Friday, 30 May 2014

Religiosity, intelligence and cognitive decline

If there is any support for Pascal’s wager, older people should increasingly believe in God, if only as a precaution. Even if it does not get you on the right side of God, shuffling to church should provide good exercise, and believing several impossible things before breakfast should keep the mind supple.

Now the Deary gang have started treading on some traditional assumptions, not on the nature of the Trinity, but on the presumption (scientifically proven, ho ho) that church attendance is protective against later-life cognitive decline. They found that religious belief, but not attendance, was negatively related to intelligence. The effect size was smaller than in previous studies of younger participants. Longitudinal analyses showed no effect of either religious belief or attendance on cognitive change either from childhood to old age, or across the ninth decade of life.

Stuart J. Ritchie, Alan J. Gow, Ian J. Deary. Religiosity is negatively associated with later-life intelligence, but not with age-related cognitive decline. Intelligence 46 (2014) 9–17

Why? Individuals who are more religious tend to have lower intelligence, albeit by
only a small degree. Some previous studies had indicated that, in later
life, religiosity was protective against age-related cognitive decline. However, that earlier work used rather crude mental state tests with significant ceiling effects.

The authors used the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921 which was tested for their intelligence in 1932 at age 11 and again at age 79, 83, 87 and 90. Eat your hearts out, Scandinavian epidemiologists! Don’t mess with the Scots.

The subjects were Christians or non-believers, all healthy, and 9 with dementia excluded. Low rate, is it not, on a base of 129 nonagenarians? Old age does, mostly, not involve dementia. The authors measured church attendance and religious belief with detailed questionnaires.

They found that brighter people tend to be less religious. Or, more specifically, clever white Scots tend to be non-believers, less clever white Scots tend to believe in Christianity. Their estimates of the covariate-adjusted relation of general intelligence to religious belief (β = −.14, p = .02 for the general factor from the Religious Involvement Inventory, and β = −.12, p = .06 for the religious wellbeing factor from the Spiritual Wellbeing Scale) were on the lower end of the effect sizes taken from the meta-analysis of religion and intelligence by Zuckerman et al. (2013), which produced an overall effect
size of r = −.24.

Some of these findings may be due to cohort effects: for older cohorts, born at times of higher societal religiosity, attendance at religious ceremonies may be a weaker signal of cognitive ability. They are just doing the done thing. A longitudinal study testing both religiosity and cognitive ability multiple times from midlife into old age would be useful to test this.

Practical tip: brighter people take the view that god does not exist, and going to church does not prevent cognitive decline, so there is no need to make your way to the Kirk every Sunday. Not unless you fancy one of the congregation, that is.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Is the smart fraction as valuable as previously thought?

Some years ago Heiner Rindermann and I hacked through a thicket of confounding correlations to argue that the brightest 5% of the population made a disproportionate contribution to national economies, indeed to national societies. The bottom 5% were associated with far less favourable outcomes. Rindermann made a new contribution to smart fraction theory by looking at the average IQ of the top 5% of the population (rather than the associated variable of how many were above the IQ cut-off) and using that in his analyses. Our headline finding was that each point of national average IQ raised GDP per capita by $229, but every extra IQ point for the brightest 5% raised GDP by $468. 

So it is with some trepidation that I see a gang of Malaysians led by Nik Burhan piling in with their own work, employing standard models that consist of important control variables to measure how IQ affects well established determinants of technological achievement and national income.

Nik Ahmad, Sufian Burhan, Mohd Rosli Mohamad, Yohan Kurniawan, Abdul Halim Sidek The impact of low, average, and high IQ on economic growth and technological progress: Do all individuals contribute equally? Intelligence. Vol 46, in progress.

Have Heiner and I been out-modelled? To create a simulacrum of dramatic tension, I include a photo showing us debating our relative positions on the Greenwich meridian.


Rindermann at Greenwich


So, what have this gang come up with?

Consistent with the intellectual class theory advocated by Rindermann and Thompson (2011) and Rindermann et al. (2009), our research findings showed strong evidence that those people that have high IQ are the most relevant influence on economic development. Although our results suggested that all three examined IQ categories promote higher economic growth, the intellectual class has the highest impact followed by the mean ability and non-intellectual classifications. Similarly, the intellectual class also has a highly significant effect on generating technological progress, whereas the influence of the other two groups is immaterial.

Phew, that’s alright then. They add:

IQ in this study is represented by cognitive skills, in which the rise in the IQ level brings about more efficiencies, thus potentially producing a higher productivity with the same amount of resources (i.e., doing more with less). This justifies our finding that all three IQ classes have a significantly positive effect on economic growth, suggesting that the intelligence level is a fundamental component of all economic
activities, embracing both the high- and low-skilled labor forces, with the high-skilled labors having the largest impact on productivity.

In fact Heiner and I had always said that very bright individuals need other less bright individuals for their ideas to flourish. Some of Heiner’s papers are shown below, with links to our papers on Smart Fractions and on Cognitive Capitalism.

Rindermann, H. (2007). The g-factor of international cognitive ability comparisons: The homogeneity of results in PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and IQtests across nations. European Journal of Personality, 21, 667–706.
Rindermann, H. (2012). Intellectual classes, technological progress and economic development: The rise of cognitive capitalism. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 108–113.
Rindermann, H., Sailer, S., & Thompson, J. (2009). The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development. Talent Development & Excellence, 1, 3–25.

Rindermann, H., & Thompson, J. (2011). Cognitive capitalism: The effect of cognitive ability on wealth, as mediated through scientific achievement and economic freedom. Psychological Science, 22, 754–763.

As to policy implications, just take your pick, and do what you like. The brightest contribute most. They need other other bright helpers, and so on down. Speaking of his blindness, Milton sadly but piously observed: They also serve who only stand and wait.

Mike Rutter talks about his career

The link above is to an interview with Professor Sir Michael Rutter which will be broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 9am and will be available after that date for replay.

Mike has approached child development with a researcher’s perspective, and is driven by empiricism. He takes an epidemiological stance and studies large populations, which gives him a clear advantage over the usual run of clinic based publications, and all this despite having continued in clinical practice in child psychiatry.

For example, as far as I know, his study on reading difficulties with William Yule is the only proper large scale population study of the relation between intelligence and reading ability. This shows that intelligence is the main factor in reading ability, and that difficulties with reading are most frequent in children of lower intelligence. However, in three of the five populations studied there is a higher proportion of reading retarded children than would be predicted from the regression equation of reading from intelligence. This suggests factors other than general intelligence are involved: cue discussions about dyslexia.

I show the distributions below, if only because they make it clear that not all populations reveal a lower “hump” of abnormally poor readers, and that the residuals themselves are not always normally distributed.







W.Yule, M.Rutter, M.Berger and J.Thompson. Over‑ and under‑achievement in reading: distribution in the general population. British Journal of Educational Psychology (1974) 44,1‑12.

By the way, with many hundreds of important publications to choose from, I very much doubt that this one will figure in the programme, so this is a footnote, but one must be allowed those occasionally.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Microcephalin makes a comeback


As far back as 2006 Bruce Lahn noted that microcephalin was linked to lower intelligence. His University then counselled him that he would be better off working on other matters. Danielle Posthuma took up the challenge and, in a triumph of empiricism, failed to replicate the result. That’s right. Failure to replicate is a success for knowledge. I smiled when I heard her present the results in Amsterdam in 2007, because if such research had been frowned upon world wide, rather than just in the US, then we would have imagined that the microcephalin effect was true, but suppressed by political pressure. Odd, how jumpy people are when they don’t want to know that intelligence differences are due to the genes (but fearfully believe it anyway), whereas us poor souls think such hypotheses depend on the evidence.

Now we have the sequel, Microcephalin II.  Michael Woodley (passim) will be well known to readers of this blog and Heiner Rindermann; Stratford, Ed Bell and Davide Piffer will be joining him in the halls of fame. They have investigated the pattern of population level correlates of MCPH1 and ASPM frequency counts and IQ. They find evidence for a substantial mediation effect stemming from health-status variables, which hints at a possible new role for MCPH1 in particular as an immune system boosting gene.

Woodley, M. A., Rindermann, H., Bell, E., Stratford, J. & Piffer, D.
(2014). The relationship between Microcephalin, ASPM and intelligence: A
reconsideration. Intelligence, 44, 51-63.


