“‘How could any man in our village claim that his family had been poor for three generations? If a man is poor, then his son can’t afford to marry; and if his son can’t marry, there can’t be a third generation” China’s poor were continually removed from the gene pool, their places taken by downwardly mobile individuals (Woodblock of farmer, Wang Liangjian, 1939, source)
Mean IQ is unusually high in East Asia, averaging around 106 among Han Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese (Rushton & Jensen, 2005). It falls off as one moves outward from the core area of East Asia, being lower even among the nearby and closely related natives of Mongolia (Lynn, 2007). This ‘IQ plateau’ must therefore have a relatively recent origin, certainly after the advent of agriculture and probably after the rise of State-pacified societies—where most people expected to succeed through work and trade, and not loot and plunder.
Is this ‘IQ plateau’ due to cultural and family values that are specific to East Asian societies? Not likely. Higher mean IQ is observed in East Asian individuals who were adopted at an early age into white American or European families (Clark & Hanisee, 1982; Frydman & Lynn, 1989; Winick, Meyer, & Harris, 1975). It also correlates with better performance at more fundamental mental tasks, like reaction times (Rushton & Jensen, 2005). It seems to be genetically determined.
What caused this genetic evolution? In a recent article, Ron Unz attributes it to the social dynamics of an agrarian society where both land and women were scarce. With limited prospects for starting a family, the lowest strata of society were continually dying out and being replaced by downwardly mobile individuals from the highest strata:
[…] only the wealthier families of a Chinese village could afford the costs associated with obtaining wives for their sons, with female infanticide and other factors regularly ensuring up to a 15 percent shortfall in the number of available women. Thus, the poorest village strata usually failed to reproduce at all, while poverty and malnourishment also tended to lower fertility and raise infant mortality as one moved downward along the economic gradient. At the same time, the wealthiest villagers sometimes could afford multiple wives or concubines and regularly produced much larger numbers of surviving offspring. Each generation, the poorest disappeared, the less affluent failed to replenish their numbers, and all those lower rungs on the economic ladder were filled by the downwardly mobile children of the fecund wealthy. (Unz, 2013)
In this Hobbesian world, reproductive success went to those with the most business acumen:
The members of a successful family could maintain their economic position over time only if in each generation large amounts of additional wealth were extracted from their land and their neighbors through high intelligence, sharp business sense, hard work, and great diligence. The penalty for major business miscalculations or lack of sufficient effort was either personal or reproductive extinction. (Unz, 2013)
Another factor may have been the imperial examination: “in China the proud family traditions would boast generations of top-scoring test-takers, along with the important government positions that they had received as a result.” But Unz later backs off from this possible cause, noting that only one percent of the population attained the top rank of chin-shih or the lesser rank of chu-jen—too small a percentage to have much evolutionary impact. True, but those two ranks were only the top of a much larger population pyramid. Success at a lower level, such as at the district or provincial levels, still brought some benefits and prestige, and the beneficiaries were a much larger pool of people (Frost, 2011).
Parallels to Clark’s model
All of this sounds much like the model that Gregory Clark put forward to describe the demographic, behavioral and, perhaps, genetic evolution of the English people. According to this model, the English middle class expanded slowly but steadily from the 12th century onward, thereby gradually raising the population mean for predispositions to non-violence, pleasure deferment, and other future-oriented behavior. Although this social class was initially very small in medieval England, its descendants grew in number and gradually replaced the lower classes through downward mobility. By the 1800s, its lineages accounted for most of the English population (Clark, 2007).
Did Ron Unz steal his idea from Gregory Clark? A casual reader might think so. Buried in the footnotes, however, is a mention of a similar paper that a younger Ron Unz had written back in 1983 while a student at Harvard. But at that time few people were thinking along the same lines. In the history of ideas, Ron’s experience is depressingly similar to that of Patrick Matthew, the Scottish scholar who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection a quarter century before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Let’s hope this article will give Ron a second hearing in the court of academic opinion. Let’s also hope his article will inspire further research, particularly by Chinese geneticists, historians, and social scientists.
Clark, E.A., and J. Hanisee. (1982). Intellectual and adaptive performance of Asian children in adoptive American settings. Developmental Psychology, 18, 595–599.
Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford
Frost, P. (2011). East Asian intelligence, Evo and Proud, February 18http://evoandproud.blogspot.ca/2011/02/east-asian-intelligence.html
Frydman, M., and R. Lynn. (1989). The intelligence of Korean children adopted in Belgium. Personality and Individual Differences, 10, 1323–1326.
Lynn, R. (2007). IQ of Mongolians, Mankind Quarterly, 47, 91-97.
Rushton, J.P. and A.R. Jensen. (2005). Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 235-294.
Unz, R. (2013). How Social Darwinism made modern China, The American Conservative, March 11http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-social-darwinism-made-modern-china-248/
Unz, R. (1983). Preliminary notes on the possible sociobiological implications of the rural Chinese political economy, unpublished paper.http://www.ronunz.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/ChineseIntelligence.pdf
Winick, M., K.K. Meyer, and R.C. Harris. (1975, December 19). Malnutrition and environmental enrichment by early adoption. Science, 190, 1173–1175.