I’ve said all I really have to say over 15 years, and it isn’t as if I reanalyze psychometric data sets. But, a question that Taleb acolytes (and presumably Taleb) have brought up is if intelligence is such an important heritable trait, why isn’t everyone much smarter?

Think of this as the second Von Neumann paradox. What I’m alluding to is the fact that we know for a fact that human biology is capable of producing a god-made-flesh. With all due respect to another Jew who lived 2,000 years earlier than him, I speak here of John Von Neumann. We know that he is possible because he was. So why are the likes of Von Neumann bright comets amongst the dust of the stars of the common man, rather than the norm?

First, consider the case of Von Neumann himself. He had one daughter and two grandchildren. That is, within two generations genetically there was less “Von Neumann” than there had been. Though his abilities were clearly mentat-like, from the perspective of evolution Von Neumann was not a many sigma individual. He was within the normal range. Close to the median, a bit below in fecundity and fitness.

Taking a step back and focusing on aggregate populations, the fact that intelligence seems to be a quantitative trait that is at least moderately heritable and normally distributed due to polygenic variation tells us some things evolutionarily already. In Principles of Population Genetics is noted that heritable quantitative traits are often those where directional selection is not occurring due to huge consistent fitness differentials within the population.

Breaking it down, if being very smart was much, much, better than being of average smarts, then everyone would become very smart up to the physiological limit and heritable genetic variation would be removed from the population. Characteristics with huge implications for fitness tend not to be heritable because natural selection quickly expunges the deleterious alleles. The reason that fingerprints are highly heritable is that the variation genetically is not much impacted by natural selection.

The fact that being very intelligent is not evolutionarily clearly “good” seems ridiculousness to many people who think about these things. That’s because if you think about these things, you are probably very good at thinking, and no one wants to think that what they are good at is not evolutionarily very important. The thinking man cannot comprehend that thinking is not the apotheosis of what it is to be a man (similarly, the thinking religious man sometimes confuses theological rumination with the heights of spirituality; reality is that man does not know god through analysis, man experiences god).

So let’s talk about another quantitative trait which is even more heritable than intelligence, and easier to measure: height. In most societies males, in particular, seem to be more attractive to females if they are taller. As a male who is a bit shorter than the American average, it is obvious that there is some penalty to this in social and potentially reproductive contexts. And yet there is normal variation in height, and some populations seem to be genetically smaller than others, such as the Pygmy peoples of the Congo rainforest. Why?

Though being a tall male seems in most circumstances to be better in terms of physical attractiveness than being a short male, circumstances vary, and being too tall increases one’s mortality and morbidity. Being larger is calorically expensive. Large people need to eat more because they have larger muscles. Selection for smaller size in many marginalized rainforest populations is indicative of the fact that in such calorically challenging environments (humans in rainforests have to work hard to obtain enough calories in a hunter-gatherer context), the fitness gain due to intrasexual competition is balanced by reduced fitness during times of ecological stress as well as individual correlated responses (very large males die more often than smaller males).

Additionally, for height I mentioned the sexual component: there does not seem to be a necessary association with higher reproductive fitness with being a tall woman. Though this is subject to taste and fashion, there is likely some antagonistic selection across the two sexes at work, where tall men are the fathers of taller daughters, whose reproductive fitness may actually be lower than smaller women. And vice versa, as short men may produce more fit short daughters (though again, this depends on ecological context and cultural preconditions).

Being very large impacts fitness through the genetic correlation of size with other characteristics. Very large males are subject to higher risk for sudden tears in their lungs, or suboptimal cardiac function. Humans select chickens to be very large in the breast for food, but these chickens can barely walk, and may not be able to reproduce without assistance. Evolution in a quantitative genetic sense may then be all about trade-offs.

