Saturday, July 26, 2014

A new start

When geneticist Davide Piffer examined IQ-enhancing alleles at seven different genes, he found that their average prevalence differed among human populations, being highest in East Asians and lowest in Mbuti Pygmies (photo used with author's approval)


My weekly posts are now appearing on The Unz Review ( By accepting Ron's invitation, I hope to reach a bigger audience and bring myself closer to other writers in the area of human biodiversity. When people work together, or simply alongside each other, minor differences can be ironed out and major differences narrowed or at least accepted good-naturedly. One thing I've learned is that academic debate can leave a legacy of hurt feelings. The impersonal can become personal, partly because people feel attached to their views and partly because views themselves can have personal impacts.

Working together also creates synergy. It becomes easier to identify research priorities, contact interested researchers, and end up with publishable findings. At present, most HBD research involves trawling through the literature and offering new interpretations. That's fine, but we need lab work as well. This point came up in a 2006 interview with geneticist Bruce Lahn:
A lot of researchers studying human population genetics and evolution are strictly data miners (i.e., they generate/publish no original data). There are limitations to such an approach, as it depends on the available data and prevents certain analyses from being performed. Do you expect to see more research groups turning into pure data mining labs in the future? Or will there still be a place for independent labs generating their own data (for example, resequencing a gene in multiple individuals to study the polymorphism)?

Given the explosion of genomic data in the last decade or so, which shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, there is likely to be a proliferation of pure data miners just because there is a niche for them. But I suspect that many interesting findings will still require the combination of data mining and wet experiments to provide key pieces of data not already available in public databases. In this regard, labs that can do both data mining and wet experiments can have an advantage over labs that can only do data mining. (Gene Expression, 2006)

Lab work will probably have to be offshored, not because it's cheaper to do elsewhere but because the "free world" is no longer the best place for unimpeded scientific inquiry.  A Hong Kong team is conducting a large-scale investigation into the genetics of intelligence, and nothing comparable is being done in either North America or Western Europe. Cost isn't the reason.

A few suggestions for research:

Human variation in IQ-enhancing alleles

We know that human intellectual capacity has risen through small incremental changes at very many genes, probably hundreds if not thousands. Have these changes been the same in all populations?

Davide Piffer (2013) has tried to answer this question by using a small subset of these genes. He began with seven SNPs whose different alleles are associated with differences in performance on PISA or IQ tests. Then, for fifty human populations, he looked up the prevalence of each allele that seems to increase performance. Finally, for each population, he calculated the average prevalence of these alleles at all seven genes.

The average prevalence was 39% among East Asians, 36% among Europeans, 32% among Amerindians, 24% among Melanesians and Papuan-New Guineans, and 16% among sub-Saharan Africans. The lowest scores were among San Bushmen (6%) and Mbuti Pygmies (5%). A related finding is that all but one of the alleles are specific to humans and not shared with ancestral primates.

Yes, he was using a small subset of genes that influence intellectual capacity. But you don't need a big number to get the big picture. If you dip your hand into a barrel of differently colored jelly beans, the colors you see in your hand will match well enough what's in the barrel. In any case, if the same trend holds up with a subset of 50 or so genes, it will be hard to say it's all due to chance.

Interaction between age and intellectual capacity

These population differences seem to widen after puberty, as Franz Boas noted a century ago (Boas, 1974, p. 234). It may be that general intelligence was largely confined to early childhood in ancestral humans, as a means to integrate information during the time of life when children become familiar with their surroundings. With increasing age, and familiarity, this learning capacity would shut down. When modern humans began to enter environments that had higher cognitive demands, natural selection may have favored retention of general intelligence in adulthood, just as it favored retention of the capacity to digest lactose wherever adults raised dairy cattle and drank milk.

After doing a principal component analysis on covariance between the above IQ-enhancing alleles and performance on IQ and Pisa tests, Piffer (2013) was able to identify three alleles that show the highest loading on the first component. Ward et al. (2014) have found that possession of these three alleles correlates with educational performance of 13 to 14 year old children. We now have a tool to measure the interaction between genes and age in the development of intellectual capacity, particularly during the critical period extending from pre-puberty to early adulthood.

Convergent evolution

Some human populations seem to have arrived at similar outcomes through different evolutionary trajectories. East Asians, for instance, resemble Western Europeans in their level of societal development, but this similar outcome has been achieved through a different mental and behavioral package, specifically lower levels of guilt and empathy with correspondingly higher levels of shame and prosocial behavior. In short, East Asians tend to enforce social rules more by external mediation (e.g., shaming, peer pressure, family discipline) than by internal control (e.g., guilt, empathy).

