Does IQ Explain Global Poverty?

Andrew Sullivan —  May 2 2012 @ 3:23pm


Almost certainly not, given the paucity of current data:

Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen [suggest] that the average IQ in Africa is around 70 points, compared with much higher averages in East Asia and the West…most of Lynn and Vanhanen's data is, in fact, made up. Of the 185 countries in their study, actual IQ estimates are available for only 81. The rest are "estimated" from neighboring countries. But even where there is data, it would be a stretch to call it high quality. A test of only 50 children ages 13 to 16 in Colombia and another of only 48 children ages 10 to 14 in Equatorial Guinea, for example, make it into their "nationally representative" dataset…It is, surely, hard to take a multiple-choice test when you don't know how to read. Not surprisingly, IQ test results in Africa are weakly aligned to other measures of intelligence that don't require written test-taking.

The authors note correctly that IQ is a function of a cultural construct, the ability to succeed in middle class Western capitalist society. So I'm not sure why they would deny that such big differences do exist across the world and can be explained by lack of economic and social development. The Flynn effect shows that IQ can move swiftly upward as development proceeds. The question, really, is: why is Africa still such a basket-case? Why do we simply assume that it will not be in any way an economic power, even though its natural resources are plentiful? Why do we not hold the same conceptions about, say, the Chinese or Indians or South Koreans?

There are many possible answers: our own racism, colonialism, tribalism, and culture. But some of that seems to me to deny Africans themselves actual agency – just as the Arab world remains remarkably backward, outside its oil bonanza, and it's not racist to point that out as a reason for reform. But figuring out why some parts of the world have been able to rise from rank poverty to real wealth in a generation, while others stagnate still further, is surely worth serious inquiry. And IQ is one tool in testing that progress.

(Map: area based on GDP by WorldMapper)