So let’s go back to intelligence. What could be the trade-offs? First, there are now results presented at conferences that very high general intelligence may exhibit a correlation with some mental pathologies. Though unpublished, this aligns with some prior intuitions. Additionally, there is the issue where on some characteristics being “species-typical” increases reproductive fitness (an average size nose), while in other characteristics being at an extreme is more attractive (very curvy women with large eyes and small chins; secondary sexual characteristics). Within intelligence, one could argue that being too deviated from the norm might make socialization and pair-bonding difficult. Here is an anecdote about the genius Von Neumann:

Neumann married twice. He married Mariette Kövesi in 1930. When he proposed to her, he was incapable of expressing anything beyond “You and I might be able to have some fun together, seeing as how we both like to drink.”

Apparently having a very fast analytic mind which can engage in abstraction and conceptual manipulation does not mean that one can come up with anything better than that when it came to procuring a mate. And procuring a mate is one of the only “good” things from an evolutionary perspective.

The human mind is neither universally plastic, nor it is a prefabricated set of specialized modules. It is a mix of both. We clearly have some “pre-loaded” code, such as the ability to recognize faces intuitively and rapidly (which a small proportion of the population lacks). But other competencies develop over time, co-opting neurological architecture that grew organically for other purposes. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene recounts how the region which specializes in the ability to recognize letter shapes is a preexistent visual-spatial module, probably developed for ecological adaptation to environments where recognition of various organic and inorganic objects was of fitness relevance (obviously now tied in to regions of the brain geared toward verbal comprehension). Dehaene even seems to suggest there may be a trade-off between various cognitive capacities when comparing individuals from urban developed societies and individuals from non-literate small-scale societies.

As human societies have specialized over the last 10,000 years a small number of people who naturally were on the end of a particular distribution in abstraction-and-analysis ability began to preferentially fill exotic niches that had previously not existed. From all we can tell the ancient polymath Archimedes was a Von Neumann for his age. Archimedes seems likely to have been of aristocratic background, and part of the class of leisured intellectuals. The fact that he had such innate talent and disposition, combined with his life circumstances, was simple happenstance.

Today we live in a different age. Specialization, and the post-industrial economy, put a premium on competencies associated only with individuals on the “right tail” of the IQ distribution. Similarly, our genetic background predisposes many of us to obesity because the modern environment is “obesogenic.” The reality is that obesity was not an issue for almost all of human history, so genetic variation (often behavioral/cognitive) that is associated with obesity today was not so associated with it in the past. There could be no selection against obesity when it wasn’t a trait within the population.

Just as the modern environment is potentially “obesogenic,” it is also potentially “intelligenic.” Here’s what I’m talking about, The Science Behind Making Your Child Smarter:

The research also lends insight into why many apps and training programs aimed at raising IQ fail to produce lasting effects, says Elliot Tucker-Drob, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-author of the study.

Raising IQ may require the kind of sustained involvement that comes with attending school, with all the practice and challenges it entails. “It’s not like you just go in for an hour of treatment a week. It’s a real lifestyle change,” he says


To be a “nerd” is a lifestyle only possible in the modern information-rich environment. The Flynn effect is evidence that changing environments can shift the whole distribution. But just as with obesity or adult-onset diabetes risk, there is also heritable variation latent across the genome that seems to affect one’s response to the intelligenic environment.

Humans have large brains for our size. We are smarter than other primates. But evolutionary genetics today seems to be coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t a quantum jump, but gradual selection and change. Having a very low intellectual capacity was probably correlated with low fitness in the past (though small brains are calorically less greedy).

But, having a very high general intelligence does not seem to have resulted in that great of a gain in social or cultural status in comparison to being of normal intelligence. In fact, if the genetic correlation is such that it’s associated with some higher risk for mental instability, it could simply be that a form of stabilizating selection over time kept humans within the “normal range” because that was evolutionarily optimal. Be smart enough. But not too smart that you are weird.

And, as theorists from cultural evolution have observed, we are a “hive-mind” which leverages collective wisdom. Most of us don’t have to derive mathematical equations, we can use the formula provided to us. Though it’s useful to have a few people around who can invent statistics that the rest of us use…