Despite the fact that the recently evolved Microcephalin and the related
Abnormal Spindle-like Microcaphaly Associated (ASPM) alleles do not
appear to be associated with IQ at the individual differences level, the
frequencies of Microcephalin have been found to correlate strongly with
IQ at the cross-country level. In this study, the association between
these two alleles and intelligence is examined using a sample of 59
populations. A bivariate correlation between
Microcephalin and population average IQ of r = .790 (p ≤ .01) was found,
and a multiple regression analysis in which the Human Development Index,
Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) lost due to Infectious diseases,
DALY Nutritional deficiencies, and Würm glaciation
temperature means were included revealed that Microcephalin remained a
good predictor of IQ. Path analysis, with both direct and indirect paths
from Microcephalin to intelligence, showed good model fit. These
multivariate analyses revealed strong and robust associations between
DALYs and Microcephalin, indicating that the former partially mediates
the association between the latter and IQ. A second smaller
correlational analysis involving ten country-level estimates of the
frequencies of these two alleles collected from the 1000 genomes
database replicated this pattern of results. To account for the findings
of this study, we review evidence that these alleles are expressed in
the immune system. Microcephalin is strongly associated with DNA repair,
which indicates a special role for this allele in the intrinsic
anti-viral immune response. Enhanced immune functioning may have
advantaged both hunter–gatherer and agrarian societies coping with the
heightened disease burden that resulted from population growth and
exposure to zoonotic diseases, making it more likely that such growth
and concomitant increases in intelligence could occur.

Get the whole paper here:

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Attentive posture


I can remember smiling at a comment in a training manual for medical interviewers: Adopt an attentive but non-confrontational posture.




Given the unusual bonus of a professional photographer (Douglas Robertson Photography) at the Processing Speed conference in Edinburgh,  I attach a photo which I imagine illustrates the essential elements of my approach to blogging: attentive posture, apparent concentration and capacity to listen, glasses on to impress the gullible with connotations of scholarship, writing implement in hand to record what I hear (but in pencil in case I get it wrong and need to rub it out) and a cup of coffee readily to hand.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Processing speed and white matter: Mark Bastin


You may recall that, from time to time, I have tut-tutted when researchers take scans of a few brains, get very excited, climb high up a long ladder of assumptions based on small samples, and then fall precipitously into a smelly cesspit of neuro-bollocks.

Tim Shallice has pointed out the three main problems: small sample sizes, inconsistent methods and measures, and a lack of theory against which to test findings.

In the preparations for the Processing Speed conference I checked out Mark Bastin, about whose presentation I was supposed to make some comments. He graduated from the Universities of York, Edinburgh and Oxford with degrees in Theoretical Physics (BSc (Hons)), Remote Sensing and Image Processing Technology (MSc) and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (DPhil). Given that I did one year of undergraduate physics, I felt we would probably be able to chat over a few things which had been bothering me at the proton level.

I read Mark’s work with some trepidation, and listened to his presentation with great pleasure. He showed data on 581 subjects which, by my calculations, was sufficient to have written 29 neuro-bollocks papers. Although, as you would expect, I have a finely tuned mind, I found that his explanations on a number of matters, although intended for a more general audience, were of help even to me in brushing up on a few concepts. A helpful exposition, clearly presented.

Full presentation here:

Slide 3 contains several explanations required when looking at the later results: Diffusion tensor MRI (DT-MRI) measures the random motion of water molecule protons due to thermal energy. In brain white matter, the presence of coherently ordered axonal membranes and myelin causes water molecules to diffuse preferentially along the fibre direction rather than across it. The random motions of water protons can be quantified to generate biomarkers of white matter integrity, such as mean diffusivity D which represents the magnitude of diffusion;  and fractional anisotropy (FA) which represents the directional coherence.

Healthy, structurally intact white matter has low magnitude of diffusion 〈D〉and high directional coherence FA. Tidy connections. Structurally compromised white matter has high magnitude of diffusion and low directional coherence FA. Frayed wires. I would not stoop to populism, of course, but cognitive ageing may be simply the difference between tidy connections and frayed wires.

It is also possible to follow the principal diffusion direction across the brain to generate 3D representations of the major tracts (tractography) of which more later.

Slide 5 brings you into the inner sanctum of scanning methods. The first technique involved drawing round features by hand which is given the better sounding jargon of ROI analysis, which relates to Regions Of Interest. Call it the clinician’s approach. The more standardized automatic voxel-based methods are called  (TBSS) or Tract Based Special Statistics. The automatic segmentation of tracts has (tractography) is an art done in various, entirely defensible, ways which vary according to the lab and the person doing the automated segmentation. Rather than “Computer says Here be Dragons” it is “My approach to segmentation leads Computer to see Dragons in the following Ways and Locations”. Good to know that neuro-phrenology still requires human intervention. I should add that his slowly rotating 3D tractographic picture of the connection in the brain is very beautiful. How the hell does the brain do all this marvellous stuff, which even allows some people to understand theoretical physics?

Slide 8 shows the tests used, covering general intelligence, general processing and general memory.

Slide 9 shows the main result: A general factor of Information Processing Speed, g speed, has a very strong brain-wide association with white matter directional coherence (tidy connections).

Slide 10 shows that Mark Bastin and colleagues have developed a novel tractography approach, termed probabilistic neighbourhood tractography (PNT), which allows the same tract to be segmented from subject to subject using single seed point tractography. This gives them a more solid basis for the fabulous 3D pictures.

Slide 14 has the final conclusions: Older age changes in white matter integrity affect major tracts simultaneously. Both voxel-based and tractography analyses show that Information Processing Speed tasks require connectivity at the whole brain rather than the individual tract level. Associations between general intelligence and white matter directional coherence are mediated by Information Processing Speed.

Just as Mark felt he had done his work for the day I decided to press him to tell us where the problems were: namely, are these sorts of results replicable? In his view it was mostly the personal style of the scan analyst which generated the pretty pictures in tractography, and the techniques used by one analyst were rarely followed by another. Hence the need to try to get PNT techniques evaluated and used by other researchers.

Ever the mischief maker, I asked Mark to compare the development of theoretical physics with that of psychology. My impression, in line with Tim Shallice, is that psychologist’s conceptions of brain function will always be, ahem, impressionistic, if not thoroughly Turner-esque. Being a typically cautious scientist Mark demurred, shyly admitting that both his boss and the main grant giver were present in the room, so he didn’t feel he had the basis to venture an opinion. Undaunted, I kept heckling him (egged on by both his boss and his grant giver) until I managed to drag out from him that at least psychology had worked some things out, and had some theories, but in his view there was another profession which knew nothing about their patients, and even less about the pills they prescribed them. He was probably too circumspect to give Voltaire quotation in full: “Doctors give drugs of which they know little, into bodies, of which they know less, for diseases of which they know nothing at all”. I have no idea whether he is still in employment, but if not he would be an asset to any department which wants to study brain function.

We need to talk about Protons. I did once measure the elementary charge on the electron (which is carried by a single proton) using Millikan's oil-drop experiment.  Strange to see odd drops float upwards against gravity because a very much smaller particle was driving it in the induced electric field. I had no idea it would be useful 50 years later. Worth a Saturday morning in a lab.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Processing ability in the 8th decade of life: Stuart Ritchie


Stuart Ritchie is an up and coming researcher in the Deary gang who, as well as having organised the Processing Speed conference in Edinburgh, is penning a short introduction to intelligence, which I hope to review before too long.

Stuart has been looking at ageing in the eighth decade of life. It is only recently that one could gather together a reasonable and representative sample. Stuart has got 697 76-year olds of whom 628 have been tested and have completed all the data at 70, 73 and 76 years of age.

The Deary gang have many merits, but the brightest gold in their treasure chest is the Lothian Birth Cohort. As a result of a far-sighted decision to give every child in Scotland an IQ test at 11 years of age they have a glowing trace on intelligence through the life course, revealing its impact on scholastic and life attainments, health and behaviour. More about them here:

An interest in intelligence is not altogether surprising in a small population which gave rise to the architect Robert Adam; the self-educated logician and founder of Mind Alexander Bain; the inventor Alexander Graham Bell; the biographer James Boswell; writer and historian Thomas Carlyle; bacteriologist Alexander Fleming; the philosopher David Hume; physicist Lord Kelvin; physicist James Maxwell; inventor of signal code Samuel Morse;writer Sir Walter Scott; economist Adam Smith whose Theory of Moral Sentiments may be even better than Wealth of Nations;  and writer Robert Louis Stevenson whose Treasure Island is an absolute gem. Was there ever better proof of Cold Winter Theory that bad weather dripping on granite is good for the intellect?

I have omitted Peter Higgs, he of the boson under whose portrait we sat, because a) he was born in England and b) he had a Scottish mother and English father, a condition I know well. One must be tough about these things, or we will have everyone claiming to be Scottish.  For reasons of tact I have omitted priests and politicians, have not mentioned clans, nor whether the luminaries ended up in Edinburgh or Abroad. A final word to Scots about how to increase their vast contribution to the modern world? Emigrate.

The full Powerpoint of the talk is here:

Slide 2 shows the basic proposition: if you can note even the slightest, most briefly presented stimuli in the environment, then you can behave more intelligently.

