Six Brain-Damage Scourges That Cripple IQ in Sub-Saharan Africa

Hank Pellissier, IEET, March 7, 2012

Why do academic tomes like Wealth and the IQ of Nations insist that the average Sub-Saharan African’s IQ is 30-40 points lower than an East Asian’s IQ?  How can that book give Hong Kong an IQ of 106 and Equatorial Guinea a mere 59?

In 2002, Wealth and the IQ of Nations posited frightfully low IQ numbers for Sub-Saharan Africa.  When the book’s authors—Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen—recalculated the data in their 2006 update, IQ and Global Inequality, they arrived at equally abysmal figures: Sierra Leone (64), The Congo (65), Zimbabwe (66), Guinea (66), Nigeria (69), The Gambia (66), Senegal (66), Mozambique (64), Gabon (64), Central African Republic (64), Equatorial Guinea (59), Liberia (67), Lesotho (67), Angola (68), Niger (67), South Africa (72).

The IQ numbers compiled by Lynn and Vanhanen were lambasted by other researchers, and a rival study, led by Jelte M. Wicherts of The Netherlands, claimed a considerably higher average IQ for the Sub-Saharan region: 82.  But even this lags excruciatingly far behind East Asia and the Western world. Why?

Obviously, Africans have been oppressed by colonialist imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and authoritarian regimes. One way oppression oppresses its victims is by stunting their cognitive abilities, diminishing their ability to be productive and politically engaged. Development economists and the public health community recognize this as an intrinsic part of the gloomy cycle of underdevelopment.

Does oppression impact IQ scores? Yes.  The Sub-Saharan human brain is severely maimed in gestation and early childhood, due to six post-conception horrors: disease, violence, malnutrition, pollution, poverty and illiteracy. {snip}

Decent humans want to believe everyone remains equal in mental ability, no matter how disparate the environments. I appreciate this idealism, but it is anti-scientific and counter-productive to view our brains as impervious to outside harm. {snip}

{snip} Nigeria will be primarily used in this essay as a source of dismal statistics, because it is the most populous nation in the region, with 160 million citizens.

DISEASE: Two recent studies—a 2010 report from the University of New Mexico and 2011 research from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada—have strongly correlated low national IQs with high rates of infectious disease. {snip}

In my email correspondence with the biologists at the University of New Mexico, I was informed by the above study’s lead author Christopher Eppig that, “Based on our own research… a social policy aimed at elevating IQ would want to focus on reducing the infection rates and durations of the infections that are most costly to the brain, which we predict include malaria, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, and intestinal worms.”

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{snip} Young Sub-Saharans are alarmingly vulnerable to drastic IQ reduction due to the malarial threat because, as University of New Mexico researchers state, “From an energetic standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks.” {snip}

Diarrhea: The diarrhea rate in Nigeria is 18.8%, with 150,000 children dying annually of the disease. Diarrhea weakens the immune system and can quickly lead the sufferer to malnutrition, pneumonia, and a host of additional plagues. University of New Mexico researchers note that, “if exposed to diarrhoeal diseases during their first five years, individuals may experience lifelong detrimental effects to their brain development, and thus intelligence. Parasites may [also] negatively affect cognitive function in other ways, such as infecting the brain directly…” {snip}

 Tuberculosis: Nigeria has the 4th highest TB rate in the world, with more than 400,000 cases per year. Tuberculosis—commonly associated with the lungs—has the potential to attack the brain, causing Tuberculosis Meningitis (TBM). Although this occurs in only 1% of TB cases in developed nations, reports indicate that TB leads to TBM in Nigeria between 7.8-14% of the time. The result? At least 20% of survivors are left with severe brain damage. Tuberculosis also creates a severe toll on the immune system, retarding the cognitive development of young children. {snip}

Intestinal Worms (helminth infections): Nigerian schoolchildren are widely at risk of three intestinal parasites: roundworm, whipworm, and hookworm. One study revealed a 54.9% infection rate in urban public schools, 63.5% infection in rural public schools, and 28.4% in private schools. Intestinal worms have been associated with reduced IQ in many studies; one estimate is that “the average IQ loss for children left untreated is 3.75 points per worm infection.” {snip}

VIOLENCE: Being subjected to violence, or witnessing violent activity, puts a traumatic burden on children that leads to cognitive decline.  How steep is the subtraction? A 2002 study from the Children’s Hospital of Michigan concludes that “a child experiencing both violence exposure and trauma-related distress… would be expected to have a 7.5-point decrement in IQ and a 9.8 decrement in reading achievement.” {snip}

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MALNUTRITION: Prior to the recent focus on infectious disease hampering IQ levels, the prevalent opinion in scholastic circles was that malnutrition was the brain’s primarily oppressor. On the website nextbigfuture, author Brian Wang asserts that “if everyone had optimal levels of micronutrients the IQ of over half the world would be increased by up to 20 IQ points.” {snip}

Iodine Deficiency: If a pregnant mother’s diet is low in element #53, her child’s IQ can be severely hampered. Cretinism is the worst result of iodine deficiency, with its shocking retardation of physical and mental development. A recent report indicates that every year 900,000 Nigerian children will suffer an IQ loss because their mothers didn’t ingest enough iodine during their pregnancy. How large of an IQ loss? The website micronutrient.org suggests “the loss of intellectual capacity by as much as 10 to 15 percentage points.” {snip}

