Being smart is the most expensive thing we do. Not in terms of money, but in a currency that is vital to all living things: energy. One study found that newborn humans spend close to 90 percent of their calories on building and running their brains. (Even as adults, our brains consume as much as a quarter of our energy.) If, during childhood, when the brain is being built, some unexpected energy cost comes along, the brain will suffer. Infectious disease is a factor that may rob large amounts of energy away from a developing brain. This was our hypothesis, anyway, when my colleagues, Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill, and I published a paper on the global diversity of human intelligence.
A great deal of research has shown that average IQ varies around the world, both across nations and within them. The cause of this variation has been of great interest to scientists for many years. At the heart of this debate is whether these differences are due to genetics, environment or both.
Higher IQ predicts a wide range of important factors, including better grades in school, a higher level of education, better health, better job performance, higher wages, and reduced risk of obesity. So having a better understanding of variations in intelligence might yield a greater understanding of these other issues as well.
Before our work, several scientists had offered explanations for the global pattern of IQ. Nigel Barber argued that variation in IQ is due primarily to differences in education. Donald Templer and Hiroko Arikawa argued that colder climates are difficult to live in, such that evolution favors higher IQ in those areas. Satoshi Kanazawa suggested that evolution favors higher IQ in areas that are farther from the evolutionary origin of humans: sub-Saharan Africa. Evolution, the hypothesis goes, equipped us to survive in our ancestral home without thinking about it too hard. As we migrated away, though, the environment became more challenging, requiring the evolution of higher intelligence to survive.
We tested all these ideas. In our 2010 study, we not only found a very strong relationship between levels of infectious disease and IQ, but controlling for the effects of education, national wealth, temperature, and distance from sub-Saharan Africa, infectious disease emerged as the best predictor of the bunch. A recent study by Christopher Hassall and Thomas Sherratt repeated our analysis using more sophisticated statistical methods, and concluded that infectious disease may be the only really important predictor of average national IQ.
Support for this hypothesis comes not only from cross-national studies, but from studies of individuals. There have been many studies, for example, showing that children infected with intestinal worms have lower IQ later in life. Another study by Atheendar Venkataramani found that regions in Mexico that were the target of malaria eradication programs had higher average IQ than those that were not. In practical terms, however, this means that human intelligence is mutable. If differences in IQ across the world are largely due to exposure to infectious disease during childhood, then reducing exposure to disease should increase IQ.