This difference probably reflects a mix of learned and innate predispositions, since natural selection favors whatever works, regardless of how hardwired it may or may not be. To the extent that these predispositions are hardwired, East Asians may be less able to cope with the sort of aloneness, anonymity, and individualism we take for granted.

It would be easy enough to study the neurological effects of social isolation on East Asians, and there is already suggestive evidence that such effects include unusual outbursts of psychotic behavior. It would be harder, however, to determine whether this malfunctioning has a heritable component.

Microcephalin - Why does its Eurasian allele increase brain volume?

Almost a decade ago, Bruce Lahn was among those who discovered that a gene involved in brain growth, Microcephalin, continued to evolve after modern humans had spread out of Africa. Its most recent allele arose some 37,000 years ago in Eurasia and is still largely confined to native Eurasians and Amerindians (Evans et al., 2005). Interest in this finding evaporated when no significant correlation was found between the Eurasian allele and higher scores on IQ tests (Mekel-Bobrov et al, 2007; Rushton et al., 2007). Nonetheless, a later study showed that this allele correlates with increased brain volume (Montgomery and Mundy, 2010).

The time of origin corresponds to the entry of modern humans into seasonal temperate environments. It also corresponds to the beginnings of Upper Paleolithic art—realistic 3D representations of game animals on stone, clay, bone, and ivory. The common denominator seems to be an increased capacity to store spatiotemporal information, i.e., the ability to imagine objects, particularly game animals, and how they move over space and time. If IQ tests fail to measure this capacity, it may be worthwhile to test carriers of this allele for artistic or map-reading skills.

ASPM - Does the Middle Eastern/West Eurasian allele assist processing of alphabetical script?

ASPM is another gene that regulates brain growth, and like Microcephalin it continued to evolve after modern humans had spread out of Africa, its latest allele arising about 6000 years ago somewhere in the Middle East. The new allele then proliferated within and outside this region, reaching higher incidences in the Middle East (37-52%) and in Europe (38-50%) than in East Asia (0-25%). Despite its apparent selective advantage, this allele does not seem to improve cognitive performance on standard IQ tests. On the other hand, there is evidence that it is associated with increased brain size (Montgomery and Mundy, 2010).

At present, we can only say that it probably assists performance on a task that exhibited the same geographic expansion from a Middle Eastern origin roughly 6000 years ago. The closest match seems to be the invention of alphabetical writing, specifically the task of transcribing speech and copying texts into alphabetical script. Though more easily learned than ideographs, alphabetical characters place higher demands on mental processing, especially under premodern conditions (continuous text with little or no punctuation, real-time stenography, absence of automated assistance for publishing or copying, etc.). This task was largely delegated to scribes of various sorts who enjoyed privileged status and probably superior reproductive success. Such individuals may have served as vectors for spreading the new ASPM allele (Frost, 2008; Frost, 2011).

Tay Sachs and IQ

Ashkenazi Jews have high incidences of certain neurological conditions, particularly Tay Sachs, Gaucher's disease, and Niemann-Pick disease. In the homozygous state these conditions are deleterious, but in the heterozygous state they may improve intellectual capacity by increasing neural axis length and branching. Cochran et al. (2006) argue that this improvement could amount to about 5 IQ points.

There was in fact a study in the 1980s to determine whether Tay-Sachs heterozygotes suffer from mental deficits (Kohn et al., 1988). The authors found no deficits but did not elaborate on whether performance was above-normal on the neuropsychological tests. They did mention that about two thirds of the Tay-Sachs heterozygotes had education beyond high school.

The raw data seem to be long gone, but it would not be difficult to repeat the study with a view to studying above-normal mental performance in heterozygotes and non-carriers.


Boas, F. (1974). A Franz Boas Reader. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911, G.W. Stocking Jr. (ed.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

Cochran, G., J. Hardy, and H. Harpending. (2006). Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science, 38, 659-693.  

Evans, P. D., Gilbert, S. L., Mekel-Bobrov, N., Vallender, E. J., Anderson, J. R., Vaez-Azizi, L. M., et al. (2005). Microcephalin, a gene regulating brain size, continues to evolve adaptively in humans, Science, 309, 1717-1720. 