Slide 4 shows the sample sizes and the Inspection Time procedure. The latter is correctly named by its inventors, but one has to keep repeating that responses are not timed. With the benefit of hindsight, the test could have been called Brief Encounters, like the movie, or Brief Exposures though the latter might be subject to some misunderstandings. You are shown a visual cue that something is coming, then a very brief display of what I will describe as an unbalanced tuning fork without the handle but with different lengths of prong, then an irrelevant masking display so that the image on the retina does not last long, and then you have time to make a decision. Plenty of time. Are you perceptive enough to have noted whether the shorter leg of the design was on the left or the right? Exposures are varied in order to find out the shortest exposure you can reliably cope with.

Slide 5 is particularly good. Please show it to those Individual Differences Fundamentalists who will not accept any group differences findings because “Everyone is unique”.  This slide shows that over the 3 occasions of testing there are very different trajectories i.e. performance is variable. Nonetheless you can draw a slope on the data, and in the case of Inspection Time is a less scattered picture . Or in the language that Stuart might use, it is less hedge-hoggy. (See his unfair self-description @StuartJRitchie).

Slide 9 shows that though intelligence and inspection time have the entirely respectable correlation of .46 the slope of each (change over the six years of testing)correlate a very large  .78 which is impressive.

Inspection Time is a ratio measure in the SS Stevens sense, that being able to detect at almost zero exposure is a true zero, and the other inspection time durations are true time scores. The test does not have ceiling/floor effects in terms of item difficulty. It does not depend on response/movement speed which could be affected by age-related peripheral changes like in muscle tone.  It can be used across all age groups and with clinical patients because it is conceptually very simple. However, it does require equipment, and take some time. Nonetheless, it seems highly likely that as we age we take longer “to look at an object in order that we may see it.”

Processing = the mechanism that produces thought?

Monday, 19 May 2014

Processing speed and ageing: Elliot Tucker-Drob


Elliot’s presentation began with a very useful recapitulation of the relevant two-process models (slide 2). Baltes distinguished between Mechanics & Pragmatics; Cattell between Fluid & Crystallized intelligence; and Salthouse between Process & Product. I particularly like that last distinction, because the interest in Process is to find exactly how it leads to Product.



As the slide shows, we move from the mechanics of basic information processing, which is content poor, universal, biological and genetic; to the pragmatics of acquired knowledge, which is content rich, culture dependent and experience based. The pragmatics (please call it wisdom) hold up with age, the mechanics fade after the age of maturity (25) and decay thereafter. For all I know, orgasm frequency may follow the same trajectory. Processing is the feeder system, pragmatics the store of knowledge.


Slide 3 above spells out the concepts and puts them onto the Venn diagram.

Tucker-Drob’s personal view is: Processing Speed is a marker of “system integrity”  (that Ian Deary phrase again) i.e. an Endo-phenotype for cognitive ability and cognitive decline. It is largely unrelated to conventional forms of environmental variation like social class, schooling and culture. On the other hand, it is related to biologically-relevant conditions such as physical trauma, disease, health and nutrition. It is strongly linked with cognitive ability and cognitive decline It might be a fundamental cause of intelligence, but it does not have to be. It is simply “a less contaminated window into neurobiological integrity.”

All cognitive development shows an age effect. What is interesting about processing speed is there is little difference between those with little and those with much education, whereas those groups differ significantly in abstract reasoning and, as you would expect, academic knowledge.

You can see the whole presentation here:

In order to increase the cognitive load on you, the process of transferring the Powerpoint presentation has inverted and reversed a few of the slides. (If you succeed in righting them, let me know how).

Slide 10 on Woodcock Johnson subtests is a little hard to read without the subtest names, but the startlingly horizontal red line Gc is Comprehension, a well preserved skill. In contrast, the bright green line Gs which falls precipitously is for Perceptual Speed. So,there is the big contrast in one picture. The other subtests:  Blue Gsm = short term memory; yellow Gf = Fluid Reasoning; brownish Gv = Visuo-Spatial; lightish purple Glr = Associative Memory; darker purple Ga = Auditory Processing. There you are, the whole panoply of mental decay in one cheerful picture. You retain comprehension, which allows you to comprehend that you are slowing up fast.

Slide 11 makes equally sad viewing, but suggests that rather than assuming a whole set of different declines in specific abilities, it might be parsimonious to assume there is a common factor of decline. Note that Digit Symbol seems to show the sharpest decline, which might be an indication that it is a good measure of that common factor, whatever it is.

Slide 12 shows that half of the decline is global, and the rest is rather more domain specific than test specific.

Slide 14 show substantial age effects on both g and processing speed, with a smaller effect on episodic memory.

Slide 15 superimposes the test specific declines, showing the slightly sharper decline for digit symbol. Incidentally, this shows why giving a two minute digit symbol test would be of great use in all psychology research.

Slide 18 on a longitudinal sample shows that there have been significant changes in processing speed over a 7 year period, but not as pronounced as the other changes.

Slide 21 shows significant effect on processing speed, even though only a 3 year period of ageing has elapsed.

Slide 23 also shows a speed change, this time over 6 years.

Slide 25 also shows a speed change over 16 years in Sweden.

Slide 27 is a meta-analysis of 12,000+ subjects, which shows no difference between processing speed and other mechanics, which shows that processing speed goes down as much as the other mechanics measures go down.

Tucker-Drob then ends up with some general conclusions: A single, partially heritable, dimension underlies considerable proportions of individual differences in aging-related cognitive declines across different abilities. Processing Speed is strongly linked with this dimension.

The talk had an impact on the assembled company, in that it was a stirring defence of the importance of processing speed as the upstream process which led to the downstream product of cognitive ability. Naturally, it is couched in cautious terms, because we do not yet know what brain mechanisms are involved in simple processing speed tasks. Whatever those mechanism are, they are either important in themselves, or closely related to something important. Worth finding out, was the general reaction. With some animation, we went off to lunch in the next door room.

Sharp eyed observers with note that after that stirring call to arms Tucker-Drob ended up with instructions about how to bake a cake. This is probably some sort of Texan ritual.

On the other hand, it may be an example of the processing task of using a microwave cooker, and thus of more universal significance, together with a test of remembering to take your tablets, and trying to make sense of a long phone bill. Tasks of daily living, they call them, as they evaluate the capabilities of their wise elders. You decide what you think of these, but only after having someone test you on the tasks yourself.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Back to the future: processing speed

I have now come down from the heady heights of the Troublesome Inheritance, the dragnet of the seed, the dance of history, the interplay of culture and breeding, the rise and fall of degenerate civilisations, and other matters of Great Import, and can finally get back to the nitty gritty: processing speed.

This may seem like something of a come-down, but after Arthur Jensen published his 1969 paper there was a pretty fearsome attack on the concept of IQ. Critics who were offended by the suggestion that racial differences in intelligence had partly genetic causes laid into every step in the chain of argument. (I joined them, on the typically narrow front of arguing that African American’s poor results on non-verbal tests were due to lack of access to constructional toys, but that is another story). One line of attack was to say that IQ results were “meaningless” because they related to an arbitrary collection of tasks which did not depend on any real underlying biological differences between people. This hit a sore nerve, because psychologists suffer from Physics envy, and would like to find some fundamental units of behaviour. So there was renewed interest in finding something basic which, elaborated upwards, might contribute to the final result we call intelligence. Processing speed in its various forms was a strong candidate. Naturally, there had been people independently working on reaction times since antiquity, which in the case of psychology means before 1889. Franciscus Donders was probably the first to use differences in human reaction time to infer differences in cognitive processing, finding that simple reaction was faster than choice reaction time.

Therefore, I want to regenerate in you a sense of hope that the close study of some rather simple tasks can lead us to the promised land of understanding intelligence. To motivate you I briefly considered following the school of journalism which believes that the public can be led to science by showing that scientists are human. You know the sort of thing: Professor So and So, who rides a motorbike and plays in a rock group…. I eschew such vulgarity.

However, since my hosts took the precaution of inviting photographer Douglas Robertson to the meeting, for once I can try to interest you in determining the mind’s construction from the face. You may understand why Ian Deary, in his introductory remarks, referred to us as Twelve Angry Men. I will set out who they are, and then post the presentations which I have received so far. You can then pester the rest of them to send you their work, or at least their references.



Seated: Pat Rabbitt (Oxford), Mark Bastin (Edinburgh), Nick Mackintosh (Cambridge)

Standing left to right: Geoff Der (Glasgow), Thomas Espeseth (Oslo), Tim Croudace (York), James Thompson (UCL), James Goodwin (Age Concern) , Stuart Ritchie (Edinburgh), Paul Verhaegen (Georgia),  Rogier Kievit (Cambridge), Elliot Tucker-Drob (Austin), Ian Deary (Edinburgh).

Seated in an oil painting: Peter Higgs (Edinburgh)

At this stage you may wish to turn to other matters, and who could blame you?

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Victorians: A note on innovation


Now that Woodley is back in the ring, interesting questions are coming in about innovation rates, and how we can determine whether they have fallen since Victorian times.

