Six Black Russians

Every now and then, I notice someone, often an anthropologist,  saying that human cognitive capability just has to be the same in all populations.  According to Loring Brace, “Human cognitive capacity , founded on the ability to learn a language, is of equal survival value to all human groups, and consequently there is no valid reason to expect that there should be average differences in intellectual ability among living human populations. ”

There are a lot of ideas and assumptions in that quote, and as far as I can tell, all of them are wrong.  First,  you really need to note that populations today sure look as if they differ in average intellectual ability.  They vary a lot in measured IQ: almost three standard deviations from lowest to highest. Some pairs of populations show big differences in scholastic results, and interventions to the tune of tens of billions of dollars haven’t had much effect.

Populations vary tremendously in the fraction that contributes original work in science and technology – and that variation mostly agrees with the distribution of IQ.  Which is what you would expect, really –  the fraction that exceeds a high threshold drops rapidly as the population mean decreases.

Nobody knows exactly what drove the evolution of human intelligence. That includes Loring Brace.  In particular, nobody knows that it was just one factor, and certainly nobody knows that it was just one factor that was effectively uniform worldwide.   Mind you, even that wouldn’t be enough. Fitness counts both costs and and benefits.  A big brain is costly – it uses up a lot of calories and greatly complicates birth. For the net selective effect – the sum of payoffs and costs – to be almost exactly the same everywhere,  both payoff and costs would have to be constant. In principle they could both vary in a way that left their sum always the same, but that’s too silly to even talk about…

And even that might not be enough, since the course of evolution depends on the existing genetic background, not just the local selective pressures. People outside sub-Saharan Africa picked up noticeable amounts of archaic human ancestry: maybe that changed the adaptive landscape.  People inside sub-Saharan Africa didn’t pick up Neanderthal genes, but they apparently picked up a few from other, unknown archaic hominids.

I mentioned earlier that intelligence is  correlated with brain size – and that it pretty much has to be,  if  our ideas about natural selection are correct.     In Brace’s world,  average brain size would have to be almost exactly the same in every population. It’s not.

Human populations been living in significantly different environments for  70,000 years (maybe more), with very little gene flow until quite recently.  On top of that, populations have experienced  wild changes over the last 10,000 years – agriculture, civilization,  and all that.  Some populations changed more than others during the Neolithic, and some hardly at all.

Surely most anthropologists agree with Loring Brace, one way or another.  Most don’t know much about psychometrics, or genetics, or natural selection.  Mainly, they know  what they want to hear.

I was wondering what it would take to get me to swallow this nonsense.  First thought was four Black Russians over an hour or so, but then I remembered the time I re-derived stationary phase on a napkin while in that state.

More like six, if I really want to think like an anthropologist.







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51 Responses to Six Black Russians

  1. Porter says:

    “In principle they could both vary in a way that left their sum always the same, but that’s too silly to even talk about…”

    Sure, there has to be variation among populations, but couldn’t that variation be small enough to be swamped by other factors? E.g. say genetic potential for IQ varies in such a way as to explain a third or a fifth of the phenotypic differences between populations (perhaps aside from Ashkenazi Jews, where your genetic evidence seems hard to challenge and even the famous environmentalists buy it in private). If that were true, existing disparities could still be mostly attributed to environmental factors, the potential upside of environmental improvements would remain high, etc.

  2. dearieme says:

    “even the famous environmentalists buy it in private”: ah, crooks then?

  3. gcochran says:

    I can imagine a world like that, but this world sure doesn’t look like it. In practice, the environmental improvements people expect to work have almost no effect. Adoption doesn’t do the trick, and that’s already a more drastic intervention than anything we could ever do in practice.

    That said, it may be that some kind of intervention would work. As far as I know, no one has tried terror.

    Regarding your point that even famous environmentalists buy it in private: you have any names to offer?

    • Porter says:

      Thanks for replying, it’s not easy to get straight answers about this kind of thing.