Frost, P. (2008). The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene, Medical Hypotheses, 70, 17-20.

Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740-748.  

Gene Expression. (2006). 10 Questions for Bruce Lahn.

Kohn, H., P. Manowitz, M. Miller, and A. Kling. (1988). Neuropsychological deficits in obligatory heterozygotes for metachromatic leukodystrophy, Human Genetics, 79, 8-12. 

Mekel-Bobrov, N., Posthuma, D., Gilbert, S. L., Lind, P., Gosso, M. F., Luciano, M., et al. (2007). The ongoing adaptive evolution of ASPM and Microcephalin is not explained by increased intelligence, Human Molecular Genetics, 16, 600-608.  

Montgomery, S. H., and N.I. Mundy. (2010). Brain evolution: Microcephaly genes weigh in, Current Biology, 20, R244-R246. 

Piffer, D. (2013). Factor analysis of population allele frequencies as a simple, novel method of detecting signals of recent polygenic selection: The example of educational attainment and IQ, Mankind Quarterly, 54, 168-200.  

Rushton, J. P., Vernon, P. A., and Bons, T. A. (2007). No evidence that polymorphisms of brain regulator genes Microcephalin and ASPM are associated with general mental ability, head circumference or altruism, Biology Letters, 3, 157-160.  

Ward, M.E., G. McMahon, B. St Pourcain, D.M. Evans, C.A. Rietveld, et al. (2014). Genetic variation associated with differential educational attainment in adults has anticipated associations with school performance in children. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100248. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100248


Luke Lea said...

re: Tay Sachs and IQ Does that finding suggest that this single allel might boost IQ by five points? If so, that would go against the prevalent idea that no such genes exist.

Anonymous said...

"I hope to reach a bigger audience and bring myself closer to other writers in the area of human biodiversity... When people work together, or simply alongside each other, minor differences can be ironed out and major differences narrowed or at least accepted good-naturedly....Working together also creates synergy. It becomes easier to identify research priorities"

I had been hoping that HBDers would do just the opposite and set up a site like focussing only on science and with each blogger free to give their own individual viewpoint on the same article or topical question. What seems to be happening is the reverse of this process with bloggers presenting a single 'HBD viewpoint', with evident political undertones but masquerading as pure science, (and being rather rude to anyone who wishes to engage in healthy debate).

Human biology is a public good and should be accessible to everyone and with no political angle to it.

The area of IQ research could end up treating intelligence much as the finance industry has treated money. In other words, the concept of a 'society' could break down and, the removal of wealth to off-shore accounts combined with the creation of a super-IQ elite, could leave a mass of poor people unable to get themselves out of poverty.

But I nevertheless wish Peter all the very best of luck in his endeavours. Thank you for many interesting hours reading.

Sean said...

I agree with anon, Peter is most interesting when he is marching away from the HBD campfire into the frozen wastes. Like with his ideas about skin colour having not being due to vitamin D, no one else thought that possible and everything was against it just a decade ago.

A lot of what people were calling social Darwinism in the mid 20th century was a post hoc economic justification for big business having established monopolies. The 'HBD viewpoint', would create consolidated organised labour power in western countries, and business intolerance of organised labour is total. I believe it has been shown that mergers rarely succeed, but big business just keeps getting bigger. They want access to atomised labour within nation states (for what can't be outsourced).

The finance industry believes in hypercapitalism: that money can be created out of nothing. Not too different from the idea that effort and encouragement can create high IQ, which is actually commonest among the rich and successful, hmmm.

Difficult see how the West will become unattractive to immigrants, who can't be refused on the grounds that their genetic IQ will be lost to their homelands, because no one in power professes to believe that. I suppose education will become a fast track to becoming a migrant and the poor countries will become worse though a brain drain.

I'm dubious about the prospect of a super-IQ uber elite being created by science, in the West at least, because the existing elite in the West are the very ones who won't countenance the idea.

If people really understood that you get outdone in life because of your genetically limited IQ, which will be passed on to your children; there is no telling what that would be like.

From my (admittedly very limited) experience people never think like that. There is something unhealthy about thinking that way, you have to be alienated.

Anonymous said...

"HBD" has always been political. It started with Steve Sailer's writing at National Review in the late 90s. It assumes certain features of American politics, and uses scientific results to marshal support for a particular range of establisheed political positions, from a more neoconservativish, implicit nationalism to a more explicit nationalism.

