Saturday, July 13, 2002

Neolithic villagers, intelligence, and history (past and present) In the comments section of Razibís latest IQ/genetic engineering manifesto, a reader suggests that we run IQ tests on modern indigenous populations (Iíll henceforth refer to them as H-Gs, since many of them are still using modified hunter-gatherer lifestyles) and use them as representative of IQ tests on Neolithic villagers. Hereís why that wouldnít work: Testing the IQ of modern H-Gs would probably be an inaccurate way to determine or even approximate the IQ of Neolithics. Todayís H-Gs have been exposed to Western culture; they stick with their traditional lifeways by choice and often incorporate elements of modern culture into their own. If g (general intelligence, IQ, what have you) is determined by genetics and environment, you couldnít possibly extrapolate accurately, since we donít have any way of controlling for environmental changes when testing g. The genetic component, too, has likely changed over the thousands of years that bridge Neolithics to moderns. To hold that g has remained constant in H-Gs when both components of g have changed would require some serious mental backflips. This doesnít mean, however, that we should strike down studies that look at H-G economics and ways of life and use them as comparisons for Neolithics. In studies testing things that are less complex or more influenced by concretely identifiable environmental factors than g, the new elements of Western culture can be partially controlled for. For instance: thereís a certain tribe of Inuit that hunts seals and polar bears and such. Many of the hunters do their jobs in the traditional style with traditional weapons (which probably have improved over the years but are based on an original concept). Others go out on snowmobiles. An anthropologist studying this tribe could choose to follow only the traditional hunters. The social dynamics of the tribe change greatly with the introduction of snowmobilesónow, itís difficult to connect the primitive technology with the social structure of the group, as thereís a new element throwing the dynamics off. But at least something can be said about the absolute, if not relative, success of the traditional hunters. And you can make comparisons of how much the snowmobiles increase the rewards of the hunt, and control for that in your calculations of how the tribe distributes the food, and how they might distribute it if there were less. But you canít control for these sorts of things in an IQ test. Pure H-G ways of life are on their way out. Some traditions will continue to exist, but I suspect that shrinking rainforests, increased cultural interaction, and common sense will destroy H-G lifestyles in the next 50 years, and then we'll really be stuck for comparisons. The process has already begun, of course, which is why many cultural anthropologists donít have anything better to do than sit around critiquing their biological anthropology colleagues and spouting postmodernist nonsense.