      The failure of intuitive interventions like rich parents does seem to provide significant evidence, although the huge Flynn effect shows that there is something to the idea of pervasive pretty uniform environmental changes: if some mystery feature of the 2000s can systematically boost IQ scores relative to the 90s, it doesn’t seem beyond the pale for some other hard-to-pin-down effect to map to ethnicity, perhaps amplifying a small genetic difference into a large phenotypic one through popular perception and culture. Do you think the Flynn effect should limit our confidence much on these issues, or is there reason to think it’s irrelevant?

      My understanding is that different adoption studies have gone different ways, is there some knockdown argument about relative data quality?

      I wouldn’t want to name names and breach a confidence. I have heard various people say they buy it. Others hear arguments, try but fail to find counters, and then become very quiet without explicitly endorsing or denying.

      • gcochran says:

        I doubt if there has been any Flynn effect over the past fifteen years: in a number of studies, it seems to have run out of gas. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to erase or reverse differences between populations.

        I would have to review the literature again to have real confidence, but my impression is that adoption studies that showed lower heritability of IQ in low SES populations have not looked at adult IQ. Nor, I think, is that lower heritability found in all studies. Plomin has not seen it in his data.

        Assuming that the brain actually has any evolutionary purpose other than cooling the blood, you’d think that its development would be fairly robust, not easily derailed by moderate environmental differences. In other words, the factors that in practice don’t have much effect should never have been expected to.

        My favorite comment from a geneticist asked about our Ashkenazi hypothesis – one who, like many others, did not want to comment publicly: ” Of course they’re right !”

  4. Nanonymous says:

    More by Loring Brace from the same 1999 abstract that you quote:
    “The differences in human lifeways that have arisen since the end of the Pleistocene– and in most instances much more recently– have had too little time to have had any measurable effect on the generation of inherited differences in intellectual ability. When average group differences in “intelligence” test scores are encountered, the first conclusion to be drawn is that the circumstances under which intellectual capabilities are nurtured and developed are not the same for the groups in question. Where such tects show different “racial” averages in test scores, this should be taken as an index of the continuing effects of “race” prejudice and not of inherent differences in capablities.”

    I don’t know. It would take a lot more than a bottle of wine (that’s a rough equivalent of six black russians) for me to start believing that Loring is not aware of the skeletal changes in humans since the end of the Pleistocene. There is an explanation far more parsimonious than ignorance.

    • Konkvistador says:

      Ignorance and incompetence go a long way towards explaining a great many things. I would not be so quick to dismiss it.

  5. Gorbachev says:

    More than two bottles of wine.

    • Nanonymous says:

      Going by the standard bar measures, one Black Russian = 1.5 ounces of vodka ==> six = 6*45 = 270 ml. Or 270*0.4 = 108 ml ethanol. If wine has 14% ABV, then wine equivalent is 108/0.14 = 771 ml = 1.03 bottles. Wikipedia lists 50 ml vodka instead of , which increases it to 1.14 bottles. I one has 12% ABV wine, the equivalent becomes 1.3 bottles, still far from > 2. Finally something important to talk about! 🙂

  6. Regarding:
    “A big brain is costly – it uses up a lot of calories and greatly complicates birth.”

    A big brain may have nothing to do with complicated births. See:

    Human brains are costly though:

  7. dave chamberlin says:

    I’m looking forward to your next book Cochran. The 10,000 year explosion was a great read, you have the rare ability to write well and remain scientifically rigorous. Good luck in your continued work. It is easier to pry open a closed mind with pointed sarcasm than solid reasoning so keep on being rude, mocking, and blunt Greg Cochran. You are a breath of fresh air in a stale world where wishful thinking often trumps critical thinking.

  8. Kiwiguy says:

    Loring Brace repeats that repeats that view in his review of Jensen’s book the ‘g-factor’:

    “Abstract: Jensen (1998) differs from Jensen (1969) only in statistical elaboration. Although ‘intelligence’ is described as a ‘construct’ and therefore something that should be discarded as a word, it lives on as ‘g’ which in fact is a construct of factor analysis. ‘Races’ may themselves be social constructs, but since people believe in them, they live on as entities to be invested with varying amounts of ‘g’. However, not only do races have no biological coherence, but an assessment of the millions of years of hominid prehistory leads to the espectable null hypothesis that there should be no difference in mental capability between any of the human groups in the world. Assumptions to the contrary qualify as racialism and actions based on those assumptions qualify as racism.”

