The East Asian Exception to Socio-Economic IQ Influences
In “Race, IQ, and Wealth,” I examined the pattern of IQ scores for various European peoples as presented by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen in IQ and the Wealth of Nations and noted the considerable evidence for a large socio-economic influence. In nearly all cases, impoverished, rural populations seemed to exhibit far lower IQ scores than affluent, urban ones, even when the populations compared are genetically indistinguishable. Furthermore, these lower IQs often rise rapidly once conditions improve, in what might be called a “Super-Flynn Effect.”
However, this strong relationship between wealth and nominal IQ seems to disappear when we examine East Asian populations. A few decades ago, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and even Japan had extremely low per capita GDPs relative to those of America or Europe, yet almost all their tested IQs were around 100 or higher, comparable to those of the wealthiest and most advanced European-derived nations. In many cases, their incomes and standards of living were far below those of the impoverished nations of Southern and Eastern Europe, yet they showed no signs of the substantially depressed performance generally found in these latter countries, whose IQs were usually in the 88–94 range. This can be seen in the table below.
This clear pattern of East Asian IQs remaining almost unaffected by depressed socio-economic conditions had also occurred when such ethnic populations lived as small minority groups in America. Whereas in the early decades of the 20th century schoolchildren whose families had immigrated from Southern and Eastern Europe tended to have very low tested IQs, often in the 80–85 range, most studies of that era showed that children from Chinese-American and Japanese-American immigrant backgrounds had IQs similar or even superior to the white mainstream population, despite their much lower socio-economic backgrounds.
One possible explanation of this striking result might be that these East Asian test results actually were artificially depressed due to relative deprivation and that once this condition was alleviated, Asian scores would rapidly rise by the same amounts as had those of various European-origin groups in different periods, perhaps 10–15 points. But this would imply that the fully-adjusted mean IQ scores of East Asians might approach the 120 range, and this seems unlikely, since affluent, well-educated present-day Asian nations such as Japan or South Korea show no evidence of mean IQs so high.
Indeed, the most obvious aspect of the East Asian IQs shown in the table below is that they bear almost no relationship to the wealth of the countries at the time the testing was performed. For example, Japan in 1951 was desperately poor, and its real per capita GDP rose tenfold during the 40 years that followed, but its IQ rose just a couple of points. Similar huge rises in income without significant rises in IQ occurred in South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries. The 2006 sequel by Lynn and Vanhanen provides numerous additional IQ reports from East Asian countries, but they all continue to fall into this same general range of scores. Furthermore, Asian-Americans living in the United States these days are generally affluent, but although they perform very well in school, their tested IQs do not have a mean anywhere near 120.
The most plausible inference from these decades of accumulated data is that the IQs of East Asian peoples tend to be more robust and insulated against the negative impact of cultural or economic deprivation than those of European groups or various others—a truly remarkable finding. This might be due to cultural factors of some type, or perhaps certain aspects of East Asian spoken or written languages. But a fascinating possibility is that this IQ robustness may have a substantially genetic component.
This would be somewhat similar to various physiological findings in recent years. For example, health studies in America have repeatedly shown that individuals of East Asian ancestry tend to have significantly longer life expectancy and lower rates of illness than most other American ethnic groups, and this effect seems independent of other environmental or dietary inputs and persists even after controlling for socio-economic factors. Over one hundred years ago, The Changing Chinese by A.E. Ross, one of America’s greatest early sociologists, provided copious anecdotal evidence indicating greater Chinese resistance to illness and injury and perhaps even an ability to survive on more meager food rations. Certainly these sorts of traits might be expected to have undergone strong selection in a country such as China, whose huge population had lived many centuries at the absolute Malthusian edge of starvation.
With regard to mental traits, decades of testing have established that the intelligence subcomponents of East Asians and Europeans are somewhat different in structure, with East Asians being relatively stronger in spatial ability and Europeans stronger in verbal ability. Since these differences are also found in East Asians raised and acculturated in America and other Western countries, they seem to have a large genetic component. Although this particular result was less well established at the time, the general notion that different groups might have differing relative strengths in particular abilities was the centerpiece of Howard Gardner’s famous “Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” publicized in his 1985 book Frames of Mind, which has received widespread attention in media and educational circles over the last couple of decades.
Although the precise genetic basis of the differing East Asian and European skews in mental ability has not been determined, some corresponding physical traits have already been localized in recent genetic studies, notably skin color. Both Northeast Asians and Northern Europeans tend to have relatively pale skin, presumably due to the evolutionary pressure they experienced to synthesize maximal amounts of Vitamin D under weak sunlight during the thousands of years they lived in northern latitudes. But in the last decade, we have discovered that the particular genetic mechanisms that they evolved to block melanin production and produce lighter skin are dissimilar, having developed via entirely different mutational pathways.
To the extent that East Asian IQs are indeed far less vulnerable to negative socio-economic factors than those of other racial groups, recognizing this fact might make it far easier for us to admit the important role that such environmental influences might play in determining the nominal IQs of other populations.