Why Is Average IQ Higher in Some Places?

A surprising theory about global variations in intelligence

iStock/Nathan Watkins

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.

Despite the strength of our findings, our study was not without its limitations. We did our best to control for the effects of education. But what we really needed was to repeat our analysis across regions within a single nation, preferably one with standardized, compulsory education. The nation we chose was the United States. Average IQ varies in the states. (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont are at the high end, for example; California, Louisiana, and Mississippi are near the low end.) Again, infectious disease was an excellent predictor of average state IQ. The states with the five lowest average IQ all have higher levels of infectious disease than the states with the five highest average IQ, and the relationship was good across all of the states in between.

So far, the evidence suggests that infectious disease is a primary cause of the global variation in human intelligence. Since this is a developmental cause, rather than a genetic one, it’s good news for anyone who is interested in reducing global inequality associated with IQ. If the primary factors were genetic, as some have suggested, IQ would be very difficult to change.

As our research continues, we hope to discover the periods of development that are most sensitive to disruption by infectious disease, and determine which diseases are most harmful to brain development. If the evidence continues to come out in favor of our hypothesis, it will allow people interested in using this information to raise the IQ of people around the world to target their efforts most effectively and efficiently.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.

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