I think we can be clear, looking at the historical record from our current standpoint, that there have been notable innovations which changed civilization. Fire, plough, compass, printing press, steam engine and gas turbine are some examples. As we come to the last  few centuries the judgement becomes a little harder, because we do not yet have the distant perspective as to what constitutes an innovation as opposed to a re-tweaking or variant of an old idea. Woodley has said that the iPhone is not an innovation per se, but merely the putting together of other innovations into an easily useable device. I agree, which is why when people were raving about Steve Jobs I asked them how he compared to William Shockley. Who he? He got the Physics Nobel with Bardeen and Brattain in 1956  for inventing the transistor, in my view one of the most significant innovations of the 20th Century. Of course, that view could be wrong, but how do we decide that? It needs a some agreed metrics, and that is hard to achieve for innovation when, by definition, it is something new which we cannot yet fully evaluate.

We have high hopes of the nanomaterial graphene at the moment, but we had high hopes of high-temperature super-conductivity (which was in fact not-so-expensively-low temperature super-conductivity) 20 years ago, and it came to nothing, or almost nothing so far. Jim Flynn has given examples of bright thinkers working now on theories which may turn out to be correct, in which case the present age will be seen as a flowering of innovation. To add complexity, one could also argue that the iPhone was an innovation in that it brought together disparate technologies into a form which actually suited the human hand, whereas previous clunky efforts had failed. What fits the hand fits the mind: just point, lightly touch and enjoy. It took a long time to learn how to bridle and saddle a horse. The wheel has been re-invented many times, to great advantage. The last re-invention by the Japanese car industry meant that car wheels no longer had to have grease injected: a great reduction in maintenance costs.

Some of the first researchers of inventiveness used patent applications as a measure, but it soon turned out that nations differed in what sort of thing merited patent protection, and that many patents contained little in the way of innovation, and were merely protecting “me too” drug variants.

Another problem in judging innovation is that, with the benefit of hindsight, some of the first discoveries in any field of enquiry were just there for the taking. They constitute low hanging fruit: things you can harvest without too much effort. I am not sure about this, because chemistry did not enjoy great leaps forwards for centuries. The periodic table certainly helped. After that and a good flowering in the 2oth Century it could be argued that chemistry dried up, because it could be shown to be explicable by physics. In that sense, innovation in chemistry research got very much harder. The periodic table could only be discovered once.

So, we might now be at the stage that the easy work has been done in many subjects, and from now on the steps will be small and painful. For example, understanding the genetics of behaviour may take a very long time. The easy stuff fell into our laps, and now breaking the code had turned from a 3 wheel Enigma problem to a 30,000 wheel Enigma  problem. Even Turing might have felt the need for more coffee in his chained up mug.

A further problem is that we do not yet know what the relevant measures are. For example, one of the apparently strong arguments from “innovation is drying up” proponents is that by 1958 a Boeing 707 could fly at 590 miles per hour and now a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can fly at… 590 miles per hour. This seems like a lack of progress. In fact, one cannot innovate away some basic laws of physics. Pushing the air away from an airframe becomes very much more expensive at higher speeds, so about 590 miles per hour is a sweet spot: reasonable speed and bearable fuel costs. What has changed is the far better miles per gallon, the quietness, and the even better safety and comfort of modern planes.

Equally, there is disparagement of such useless innovations as Facebook and Twitter, the apotheosis of superficiality. However, if you were to measure these in terms of the costs of finding like-minded people with which to cooperate on shared interests, then that cost has plummeted, and ease of association has sky-rocketed. Thought can travel through a multitude of minds faster than ever before. Of itself that does not guarantee invention, but it certainly allows us to test the “wisdom of crowds” hypothesis, and to organise the rapid testing of ideas.

So, I am in two minds about our current capacity to innovate. I regret the slow progress in treating age related disorders, in finding new sources of energy, and in solving many social problems. At the same time, at almost zero cost through the medium of this new-fangled blog I am improving your mind, and you are shortly about to improve mine. Comments please.

Friday, 16 May 2014

How to become a millionaire

The coffee in my cup was still warm when I spluttered over a story in the morning papers, purporting to show that:

One person in five who receives university education becomes a millionaire, according to the office of National Statistics (UK).

The figures showed a stark gap in wealth between people with different levels of education. Only three per cent of people with no formal educational qualifications have assets worth more than £1 million.

10% of UK citizens are millionaires.

The figures also show an increasing wealth gap between rich and poor. The richest 10 per cent of British households own 44 per cent of total household wealth, and this share has increased under the Coalition. This group owns about five times as much as the poorest 50 per cent of the population, who between them account for just 9 per cent of overall wealth.

more evidence of why going to university is a very good deal

At this point I should say that the story was covered in many newspapers but I thought it best to aim my criticisms at the Daily Telegraph version shown above, which is right wing in orientation, so it should not seem that I was picking at an argument because it was left wing.

Look at each statement in term, and then we can start the test. Assume for the moment that the basic figures are right, even though they do not allow for personal and mortgage debt, do not mention inflation adjustment, do not show housing wealth and inflation separately, and only later in the article is there any allowance for age. Usual messy type of data, in fact.

Which statement do you consider the least validated?

Clue: one statement was made by a government minister in charge of universities.

These statistics show that by late working life there is a 7 fold difference in reaching £1 million in marketable wealth according to levels of education. Categorization is not causation. My gripe (which if you are reading this blog you will already have anticipated) is that prior differences in intelligence and diligence very probably account for a large part of this variance. In this story the differences between tribes of intellect are seen as something which wider access to university education will reduce. It implies that if all citizens had tertiary education the stark gap would be reduced. Would it? I do not doubt that everyone would know a bit more. I am certain they would have drunk more. But I doubt  that individual differences would have been annihilated by this benevolent intervention. The current 40% or so participation in university education might add to the discrepancy somewhat, but at marginal universities the occupational benefits are very small, probably lower than having started work earlier and risen up the ranks.

Before I get back to my rapidly cooling coffee, here is a minor little technical note: what percentage of the national wealth should a particular percentage of the population own? The implication of this damn fool statistic is that 10% of the population should own 10% of the wealth, and if they own more, something is wrong in that society.

So, try thinking about it. In a move likely to enrage Daily Telegraph readers, and possibly gain the approval of Guardian readers, let us put every citizen on the same wage, regardless of their talents. Then allow those who are inclined to do so to save some of their income, which usually pays 7% per annum, judged from historical records. Allow 40 years to transpire under this egalitarian wage regime. How much wealth will the top 10% own at the end of that period?

Clue: it will be more than 10%.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Woodley leads with an abstract


Handing over his long Edwardian frock coat and gold pince-nez to Heitor Fernandes and Aurelio José Figueredo, his Latin seconds,  Woodley bounded into the ring and opened the first round in traditional fashion, with a well managed and elegant abstract, which I replay for you below.



The Victorians were Still Cleverer than us: Expanding the Dysgenic Nexus

Michael A. Woodley1, Heitor B. F. Fernandes2, & Aurelio José Figueredo3

1Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Research, VUB, Belgium.

2Departments of Psychology and Genetics, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

3Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, USA.

It is theorized that dysgenic effects and the Flynn effect co-occur, with the former concentrated on highly heritable g (Woodley & Meisenberg, 2013) and the latter on less-heritable non-g sources of IQ variance (te Nijenhuis & van der Flier, 2013). Evidence for this comes from the observation that 19th century populations were more intellectually productive (Huebner, 2005; Murray, 2003; Woodley, 2012; Woodley & Figueredo, 2013), and also exhibited faster reaction times than modern ones (Woodley et al. 2013), suggesting that g has declined independently of any subsequent improvements that may have occurred with respect to narrower cognitive abilities. We conduct a new test of this model by examining historical changes in the frequencies of the utilization of words from the highly g-loaded WORDSUM test across 5.9 million texts spanning from 1850 to 2005. We find, consistent with predictions, that the item-level difficulties (δ parameters derived from Item Response Theory analysis) of these words predict the degree to which the words decline in use over time even when word obsolescence and temporal autocorrelation are explicitly controlled using Multi Level Modelling (the interaction of word difficulty with time negatively predicted word frequencies – b = -.09; semipartial r = -.09; the time variable was log transformed). When considered independently, predicted year-on-year word frequency trends furthermore revealed that the four high-difficulty (and presumably more g loaded) words trended negatively across time whereas the six low-difficult words exhibit no systematic changes in utilization with time. Given that the populations from which WORDSUM participant birth cohorts are sampled are known to have been in persistent dysgenic fertility since 1900 (Lynn & van Court, 2004; van Court & Bean, 1985) we interpret these trends as evidence that contributors to texts and their target audiences might have experienced dysgenic declines in general intelligence since the mid-19th century. These new findings increase the breadth of the nomological net of historiometric, psychometric and evolutionary biological findings indicating persistent dysgenic declines in g amongst Western populations since the mid-19th century.


In round 2 Woodley lays out his case in detail, which will begin after the one minute rest interval (which in publishing time  rather than boxing time means about a week or two).

Is young Woodley about to step back into the ring?