    Jensen’s reply:

    “Abstract: Brace’s ad hominem criticism and nihilistic stance regarding key concepts in my book (Jensen 1998, 1999), particularly the g factor and race, as I have carefully defined these terms, can serve only one useful purpose: It gives present-day readers a view of one of the remote outposts of the 1970’s style of attack by the ideologically committed opponents of my position 30 years ago.”

    • Peter Frost says:

      Why single out anthropologists? Are economists wiser to HBD? Are sociologists? For that matter, what about church-going Christians and corporate execs? Greg is damning anthropologists for a problem that is societal.

      One commenter asked whether Loring Brace actually believes what he says and writes. I’m sure he does. ‘Belief’ is rarely the result of careful thinking and impartial weighing of pros and cons. People want to feel good about themselves, and often they prefer feeling good and being wrong to feeling bad and being right.

      I remember corresponding with Loring Brace about Lewontin’s finding that genetic variation within human populations greatly exceeds genetic variation between human populations. I pointed out that we see this same genetic overlap between dog breeds that are nonetheless phenotypically distinct. He replied that dog breeds are a creation of human-directed selection and, thus, irrelevant.

      I then pointed out that not all dog breeds have been created by kennel clubs. More to the point, there are many sibling species that show the same kind of genetic overlap and yet are distinct in anatomy and behavior.

      At that point, he backed off completely. He said that genetic arguments were not critical to this issue anyway. I also had the creepy feeling that he wasn’t really surprised by what I said.

  9. tina says:

    Peter Frost asks,
    “Why single out anthropologists? Are economists wiser to HBD? Are sociologists? For that matter, what about church-going Christians and corporate execs? Greg is damning anthropologists for a problem that is societal.”

    The average person believes, incorrectly evidently, that an anthropologist has a strong background and an abiding interest in evolutionary biology, a background that would, when considering such subjects as genetic variation, prevent him from “prefer[ing] feeling good and being wrong to feeling bad and being right.”

    We average persons don’t expect that from sociologists, whom we know to be full of flavor of the decade crap 99% of the time or from economists, who customarily take shots in the dark and whose positions too routinely derive from their political affiliations.

    It’s all about expectations. However, truth is that anthro has always had more than its share of frauds and suck ups, if I recall my coursework of 30 years ago correctly; thus, if I did expect more from them, it’s my fault.

    However, you, Peter, I don’t place in that company. I follow your blog and respect your work.

  10. hbd chick says:

    @greg – “More like six, if I really want to think like an anthropologist.”

    a shot or two of everclear is more efficient. adding a splash of kool-aid would make it a more “topically relevant” cocktail. (~_^)

  11. jb says:

    To be fair to the anthropologists and their (many!) fellow travelers, and as Porter has suggested, the orthodox position on cognitive capability is not necessarily that there is zero genetic variation between populations, but simply that any variation due to genes is much smaller than the variation due to environment.

    One way to support this position would be to point to other traits that behave the same way. One could say “Look at (noncontroversial) trait X! We know that trait X has a genetic component, that it evolved, and that variation in X between humans and animals is mostly due to genes. Nevertheless it is perfectly clear that variation between human populations is almost entirely due environment! So it is entirely reasonable to assume that intelligence might work the same.”

    The trouble is, I can’t think of any examples for X. But then I’m not an anthropologist or a biologist. Can you think of any phenotypical traits that vary between human populations, but where variation due to environment is known to swamp variation due to genes? If there aren’t any that would certainly be suggestive.

