Posted on April 6, 2012

The Downside of Higher IQ

Dennis Mangan, Mangan’s, April 5, 2012

Satoshi Kanazawa’s new book, The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One, is mainly an extended exposition of his Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis (“the Hypothesis”), which states that

Less intelligent individuals have greater difficulty than more intelligent people with comprehending and dealing with evolutionarily novel entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment.  In contrast, general intelligence does not affect individuals’ ability to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily familiar entities and situations that existed in the ancestral environment.

Evolutionarily novel entities that more intelligent individuals are better able to comprehend and deal with may include ideas and lifestyles, which form the basis of their preferences and values.  It would be very difficult for individuals to prefer or value something that they cannot truly comprehend.  So, applied to the domain of preferences and values, the Hypothesis suggests that more intelligent individuals are more likely than less intelligent individuals to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values that did not exist in the ancestral environment and thus our ancestors did not have, but general intelligence has no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar preferences and values that existed in the ancestral environment.

On this blog, we’ve expounded at some length on the scientific findings on the subject of IQ, and the ways that IQ is correlated to life outcomes. To cite a few examples, IQ is positively correlated to income, education, health, and longevity, and negatively correlated to criminality and various other social pathologies. It would seem that, all things equal, having greater intelligence would be more advantageous for a person and, in aggregate, a society, than lower intelligence. Kanazawa is here to tell us that this may not necessarily be the case.

For example, it’s been noted that liberals and atheists are, on average, more intelligent than conservatives or the religious. Liberals and atheists themselves have often crowed about such results — and the conservatives and the religious have decried them and questioned their objectivity — but, if “the Hypothesis” has explanatory power, then the reason people hold the beliefs of liberalism or atheism has nothing to do with the superiority of the ideas themselves.

Kanazawa defines liberalism for the purposes of his book as a concern for non-genetically related others and the providing of resources to them. In that light, liberalism is profoundly evolutionarily novel. No human groups, whether in the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) or up to nearly the present, have been liberal; on the contrary, they have been concerned only about members of their own group. Likewise, no human groups have ever, on the whole, been atheistic; they have all been religious. (Kanazawa found the only evidence of significant atheism in formerly Communist societies.) Another way of saying all of this is that it appears that human beings are hard-wired by evolution to be conservative and theistic.

Now, what is general intelligence anyway? Without going too far afield, there is some debate as to whether intelligence is domain-specific or domain-general. Domain-specific psychological qualities are those that have evolved to solve problems that were frequent in the EEA, for example, a sense of direction or tracking ability. Because this ability was so important in the EEA, it evolved into a domain-specific skill, and there is no correlation between a person’s IQ and his ability to track his own whereabouts. A similar judgment can be made about psychological qualities such as the detection of cheaters or understanding what another person might be thinking. General intelligence, on the other hand, came about — such is the claim — to solve evolutionarily novel problems.

Therefore, those with higher intelligence would be more likely to engage in behaviors and to have beliefs in fields that are novel from the evolutionary standpoint, liberalism and atheism being two such beliefs. We might say either that less intelligent people are incapable of understanding liberalism and atheism, and therefore fall back on their hard-wired, evolutionarily derived beliefs, or that it takes an intellectual to believe stupid things.

One can see where this is going: the presence of higher IQ whether on the personal or societal level can lead to beliefs and behaviors that are evolutionarily disadvantageous. Here is the basis for Bruce Charlton’s “clever sillies” hypothesis (discussed by Kanazawa); in this light, a “deficiency of common sense” might be interpreted as “potentially maladapted to our evolutionarily derived nature”.

Kanazawa provides abundant evidence for those of higher IQ engaging in evolutionarily novel behavior and beliefs. Besides being more inclined to liberalism and atheism, the more intelligent are more likely to be night owls, to be openly homosexual, to be more fond of classical music — not because it is more complex, but because it is largely instrumental, which is evolutionarily novel — and to have fewer children. Men with higher IQ, but not women, value sexual exclusivity more; this is novel because of our polygynous past. Higher IQ people drink more, smoke more, and use illegal drugs more than those with lower IQ.

From these examples, it’s no stretch to see the downside of greater intelligence, both for the person who possesses it and for the society that contains large numbers of high IQ people. For those who wonder how modern Western societies can advocate policies and hold beliefs that manifestly harm themselves, look no further than the fact that the highly intelligent are in charge. This is the flip side to Herrnstein and Murray’s hypothesis that the U.S., and by extension other Western societies, have become technocratic and ruled by those with higher intelligence; it gives new meaning to William F. Buckley’s quip that he would rather be ruled by the first 300 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. It might also suggest that there are worse things than democracy.

Those who have some familiarity with Dr. Kanazawa’s published research will not find all that much new here, but the book does tie everything together quite well and in a way that elicits new understanding. Those unfamiliar with his work will find an exposition of an idea that can profoundly change the way one thinks about the world.