You may recall the frequent rumours that young Woodley, him of the long Edwardian frock coat and the gold pince-nez, was about to lash out at his tormentors on the subject of Victorian reaction times. His trainers tell me the young challenger is ready, and can be expected shortly at the weighing in ceremony.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

“It’s the people, stupid”: a review of Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance


At the 1960 censorship trial of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover the prosecuting barrister held up the offending volume and asked the jury what seemed to him to be the key question: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?" The popular reply to this question was: “If I had servants I would not mind them reading this book, but I would certainly keep it away from my gamekeeper”.

It is with a frisson of excitement that one reads Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” in the hope that there will be naughty bits, with any luck involving the private parts of what would now be called “the hired help”, preferably of different racial groups and, for English readers particularly, of demonstrably different social strata.

The naughtiest bit everyone is waiting for is when the bold author whips out his magnificent organ and thrusts it into the vast, presumably quivering, void left by academia’s unwillingness to admit that some scintilla of racial difference may be caused by race itself, a matter of seed over soil. How does this book shape up to the challenge of violating this well-defended and much admired vestal virgin?

Well, there is certainly a lot of foreplay. The title itself is slightly apologetic, as if our lusty hero finds his urges “troublesome”. Can we hope for a book which one day champions “Our Glorious Inheritance” boasting about our human curiosity, inventiveness and sexual urgency? One day, perhaps. Nonetheless, there are many good things here.

It is a good thing that a book about inheritance has been written by the science correspondent of a major US newspaper, and that it will very probably read by a wide audience. It is good thing that it is subtitled “Genes, race and human history”. It is good that the first chapter is entitled “Evolution, race and history” and that chapter 5 is entitled “The genetics of race” and chapter 10 “Evolutionary perspectives on race”. It is good that it aims to confront some taboos head on. Wade has eschewed the usual euphemisms about “genetic clusters” “population structures” “descent” or “heritage”. He has not been abashed by Ashley Montagu’s threating and absurd dictum that: “The very word race is itself racist”. In this book we are dealing with “races” a concept which probably came from the English practice of breeding horses for races. The book aims to discuss these races, and it champions the view that human evolution continues up to the present day. The book is a treasure trove, and deserves to be read widely.

Early on Wade coins what will probably turn out to be his most quoted line: “New analyses of the human genome establish that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional”. He reports estimates that 14% of the human genome has changed under recent evolutionary pressure, meaning in the last 30,000 years. If we assume a generation every 25 years, that is 1,200 generations. That is time enough for one variation to prosper over another, because highly selective breeding achieves effects in as little as 20 generations.

His first example relates to Tibetans 3000 years ago evolving a genetic variant which lets them live at high altitude. Greg Cochran puts the most recent variant at 8,000 years ago, and a previous one at 18,000 years ago. Apart from the matter of timing, the finding is instructive, though he leaves out the interesting bit, which is that the Andean variant is more recent and far less successful. His second example is the lower age of reproduction between 1799 and 1940 on an island near Quebec. Perhaps it is under genetic influence, but that is an inference from the failure to explain it via changes in nutrition, and will probably not immediately strike readers as conclusive.

Wade is stronger on the general point that evolution has been regional. It is hard to argue that the genome itself has been altered simply by the climate, rather than by selection. “The genes specially affected by natural selection control not only expected traits like skin colour and nutritional metabolism but also some aspects of brain function, although in ways that are not yet understood”. True. However, the last phrase could equally have been “in ways that are evident, measureable, but not yet fully understood”. (For all the quotations, please search on Kindle).

He also makes a strong point about the reality of race: “with mixed race populations, such as African Americans, geneticists can now track along an individual’s genome and assign each segment to an African or European ancestor, an exercise that would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality”.

Wade is also very good on the reigning doctrinal orthodoxy: “The social scientists’ official view of race is designed to support the political view that genetics cannot possibly be the reason why human societies differ – the answer must lie exclusively in differing human cultures and the environment that produced them”. “From this point of view it follows that more complex societies owe their greater strength or prosperity solely to fortunate accidents such as that of geography. The recent discoveries that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional, severely undercuts the social scientists’ official view of the world because they establish that genetics may have played a possibly substantial role alongside culture in shaping the differences between human populations”.

Wade further laments that the fact that sometimes a whole field of scholars drift politically to the Left or Right. University departments currently lean almost exclusively to the Left. It should not matter in any science worthy of the name, but it tends to influence grant applications and promotion, leading to self-censorship and to distortions in debate and a drop in research quality.

Wade argues that opposition to racism is now well entrenched, and even makes the large claim that “it is hard to conceive of any circumstance that would reverse or weaken this judgment, particularly any scientific evidence”. I sometimes think that is the case, and that individuals will be judged solely on their merits. I also believe that genocides rarely require any scientific evidence, and can be easily started by pointing out that some minority group has more money and power, for some presumed nefarious reason. The Hutus did not lay into the Tutsis because of a profound knowledge of the genome. However, I could never be sure that the next big fight will be on national or religious lines, and not on racial ones. Race has malign advantages when organising a fight, in that you do not have to spend time explaining ideological or religious issues, but can just point to your presumed opponents.

However, Wade misses the main point: freedom means that you should be able to find out what is true because finding the truth is intrinsically better than being mistaken. If, as seems likely, data emerges to show that there is a large genetic component in intellectual ability and that this varies between racial groups, this could be used for foul purposes. The Hutus might lay into the Tutsis (or the other way around, though it is generally the bright minority who get attacked) with renewed vigour once it is made clear that they are intrinsically brighter. Knowledge can be used to do bad things. The scientific ideal is that we should push on with discovery nonetheless, making sure that our results are presented soberly, with due reference to error terms and limitations. We must be clear that knowledge has risks, but that ignorance is worse.

Wade then gets into further silliness: “If researchers should one day find a gene that enhances intelligence in East Asians, say, they can hardly argue on that basis that East Asians are more intelligent than other races, because hundreds of similar genes remain to be discovered in Europeans or Africans.” In fact, researchers would say: “We have found a specific gene which explains X% of the reason why East Asians are brighter than Europeans. We now want to find the other genes which explain the rest of the difference”. In his next paragraph Wade changes tack somewhat, saying “Even if all the intelligence-enhancing variants in each race had been identified, no one would try to compute intelligence on the basis of genetic information: it would be easier just to apply an intelligence test. But IQ tests already exist, for what they are worth”.

In fact, computing intelligence on the basis of genetic information is exactly what researchers are doing at the moment. Currently the match with IQ results is very poor, because understanding how genes bring about the brain changes which lead to intelligent behaviours is very complicated, though very interesting. Once the match gets to be good, then those calculations will be possible. Why not admit that? Final point here, dear readers of Psychological Comments: it is so tedious when authors pander to their audience by attacking IQ. Cut it out, Wade.

Then he digs himself deeper. “A higher IQ score doesn’t make East Asians morally superior to other races”. In fact, that is an empirical question. Rindermann found that higher IQ countries (not just East Asian ones) tended to be more moral, less corrupt, more humane and more liberal in their approach to human freedoms. One can certainly argue that intelligence does not guarantee morality, but that is a different point. Wade is trying too hard not to scare the horses.

And then more: “The notion that any race has the right to dominate others or is superior in any absolute sense can be firmly rejected as a matter of principle and, being rooted in principle, is unassailable by science”. I think that the “domination” of one person by another, let alone one race by another, however true in reality, is something which can be objected to by reference to a moral principle: you should not behave like that to other people because it is wrong, full stop. I agree with that view, as a matter of moral preference on my part. There may well be a quid pro quo in a practical sense, in that if I behave well to others I hope they will reciprocate, but that is an additional benefit, and morality should not depend on it.

How about “superior in any absolute sense”? Can that notion be firmly rejected as a matter of principle, and be unassailable by science? It is pretty clear that European Jews are brighter than Europeans and brighter than East Asians, so it seems very likely that they are intellectually superior in an absolute sense. We can compare them on other measures as well: crime rates, social involvement, charitable giving and so on. I think they would come out pretty well, and even higher if we were to include joke telling. They may well be superior in an absolute sense, and to have achieved that by the very careful choice of marriage partners over many generations. If true, they are superior and worth emulating.

Except, of course, in the 100-meter race. West Africans do better than all comers including, I presume, Jews. Racial differences in sport are obvious, and offer an entrance point to the discussion of racial difference because most of the competitions involve absolute measures: one person runs faster than another, throws an object further than another, and so on and the winners are clear to see.

Wade continues in an explanatory and reassuring vein, both of which are required in the current academic atmosphere, as well we know. “The genetics of race will inevitably reveal differences, some of which will show [] that one race has some slight edge over another in a specified trait. But this kind of inquiry will also establish a wider and more important truth, that all differences between races are variations on a common theme.” Really? What if it turns out, as it may well do, that one race has a considerable “edge” over another race in a highly valuable trait such as intelligence? What then?