    One candidate might be height. I was rather struck when I found out how large the difference was between upper and lower class English men in the 19th century. And it’s interesting how people have been getting taller both in Europe and Asia. (Flynn effect for height?) Maybe after all the hypothetical epigenetic effects have worked themselves out the Swedes and Vietnamese and Bushmen and everyone in between other than the Pygmies might end up at the same average height! Doesn’t seem very plausible, but perhaps not entirely nuts. At any rate it’s the best I can come up with.

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  13. Polynices says:

    From the title, I thought you’d be sharing some fascinating tidbit of information about people of African descent living in Russia.

    Still a good post.

  14. harpend says:

    The kinds of ideas that dominate much of social science these days were certainly in the air early in the twentieth century but Boas and his followers must get most of the credit for turning them into “findings” of social science. Ashley Montagu, a media figure like Margaret Mead or Stephen Jay Gould, also helped us understand that in our species the mind had achieved its destined near complete separation from the body.

    The social science that coalesced mid-century and that is still with us has a firm foundation in doubletalk, wishful thinking, and self-righteousness. Still, a few honest and insightful scholars have emerged: James Coleman, Edward Banfield, Charles Murray, and Robert Putnam come immediately to mind.

    We can’t be too hard on Greg, who fails to appreciate that great intellectual legacy. He has a degree in physics instead of social science so he missed a lot. Worse, he does not have an Ivy League degree so he lacks the experience of hours of intense chatter that gave birth to so much progress in social science. Sure, he can probably explain how the turbo encabulator works, but he is helpless in the face of deeper issues.

    For example, can Greg explain the taut antagonism underlying the mutual recursion of means of production and production of means in Marxist theory? I think not. Can he tell us about the dynamic role of tropes in the psychoanalytic theory of the id? He would be helpless in the face of challenges like these.


  15. Stephen Jay Phinker says:

    Human Equality Is A Contingent Fact of History — remember Gould’s Demon. He’s kinda like Maxwell’s Demon, only he sits in the neck swatting away selective pressures on g. Gould’s Demon is how we’ve all stayed Cognitively Congruent and Intellectually Equal for the past few dozen millennia, despite all the divergences elsewhere. If brain size has increased in cold climates, there’s an obvious reason: it’s an adaptation for heating the blood. Failure to take Gould’s Demon into account leads inevitably to… The Mismeasure of NAM*.

    *Non-Asian Minorities.

    • saintonge235 says:

      And here we have what I was talking about in my comment on the Flynn effect in the “Local Knowledge” post. Porter wants a large environmental effect on intelligence. If he or she was in charge of funding studies, I doubt there’d be much money for studies of the effect of heredity on intelligence, behavior, or anything else.

      No, the effects can’t be very small, Porter. The studies have been done, and the effect of heredity has been demonstrated to be huge. Variations in intelligence are about 80% heredity, 20% ‘Let’s call it environment, but we really don’t know what it is.’ Nor are there any known reliable correlations of environment with intelligence that don’t also correlate with genetics. E.g., people who spend a lot of time in synagogues and Hebrew classes as children are likely to have above average intelligence, but to a first approximation they’re all Jews too, so one can’t say the environment is making them smarter.

      Or rather, one can say it, but you’ll be talking nonsense.

  16. Luke Lea says:

    Those six black Russians wouldn’t happen to be Ashkenazi oligarchs by any chance?

  17. Ian says:

    Robin Dunbar and Eilunead Pearce had a study published in Royal Society Biology Letters in June 2011 titled ‘Latitudinal variation in light levels drives human visual system size’.

    From the abstract: ‘We demonstrate a significant positive relationship between absolute latitude and human orbital volume, an index of eyeball size. Owing to tight scaling between visual system components, this will translate into enlarged visual cortices at higher latitudes.’

    It’s not clear from the study what proportion of cranial capacity variation is accounted for by the effect they’ve investigated.


    • Interesting data in that paper but there are other interpretations. According to some the epicanthic fold is a sunshade to cope with bright light, and yet sockets are large so the eye can cope with dim light.