Iron Deficiency (anemia): An alarming 75.6% of Nigerian children are anemic, claims micronutrient.org. This lack punishes developing brains. “Various tests of cognitive skills associate lack of iron during infancy and early childhood with significant levels of disadvantage, affecting IQ scores by as much as 5 to 7 points,” notes nextbigfuture.com. {snip}

Lack of Breastfeeding: Recent research by Oxford University and Essex University asserts that infants breastfed for just four weeks are granted a 3-point IQ boost. Many specialists advice breastfeeding for at least six months, because the fatty acids in the mother’s milk aids infant brain development. Unfortunately, breastfeeding rates in the Sub-Saharan are among the lowest in the world.  UNICEF calculates that only 31% of the region’s mothers breastfeed, a low figure compared to East and South Asia’s 43-44%. {snip}

POVERTY: The per capita income in Nigeria, for example, is a mere $191 annually. Numerous studies have indicated that growing up poor causes severe damages to one’s ability to achieve full cognitive potential. For example, wealthier parents can provide “better educational resources and spend more time with their children” notes Elliot Tucker Drob, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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POLLUTION: Numerous elements and molecular compounds are severely debilitating to human brain development. I’ve listed two dangers below; additional chemicals that cause harm in the Sub-Saharan are cadmium, manganese, petroleum hydrocarbons, mercury, and others. Water pollution and soil contamination are merit attention.

Lead Poisoning: The brain-toxic 82nd element is pervasive throughout the Sub-Sahara. Leaded gasoline wasn’t phased out until 2005 with settling fumes caking the soil, and subsequently, the agricultural produce. {snip} The effect of lead on IQ varies in research reports, but a 2001 study, from School of Public Health University at Albany Rensselaer (New York) estimated that lead exposure in children caused a “permanent loss of IQ of approximately 5 to 7 IQ points.” {snip}

Air Pollution (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons): Lagos—with its 12 million residents—has severe air pollution, largely caused by auto fumes and burning garbage. {snip} Research in Krakow, Poland and New York City  claims that air pollution exposure before birth lowers IQ by 4 points, because smog harms the developing brain. {snip}

ILLITERACY: In the Sub-Saharan, a mind-boggling 58% of the population is illiterate. Benin is the worst with 82.4% illiteracy; only 11.9% of its women can read and write. In Nigeria, nine nine million kids don’t go to school, instead they just “roam the streets.” Illiterate children don’t take the standard “Alpha” IQ test, instead, they tackle the non-verbal Revised Beta Examination.  Barely literate children are at an extreme disadvantage with the language-based Alpha. {snip}

GENETICS—Adding to the multiple environmental factors listed above are at least two genetic circumstances that damage IQ. Both problems could be alleviated with improved social, educational, and health policies. The two genetic factors are sickle-cell disease and cousin marriage.

The Sub-Saharan has the highest prevalence in the world in sickle-cell disease, with up to 2% of all children born with the genetic blood disorder. A 2011 Emma Children’s Hospital study at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam discovered that children with sickle-cell disease were at-risk for lower intelligence and executive dysfunction, with possible deficits in visual-spatial working memory, attention, and planning.  The impact was significant: “More than one in three children with SDC had a full-scale IQ below 75.”

Cousin marriage, known as “consanguinity,” is prevalent in many Sub-Saharan groups.  In Nigeria it is practiced by the 18 million members of the Hausa tribe, preferentially in marrying patrilateral parallel cousins. The custom is also common among the Yoruba.  Cousin marriage increases the risk of birth defects, due to sharing of the genes. In 1993, an Aligarh Muslim University report from India study showed an IQ drop of 11.2 points (from 99.6 to 88.4) in the offspring of cousin marriages.

Summary: The tragic liabilities listed above have created a climate so vicious to brain development it’s amazing the tormented Sub-Saharan IQs aren’t even farther behind the 3-digit East Asians and high-90’s Westerners. {snip}

Regarding the IQ gap, my hope is that charitable developed nations and NGOS will continue to donate. {snip}

Addressing the systemic problems I’ve noted in my essay is imperative in fixing the stunted abilities of the region. Truth is, there’s reason for optimism—the brain is marvelously “plastic” and IQ is enormously malleable.  Children damaged by malnutrition, pollutions, and other grim factors can swiftly improve.

Techno-progressive solutions are also critical now—a prime current hope is that Internet access and low-cost computers in the Sub-Saharan will accelerate the residents into an egalitarian future. {snip}

Another interesting “transhumanist” advance is Nigeria’s recent development of it’s own pharmaceutical “smart drug”—called Cognitol. The pill is a clinically proven, 5mg vinpocetine tablet that can improve information storage, memory and IQ.  Additionally, there are other cognitive enhancement therapies that provide enormous benefits for those with stunted abilities, benefits that can enable them to rapidly close the gap between themselves and luckier individuals who received optimal nutrition and environments. {snip}

With correct future policies and neuro-technology, Sub-Saharans can be equal to all, by every material and mental measure.

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