Genes do not determine human behaviour; they merely predispose people to act in certain ways. Genes explain a lot, probably far more than is at present understood or acknowledged. But their influence in most circumstances is or can be overwhelmed by learned behaviour, or culture”. On the first comment, I agree that neither genes nor environments determine human behaviour. Humans are agents and make decisions. As to the second assertion, I don’t know how confident we can be about genetic versus situational variables. What Wade has said is probably right, but it does not have to be right. We might find that, even in the most beneficial cultures, some genetic groups are more of a nuisance than others. What then?

Finally, Wade comes to his central assertion, which I reproduce in full:

Social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value. The emerging truth is more complicated. Human nature is very similar throughout the world. But though people are much the same, their societies differ greatly in their structure, their institutions and their achievements. Contrary to the central belief of multiculturalists, Western culture has achieved far more than other cultures in many significant spheres and has done so because Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy”.

Well said.

Some societies have achieved much more than others, perhaps through minor differences in social behaviours. A question to be explored is whether such differences have been shaped by evolution.”

Race may be a troublesome inheritance inheritance, but better to explore and understand its bearing on human nature and history than to pretend for reasons of political convenience that it has no evolutionary basis”.

Tribal societies are organised on the basis of kinship and differ from modern states chiefly in that people’s radius of trust does not extend too far beyond the family and tribe

As regards economic disparities Wade asks why some previously poor countries have been successful in becoming wealthy, and others have not. He certainly understands that there are cultural differences, as anyone who quotes the success of South Korea implicitly accepts. Say what you like about North Korea, it is one hell of a controlled experiment. “In the natural experiment provided by the two Koreas, the people are the same in both countries, so it must be bad institutions that keep North Koreans poor and good ones that make South Koreans prosperous” (18 times more so). A marshy island called Singapore ends up rich, and resource-rich Nigeria remains poor (and very populous). Could this be because of any differences between Chinese and African peoples? Frigid Iceland does better than balmy Haiti. Is the climate entirely to blame?

Wade’s point is that the free flow of ideas, not least of all about economics, should predict a rapid convergence of national economies, and thereby of wealth. Convergence is not the case at the moment, or certainly not at the speed expected since the decade of liberation from colonial rule.

Institutions are not just sets of arbitrary rules. Rather, they grow out of instinctual social behaviours, such as the propensity to trust others, to follow rules and punish those who don’t, to engage in reciprocity and trade, or to take up arms against neighbouring groups. Because these behaviours vary slightly from one society to the next as the result of evolutionary pressures, so too may the institutions that depend on them.” Hence, argues Wade, some of the difficulties encountered by Western countries in Iraq and in their expectations of the Arab Spring.

Talking of the perversions of science, Wade says that the central premise of racism is that there is an ordered hierarchy of races, and that distinguishes it from ethnic prejudice. Why? I assumed that racism was incorrect views of other people based on their genetics, and was thus a particular example of a general propensity to prejudice.

William Hazlitt (1830) remarked: Prejudice is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary.

What I like about Hazlitt’s definition is that it serves for everything and everybody. Distinguishing between pre-judgment and valid judgment is a process of examination of evidence, with honesty and promptness when one needs to change one’s mind. It is criterion based: you must aim to be as close to the truth as possible. I would rather stick with Hazlitt than fret about where racism shades into ethnic prejudice, particularly when “racism” is used so widely without necessarily matching its original historical meaning, which Wade is explaining here. As Hazlitt remarked further on in his essay ‘On Prejudice’: “Thus, the difference of colour in a black man was thought to forfeit his title to belong to the species, till books of voyages and travels, and old Fuller's quaint expression of 'God's image carved in ebony,' have brought the two ideas into a forced union, and men of colour are no longer to be libelled with impunity.”

And on that very point of not having sufficiently examined a question and adhering to it through ignorance, malice or perversity, all those researchers working in the field of intelligence who have been plagued with the malign influence of Stephen Jay Gould will be particularly pleased to see how Wade most expeditiously disposes of his slander about Morton’s skull measurements:

There are two lessons to be drawn from the Morton-Gould imbroglio. One is that scientists, despite their training to be objective observers, are as fallible as anyone else when their emotions or politics are involved, whether they come from the right or, as in Gould’s case, from the left. A second is that, despite the failings of some scientists, science as a knowledge-generating does tend to correct itself, though often only after considerable delay.” (In fact this particular error was spotted early, but repeated endlessly. The last repetition of the slander I came across was by a Professor in a stem cell laboratory two months ago. He admitted in our subsequent correspondence: “I was vaguely aware that there had been much subsequent discussion about the accuracy of Morton’s measurements”). Naturally, we often trust what we read in well-written popular books. Nota bene.

Wade succinctly summarises disparate sources to make a case for evolutionary change, describing the move to agriculture (after 185,000 years of hunter-gathering), Malthusian limits to growth, Darwin’s notion of natural selection, Gregory Clark’s work on the selective survival of children of the rich (and therefore probably the bright and industrious) , the industrialisation of England and Europe (after 15,000 years of agriculture), the rise and fall of China, Islam and Europe, which was semi-tribal in 1000 AD but well ahead in exploration and learning by 1500 AD. Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending’s 10,000 Year Explosion gets well merited coverage.

His coverage of the American version of the dysgenics movement is coruscating, and the path to German National Socialism clear. Forced sterilization in the US encouraged the same in Germany, and that led to gassing of handicapped children, a progression laid out by Robert Jay Lifton in his study of Nazi doctors in 1986. In contrast, British eugenicists just talked, mostly about encouraging the bright to have more children, and their few attempts at eugenic legislation floundered. In a book about genetics Wade does not have to list the abuses which have sprung from the Blank Slate hypothesis in the hands of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Ideas can be dangerous. Wade does not grasp the nettle: can a society freely decide on eugenics, and benefit from it?

Wade’s account of the importance of the sclera, the prominent white of the eye which the human monkey enjoys and the other monkeys do not, is a delight. The sclera is not a social construct. It evolved, it would seem, “to stand out like a beacon, signalling to any observer the direction of a person’s gaze and hence what thoughts may be on their mind”. I had never thought of that. Wade points out that signalling to an enemy what is on your mind is a liability, so there must have been a compensating advantage of overwhelming magnitude: allowing humans to infer what group members were thinking just by seeing the direction of their gaze.

Blushing is another visible signal shaped up by evolution. It is not a social construct but the self-mortifying signal of embarrassment, and neither are shame and guilt only social constructs, but vivid penalties for our own social failings as members of our tribe, part of our inheritance.

In discussing the distinctive human virtue of cooperation, Wade reports on Tomasello’s charming demonstrations of unprompted, unrewarded helpfulness in 18 month old children. Tomasello argues these urges are based on shared intentionality, an instinctive human trait, which emerges without being trained, and is not sensitive to rewards. Kids just want to be helpful, and also want other children to follow the rules of games. Two other common human predispositions are to criticize and if necessary punish those who do not follow social norms. (Don’t write books about inheritance). “Another is to bolster one’s own reputation, presenting oneself as an unselfish and valuable follower of the group’s norms” an exercise that may also involve finding fault with others. (Don’t speak well of people who write books about inheritance).

Other topics covered include: the creation of social trust, role of oxytocin and its limited radius of trust; Dmitriy Belyaev developing strains of sociable and unsociable rats by selection from the same strain of Siberian rats (does not mention that Broadhurst had done the same in the 60s and found you could selectively breed anxious rats and after 16 generation could relax selection within the new breed without alteration to the underlying traits); the heritability of aggression in humans “but very few of the genes that underlie aggression have yet been identified, in part because when many genes control a behaviour, each has so small an effect that it is hard to detect “; the role of MAO-A genes in aggression and in racial comparisons.

At this point Wade makes an interesting argument about the methodology of gene-behaviour interactions: among African American men (the most studied of Africans anywhere) the 5% that carried two MAO-A promoters were more likely to have been arrested and imprisoned than those African American who carry three or four promoters. Only 0.1% of Caucasian males carry such two promoters. Wade cautions that no conclusions can be drawn about racial difference because, apart from the need for replication, a large number of genes are involved in controlling aggression. True. However, the argument is back to front. The first step is to accurately measure the rates of aggressive behaviour for males of different backgrounds. This has been done in the US, and African American men are significantly more aggressive, probably 7 times more so. Any genes which are differentially present when compared with Chinese, Mexican, and European men are candidate genes for explaining the difference. The identification of one gene does not prove the case, but it could be one part of a general picture which explains an observed difference in violence. Wade does end that paragraph, after the cautions, saying “important aspects of human social behaviour traits are likely to vary from one race to another, sometimes significantly so”.

Lactose tolerance is given as an example of how raising cattle and drinking milk can “work into the genome” by means of favouring lactose tolerate individuals who then leave ten times more descendants through the generations, until their tribal genome is somewhat different from before.

The aggressive and independent nature of hunter-gatherers, accustomed to trusting only their close kin, had to yield to a more sociable temperament and the ability to interact peaceably with larger numbers of people. A foraging society that turns to agriculture must develop a whole new set of institutions to coordinate people in the unaccustomed labour of sowing and harvesting crops.” In a word, like their animals, humans had to become “domesticated”.