      Here is another perspective. A prominent morphological correlate of IQ is myopia, caused by the eyeball being too big for the socket. Greg and I have suggested in our Ashkenazi paper that one route to higher IQ is to release constraints on early CNS development, for example by dinging BRCA1 and BRCA2. Larger sockets could simply be adaptations to bigger eyeballs arising from a “quick fix” that boosts very early CNS growth.

  18. Don Strong says:

    I’m new here. It sounds as if you have chewed on this g stuff quite a bit. Have you considered Cosma Shalizi’s essay on g?
    “Since Spearman’s theory of g is about as refuted as a statistical hypothesis gets, why does g still feature in arguments about social policy and education? Isn’t this as though some parties in the global warming debate had climate models involving phlogiston and caloric? The answer is that psychometricians responded to the difficulties of the one-general-factor theory by developing models with multiple unobserved factors. (The leading name here is that of Thurstone, whose classic paper “The Vectors of Mind” is definitely worth reading.) The bulk of the correlations between tests get attributed to a leading common factor, still called g. The smaller but non-negligble correlations left after accounting for this g are attributed to other, lesser factors. The reality and importance of g is held to follow from the fact that it accounts for so much of the correlations among the tests. A still later, and still subtler, strategy is that of hierarchical factor analysis: find multiple factors from the correlations among test scores, and then recursively find higher-order factors from the correlations among the lower-order factors, until finally only a single factor remains, which is declared to be g. (For an exposition of this last approach by one of its most prominent advocates, see John Carroll’s contribution to Intelligence, Genes, and Success.) …”


    • I don’t think that g is a very critical concept: we could for example speak of size and we would all understand that different people can be big or small in different ways. Steve Hsu simply regards g as “lossy data compression”, which is IMHO a good way to regard it.


      • gcochran says:

        If none of the eigenvectors of the covariance matrix had particularly large eigenvalues – if there was nothing like ‘g’, one population could still score higher than another on most or all of those independent factors. As James Flynn said. it would not matter whether blacks suffered from a score deficit on one or ten or one hundred factors.

    • gcochran says:

      I considered it. In my opinion, Shalizi is full of shit. His goal is to somehow make people think that racial differences in intelligence do not exist.

      But they do.

      I once heard of a graduate student in anthropology who, in the course of his work, came into overly close contact with a large set of data on the educational performance of a certain human population – one not common in the US. Not yet. Anyhow, he came to the conclusion that they really were weren’t at all smart – which led to a mental breakdown. Arriving at that conclusion was immensely traumatic for him.

      I guess I don’t really see why.

    • Chuck says:

      This criticism has already been met:

      “In a recent paper,Johnson,Bouchard,Krueger,McGue,andGottesman (2004)addressedalong-standingdebateinpsychology by demonstrating that the g factors derived from three test batteries administered to a single group of individuals were completely correlated. This finding provided evidence for the existence of a unitary higher-level general intelligence construct whose measurement is not dependent on the specific abilities assessed. In the current study we constructively replicated this finding utilizing five test batteries. The replication is important because there were substantial differences in both the sample and the batteries administered from those in the original study. The current sample consisted of 500 Dutch seamen of very similar age and somewhat truncated range of ability. The batteries they completed included many tests of perceptual ability and dexterity, and few verbally oriented tests. With the exception of the g correlations involving the Cattell Culture Fair Test, which consists of just four matrix reasoning tasks of very similar methodology, all of the g correlations were at least .95. The lowest g correlation was .77. We discuss the implications of this finding.”

      Unique batteries of tests given to the same population measure the same “g.” Factor analysis would not produce this identicality.

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  20. Kiwiguy says:

    ***Have you considered Cosma Shalizi’s essay on g?***

    As Steve Hsu has pointed out, anyone who understands factor analysis realises that you can have correlations and a single largest factor even if there are no underlying causal reasons (i.e., it is just an accident). Nonetheless, these models may still be useful.

    Prior to the availability of molecular studies the heritability of type II diabetes was estimated at 0.25 using all those methods. Now molecular studies have identified at least 9 loci involved in the disease. There are other examples in relation to height. So you can’t say that heritability studies, with all their seemingly ridiculous assumptions, are worthless.