So strong is the fashion for denying race that forensic scientists, who are asked to assign recovered skulls of victims to racial groups to help the police trace the victim, do the task quickly (with about 80% accuracy) and then obsess about how to describe their results without admitting race. “Population stratification” seems to fit the bill. Equally, it is now so easy to assign race and mixed parentage from DNA that an obfuscation is thought to be required. Rather than say “race is in the genes” they murmur “We have used AIMs” (Ancestry Informative Markers). Incidentally, when a few years ago the UK National Health Service decided to admit that the analysis of blood should take into account racial background because there was a 20% difference in the diagnostic level on a particular measure, they added to that test result the phrase “Multiply by 1.2 if of Black African descent”. Come on, it’s Darwinian!

Races are a way station on the path through which evolution generates new species. The environment keeps changing, and organisms will perish unless they adapt.”

This entire section is a very useful summary of population genetics, and well worth a read.

Wade has fun with Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs and Steel. I claim a prize for reading the whole thing whilst having worked out on page 19 that it was a tendentious polemic, but one from which I thought I could learn something. He takes apart Diamond’s contrived view that race is mainly about skin colour rather than a cluster of criteria, and his specious selective examples about malaria resistance. However, the Diamond book has had an influence on a generation, so it is fun to see another soon-to-be-popular book giving reply 17 years later. Wade also exposes Lewontin’s claim that the amount of variation between racial populations is so small as to be negligible. I sometimes fear that Lewontin will last for ever in public debate (together with Stephen Jay Gould) and that the first communication from outer space will be “Are you the planet that gave us Lewontin’s fallacy?” It is the correlation structure of the differences between the populations which has so much of the impact, as AWF Edwards noted, but the misunderstanding has cast a baleful shadow.

Wade tells our human story very well. It has a good pace (evolution is so slow, so the narrative depends on multiple exposures speeded up into a film). Continents separate, glaciers come and go, and small bands of hunter-gatherers live mostly local lives, developing their particular traits as a consequence of relative isolation. Sex was local for a very long time, and as a consequence each tribe developed their particular flavours.

By chapter 6 Wade starts his discussion on the evolution of societies and institutions. This is more general territory, as far as I am concerned, and harder for me to judge as a psychologist. It is a very good read, and probably correct, and he develops the case for institutions growing out of the people who make them, rather than the other way round, thought the institutions, once made, can partly guide how descendants behave. I believe that institutions, although they can sometimes last a long time, essentially are creatures of people. If the institutions do not suit the local flavours of human nature they either alter very significantly or collapse.

The chapters that follow are very good summaries of relevant genetic-related descriptions of human history. They flesh out the hypothesis that: “It’s the people, stupid”. Indeed, you could almost summarise it with the wry Argentine joke about Archangel Gabriel arriving back from the making of the world and explaining that he has spent all his time making only one country, giving it mountain ranges, precious metals, wide rivers and the largest quantity of fertile alluvial soil in the world. God rebukes him for having favoured one country above all others. Gabriel replies: Wait until you see what sort of people I have placed there.

Interestingly, he shows how important downward social mobility can be. Clark’s hypothesis is that the greater rate of children surviving wealthy parents (probably brighter, restrained and hard-working) coupled with the lack of opportunity in an agrarian society led to humble jobs being done by bright people. Their diligent intellects provided the head of steam for the English phenomenon of the industrial revolution.

The book continues fleshing out that which had been outlined in the first chapters. Perhaps Wade has succumbed to the American habit of over-filled plates and fat books. No matter, all this stuff will be new to many people, as it was new to us recently. I record here some of the many points of interest. The larger point is that Wade is attempting a gesamtkunstwerk: nothing less than a thinking man’s Guns, Germs and Steel but with genetics and intelligence being given a chance to attend the party. I enjoyed reading these “continuation and amplification” chapters, and hope others will read them, but I would not want to die in a ditch to defend each and every interpretation. Fun, though.

Wade criticizes Pinker’s decision to reject the genetic explanation for a decrease in violence. It might be a contributor, inconvenient as that explanation might be to some social narratives. If this book has any impact, it will be to make it de rigueur to consider genetic variables as a factor in all behavioural observations.

Wade is too quickly dismissive of the data on national intelligence results and economic and social progress, saying the direction of causation is unclear. However, he instances only one set of arguments about Eastern European immigrants doing better on tests when they move to richer countries, and not contrary arguments such as the large expenditures on education in the Gulf not translating into higher scholastic attainments. In other parts of his own book he backs Thomas Sowell’s accounts of immigrant Japanese and Chinese doing well wherever they go: Hawaii, California, Brazil; and rightly points out that Sowell (always worth reading) avoids the obvious step of considering whether there is a genetic component in these diligent and bright East Asian immigrants, whose fellow nationals at home score so well on intelligence tests and scholastic attainments.

Wade considers the low achievements/high IQ of East Asians as a vast counter-example to Lynn’s thesis but this is simply explained by other parts of the Wade text: Japan is in fact very rich and not short of achievements, and China is getting rich fast and will do that even faster when, and if, it gets better institutions. Also, personality variables should get a mention. Japanese are more open to experience than Chinese, whose curiosity is submerged under social conformity.

Perhaps I am getting page turning fatigue, but it seems that later on Wade sees through all the “it’s the institutions wot won it” explanations he was backing earlier (perhaps it was just a straw man), and now says that the institutional explanation is weak and derivative and the best explanation is human evolution.

Wade has a good section on Jewish accomplishment. This familiar ground bears repeating, and when the Culture Explains All hypothesis rears its head Wade tartly rejoins: If Jewish advantage were purely cultural there would be little to prevent others from copying it. My derived variant is: If Jewish accomplishment were solely based on the child rearing skills of Jewish mothers, we would all have accepted adoption by now.

Chapter 9 is about the rise of the West, and contains a natural experiment I did not realise had taken place. Historian of science Huff explained that in 1608 a Dutch spectacle maker invented the telescope and within a few decades this spread around the world, thus putting all cultures on an even footing, allowing them to look up to the stars and come to some conclusions.  For once, there was a level playing field. In Muslim India the calendar was revised, but the Ptolemaic system was retained and no telescopes were built for a century. In the Muslim Ottoman empire telescopes fared no better. They reached Istanbul by 1626, were used in the navy, but no improved telescopes or observatories were built, nor were European astronomy texts translated, and no debates took place about what the telescope revealed. China probably got the telescope in 1618 and recognised it helped predict astronomical events more precisely, as avidly demonstrated by Jesuits who were using it to drum up converts. The Emperor noted their successes, but he and his court had no interest in European research, despite the Jesuits feeding them all the relevant material. In Europe an Italian, hearing a description of the new device, built one himself, turned it to the heavens and observed the moons of Jupiter, used the existence of those satellites to provide empirical evidence in favour of the theory that planets were satellites of the sun, and thus favoured the helio-centric solar system hypothesis. This got him into trouble with the local religion, but his ideas shot across Europe anyway, starting a scientific revolution. However, he lacked a proof, even though he had the wit to use a pendulum as a timing device (but not as an earth bound indicator of the earth’s rotation). Just as well that, when shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition, Galileo Galilei thought it prudent to recant his views (in public at least). Europeans were innovative, outward looking, eager to develop and apply new knowledge and sufficiently open, eventually, to have a revolution in thought. Elsewhere there was a deficit of curiosity.

Europe, constituting only 7% of the world’s landmass ruled 35% of it by 1800 and 84% by 1914. All of that, driven mostly by curiosity and the hope of gold. Adam Smith thought that “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice”. The great man was wrong in this particular, thinking that he could judge universal human nature on the basis of the Scots. They are a troublesome tribe, and it would be imprudent to regard them as the norm of humankind. Only in Europe was the magic formula of peace, easy taxes and justice achieved, and on that basis they ruled the world, if only for a century or so, because open knowledge was openly given away.

Good to see Wade give the great David Landes a mention. In one of his most crucial passages, on page 516 of “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” (how marvellous it is when someone else picks out the very paragraph one remembers as a pivotal point in a magnificent work) he finds that all the explanations about national wealth fail, except one: “culture, in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population, frightens scholars. It has a sulphuric odour of race and inheritance, an air of immutability”. Landes, as I politely told him (but in that former age only through his publishers, so I never heard his answer) ducked making the last step. Culture is a collection of habits created by individuals. Under the force of the current reigning Inquisition people felt they could not say aloud: “It’s the people, stupid”. Obvious, but not to be noticed or mentioned. Now, finally, it looks as if it can be mentioned. Wade points out that Europeans had at least 1000 years largely on their own to develop their own flavours of person, the Chinese 2000 years. The argument that the differences are cultural is of limited utility. If culture was really the key a Jewish Moma or an East Asian Tiger Mum, or child rearing guides based on Jewish or Confucian principles, should have an immediate beneficial impact on all racial groups. Worth a controlled trial, surely, when so much is at stake?