    In fact, reading Shalizi closely, you’ll see that he doesn’t think they are either. For instance, he says:

    ***If you put a gun to my head and asked me to guess [whether there are genetic variants that contribute to IQ], and I couldn’t tell what answer you wanted to hear, I’d say that my suspicion is that there are, mostly on the strength of analogy to other areas of biology where we know much more. ***

    Also, in his article on g he seems to accept in the footnotes that intelligence or cognitive ability, as operationally defined by psychologists, is important for economic development.

    ***Cowen points out behaviors which call for intelligence, in the ordinary meaning of the word, and that these intelligent people would score badly on IQ tests. A reasonable counter-argument would be something like: “It’s true that ‘intelligence’, in the ordinary sense, is a very broad and imprecise concept, and it’s not surprising the tests don’t capture it perfectly. But the aspects of ‘intelligence’ they do capture are ones which are vastly more important for economic development than the ones displayed by Cowen’s friends in San Agustin Oapan, however amiable or even admirable those traits might be in their own right.” This would be a position about which one could have a rational argument. (Indeed, I might even agree with that statement , as far as it goes, as might A. R. Luria.) ***

    Even not knowing why these tests work, just analysis of the results shows the tests predict performance and are stable.

  21. Don Strong says:

    Kiwi guy. Interesting take. Now, what about gcochran’s take on race, re Shalizi?

    • Kiwiguy says:

      ***Now, what about gcochran’s take on race, re Shalizi?***

      In terms of Shalizi’s goal, I remember he wrote about ‘g’ in response to William Saletan’s articles in Slate on ‘Liberal Creationism’. So I imagine that was part of his motivation.

      There are group differences in g (see Philip L Roth’s 2001 meta analysis in Personal Psychology, Volume 54, Issue 2, pages 297–330, June 2001). The hard question is what causes these differences. When privately polled in the 1980’s relatively few academics seemed to think these were purely environmental, compared to those who thought they are due to both environmental and genetic variation.,_the_Media_and_Public_Policy_%28book%29

  22. Kiwiguy says:

    @ Don Strong,

    The June 2005 issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law looked at that topic.

    Also, this site has links to a number of papers with discussion of the merits of the different arguments.

  23. harpend says:

    Wow, whoever does the abc102 site must never do anything else. Thanks for the links.

  24. @Greg: “For the net selective effect – the sum of payoffs and costs – to be almost exactly the same everywhere, both payoff and costs would have to be constant. In principle they could both vary in a way that left their sum always the same, but that’s too silly to even talk about…”

    Same would apply to men and women – intelligence and disposition – the idea that their different genes, radically different steroid hormone milieu of the growing and developing brain, different cerebral composition (fat content, white matter, neural density), different brain sizes… would all vary in a way such that their sum was always the same, would everywhere and always converge on identical values, is just too silly even to talk about.

    But not too silly to be mandatory.

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  26. j.plenk says:

    Actually brain size has shrunk across all races in the last 10000 years-probably due to increased efficiency and auto domestication-this article is only an overview, more explanation on john hawks blog-in the last 200years it is growing again-due to more physiological nutrition. that is more proteins:

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  29. thinkingaboutit says:

    It’s well known that high IQ people tend to have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Reasons are unknown, though, to be fair, better lifestyles of the intelligent probably do contribute. AD hits the temporal and parietal lobes hardest and earliest – the seats of memory, semantics, mathematics and visuospatial ability, among other things. It isn’t hard to imagine some sort of reverse engineering in the future, where size/activity/integration of temporal and parietal structures gets correlated with IQ. I myself would be very keen on seeing how temporal and parietal lobe sizes varied between sociology departments and engineering departments.
    Network connections and function are probably more important than sheer size but size is the easiest and most accessible sort of data. And we already know that size matters in some contexts – the right anterior insula, for instance, is larger in people who can perceive their own heartbeats better

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