Wade points out that English and Chinese expatriate populations have behaved at a similar level to their source populations over many centuries, and a genetic anchor may explain this, and also explain why it is hard for other populations to imitate them. Malay, Thai and Indonesian cultures resent the Chinese, when the smarter move would be to imitate them, if they can manage to.

Chapter 10 is about evolutionary perspectives on race. Wade opens with a striking image: an African, a European and an East Asian are standing on a hill and by some mysterious compression of evolutionary time find that their mothers, grand-mothers, great-grandmothers and so on are standing in line down the hill, 3 foot apart, so 4 generations representing 100 years take only 12 feet to walk, and every 120 feet a thousand years. If you walk down your ancestral line (nodding respectfully to all your ancestral mothers while noting the changes in their features) you find that after 3,600 feet the European mother line and the Asian mother line converge, and after 5,280 feet the mixed European/East Asian lineage deriving from an adventurous hunting party merge with the longer-established African lineage from which it sprung. (My own version of this day dream, not as good as Wade’s, involved everyone walking back the maternal line to the Rift Valley, where I imagined that everyone would get on well and chat to each other but, humans being humans, would not want to have anything to do with the Neanderthals).

This chapter is good, and summarises the case for regarding the culture-only view of human nature as being in need of significant revision. “The slow march of evolution exerts an unseen collar on the pace of history”.

This book has much in it which can, once and for all, engage general readers in the case for a genetic contribution to human accomplishments. As such it may bring to the surface of everyday discussion the conversations currently restricted to the corridors outside the main conference hall of public debate. A distorted and often contorted set of arguments about race has received a serious challenge, and that is a welcome development.

Back to Hazlitt’s essay On Prejudice: The absence of proof, instead of suspending our judgment, only gives us an opportunity of making things out according to our wishes and fancies; mere ignorance is a blank canvas, on which we lay what colours we please, and paint objects black or white, as angels or devils, magnify or diminish them at our option; and in the vacuum either of facts or arguments, the weight of prejudice and passion falls with double force, and bears down everything before it.

Currently, the discouragement of genetic explanations for human behaviour leaves a blank canvas on which others can paint at will. The religionists of the environment give full reign to their wishes and fancies, crowding out other portraits of humankind. The study of the genetics of group differences has been cast as a dubious procedure, an example of prejudicial attitudes and malign intentions. Conversely, any proposal that human difference is due to the environment is judged as being fundamentally good. Hazlitt’s stricture that we must not prejudge any question without having sufficiently examined it certainly applies to Blank Slateism, still a dominant force in academic and political discourse.

Will “A Troublesome Inheritance” have as much impact as the un-banning of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” which is generally credited with ushering in the Swinging Sixties and the permissive age? Richard Hoggart, the star witness at the trial, confirmed it had achieved that status, and Philip Larkin gave it the final seal of approval:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

It would be great if open discourse about race were to begin in two thousand and fourteen. It would be great if neither discussion nor data about race were curtailed, censored or distorted. It would be great, for example, if those who mentioned race when protesting about differential arrest rates would also give the races of perpetrators as described by victims.

I hope people read this book. Wade has done a sterling job of preparing the general reader for the genetic age. Virtually all our social science research is genetics-free. A whole structure of Blank Slate-ism is going to have to be taken down, funeral by funeral. As cohorts begin to enter studies with their full genome already sequenced, genetic explanations will turn out to account for some or much of the variance currently attributed, in a rather vague but possessive way, to “the environment”. At a guesstimate, one third of health outcomes may be related to genetic variables and the same may be true for behaviour.

This is a good book, and it may seem churlish, given the flak Wade may get for saying things that are demonstrably true, to point out that it could have been even better. He is doing his best not to frighten his readers, brought up to assume that any interest in genetics will lead them into racial wars and even the gas chambers, if not the killing fields of Pol Pot. The notion of the blank slate has also caused much human misery, and plain ignorance is often even more dangerous than any theory. Public education has a long way to go, made even longer when so many in academia choose to resist genetics as an explanation for anything.

However, even when a good book opens out the possibility of a welcome shift in the zeitgeist towards a more open discussion of genetics as a cause of human differences, we must continue to carp, churl, complain and nit-pick our way through every page of it, so that, in the Western tradition of the Enlightenment we may eventually arrive at that least error prone temporary conclusion we call the truth.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Preparing for Wade? Read Rindermann


Still struggling with my comments on Wade’s fine tome, thought it might help to reference some entirely supportive work by Rindermann on the topic of why some nations are rich and some poor.

IQ Denegrationism stopped in its tracks


I am supposed to be quietly reading Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” and had only made a few comments amounting to 5,500 words when I got distracted by kind persons telling me what was in the early reviews, which are presumably written by those who are brighter, harder working, or all those things plus eminent enough to have been sent advance copies.

Matt Ridley’s review in The Times contains this final paragraph:

The average IQ of a group, a team or a race matters little, if at all. What counts is how well they communicate, collaborate and exchange ideas. Give me a hundred thickos who talk to each other, rather than a hundred clever-clogs who don’t. This collaboration is surely the true secret of human achievement and the true reason that race does not count, not because we are all identical inside our skulls.

Prof Richard Lynn writes in to say:

Matt Ridley (May 12) writes that “The average IQ of a group, a team or a race matters little, if at all”. This contention is fine, so long as the group does not mind having poor educational attainment, low income, widespread malnutrition, poor health services, high child mortality, short life expectancy, and negligible scientific and cultural achievements.

There is a huge amount of research demonstrating that all of these are significantly determined by the population’s IQ. For instance, the PISA results on the national attainments of 15 year olds in reading, maths and science published in December, 2013, were largely attributable to national differences in intelligence.

The highest scores were obtained by the East Asian nations of China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, who have the highest IQs, averaging 105. The European nations with an average IQ of 100 came next, except in the Balkans where the IQ falls to around 92 and the PISA results were somewhat lower. Behind these came a number of countries in South Asia, North Africa and Latin America where the IQs are in the range between 80 and 90, and the PISA results were lower still.

These national IQ differences are well established and were published in The Times on 10 November, 2003 but remain, pace Matt Ridley, the elephant in the room.

I feel it is only fair to warn IQ Denigrationists that I have them in my sights, and will have no hesitation forward them emails of a combative nature. Give me one clever clogs in Inmarsat who can make new inferences using Doppler shift on signals received from an errant airline rather than 100 duller ones chattering together about alien abductions.

Now, back to Wade’s comments on tribalism.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

MH 370 Predictions tested

You may recall that a few months ago I spent some time valiantly helping search for a missing airliner MH370. I must admit, many other millions were involved. On Sunday, 23 March 2014 I wrote the following:

Finally, at what level of cost will governments begin to lose interest? I predict by the 35th day after the disappearance, when the black box pinger stops, everything will be scaled back, and the searchers will return to the statistics lab, until a bit of the tailplane shows up years later in a fishing net.

I think it is good to evaluate any predictions one makes, so as to avoid “paranormal publication bias”. Here are my calculations:

Date of disappearance 8 March, plus my predicted 35 days equals 12th April.

Actual date of announcement of (sort of) scaling back of search was 28 April, though they did it in various stages. April 28 (Day 52) - Search operation set to enter new phase with more focus to be given to a much larger underwater search area.

The current public posture is that the search is continuing, and that on May 5 (Day 59) - Search enters new phase on floor of southern Indian Ocean.

I count my prediction as not being accurate. My mistake was to assume they would stop when it was clear that the costs outweighed the benefits. I had allowed 5 days for face saving, which was far too short.

By virtue of searching so far away from Kuala Lumpur they acknowledge, de facto, that the plane was able to fly until the fuel ran out. So,  they have virtually proved that there were no problems with the Boeing. The recently released flight path also makes it virtually impossible that the pilots and crew and passengers had all passed out because of some aircraft related problem, because the flight path shows intentionality, avoidance of land mass (and presumably radar) and the setting of a Southerly direction not the original Northerly one, or even the “take me back home” possibility of the Westerly one. Furthermore, the government knew all this within a few days of the disappearance, when aviation experts told them that they had never known the transponder and then the ACARS system go down naturally in the way it did in this plane. The systems were switched off. Investigators also wrote off the possibility of hijackers early on (no demands, no triumphant “taking of responsibility”, and confirmed it was unlikely two weeks later. It was also apparent they never checked passports against a central register, but that is another matter.

So, the Malaysian government faces the worst possible outcome: a Malaysian pilot or pilots took a Malaysian airways plane and deliberately flew it into the Southern Pacific, where it is very hard to find. A Malaysian problem. They have to review their personnel selection and health check procedures, and pilot/cabin staff security arrangements, which are best kept secret. They may have put in a third pilot since then, as a stop-gap procedure.

Remind me to keep checking any prediction I ever make.

The search continues, and continues.