It's not and has never been about pure evolutionary biology, which would allow for politics beyond the range that HBD is interested in.

Peter Fros_ said...


The prevalent idea is that an allele with large effect will probably have undesirable side effects as well. That would be the case with the Tay-Sachs allele.


Collaboration doesn't mean groupthink. It means collegiality, a willingness to work together despite differences of opinion.

Anon, Sean, and others,

It would be difficult to focus only on science. Scientists are also citizens, and citizens have a duty to participate in policy making. Right now, policy is being made by the wealthy. Is that a desirable thing?

At present, HBD is generating a lot of intellectual ferment, but this ferment is not translating into research, let alone research findings. One reason is the hostile academic climate, but a bigger reason lies with HBD writers themselves (including myself). We lack the practical skills for making things happen in the real world, e.g., writing up research proposals, creating a bank of friendly researchers and friendly research centres, looking for funding sources, etc.

Research findings will have political ramifications, and why not? I'm not a eugenicist with fantasies of creating a high-IQ elite. I'm a conservationist, and I see nothing wrong with that. I'm not among those who are seeking radical, irrevocable change. My aims are more modest: I want to create an alternative to the nutty globalism that now dominates the political scene from the right to the left.

Adam said...

The elephant in the room here is that for studying most of what HBD enthusiasts care to talk about, much much better "IQ" tests are needed first.

Everything used by professionals right now is terribly unreliable and not particularly valid as a measure of g too. Anyone with halfway competent knowledge of mathematics and statistics can tell that. To be fair, it's not that this research area is that much worse than the rest of psychology and especially social psychology. Just that genetic analysis goes nowhere fast with investigation into phenotypes and techniques that are decades behind what the hard, natural sciences would do.

The fact that the modal critic does not address this does not make it untrue nor prevent it from holding back any research people care about. It is a concern to be focused far too much on political debates with ignorant critics, and feeling good about winning those debates over basic empirical facts, rather than on expanding the science.

Sean said...

'"HBD" has always been political. It started with Steve Sailer's writing at National Review in the late 90s. It assumes certain features of American politics, and uses scientific results to marshal support for a particular range of establisheed political positions, from a more neoconservativish, implicit nationalism to a more explicit nationalism.

It's not and has never been about pure evolutionary biology, which would allow for politics beyond the range that HBD is interested in.'

If we are talking about a politics in which the whole world would cooperating to defeat poverty then Paul Collier is worth listening to (Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University and a former director of Development Research at the World Bank, and author of, among others, the award-winning The Bottom Billion and The Plundered Planet.) Collier says the poor countries are going to be locked into poverty as there is an going to be a massive ever accelerating exodus of the precious educated people leaving for the West. And he thinks the migrants take away only cultural, (ie not genetic) capital.

And Collier does not accept that those who will leave poor countries represent irreplaceable genetic capital vitally necessary for economic development. It's going to be every bit as bad as he says in poor countries, probably worse.

There will be a poor white problem in the West, just as there is in South Africa.

Anyway, HBD isn't backed by the Koch brothers. There isn't a single billionare (there are hundreds in the US) who backs HBD. Billionaires want a cold Brazil.

Anonymous said...

"there is no telling what that would be like."

(I'm just referencing the photo, no idea what the site's standpoint is).

"to a more explicit nationalism"

et in obscuro?

Conservation is good. Not sure this move is a step in that direction. But, buena suerte; que tus tacos estar siempre lleno.

Sean said...

Peter said "Research findings will have political ramifications".

If the political arrangements of societies are based on a theory, a better theory will cause the society be re-ordered on the more rational principles, as a new theory in physics would alter the science. In my opinion the conservative standpoint would be that societies are not constructed on rational principles, and a wholesale overhaul of society to conform it to a theory will be disastrous.

The facts about IQ and race according to HBD can't alter the nature of white society.

Santoculto said...

A major problem of some assumptions of the hbd movement is the idea of biological determinism. I agree and it would be stupid if it not did, we present genetic predispositions. However, life is fluid and use our heritage over time, in different ways and this is special for smarter people and also the most creatives.

We are like magic squares, sometimes we are in a way, other times we are the other. Our genetic predispositions are open to change, however small, in the same way that many can gain and lose weight. Our format remains the same, such magic cube, but we adapt to the environment in some way and who is astute to understand the changing environment and adapt to it, be smarter.

Sometimes, those who produce our technological toys may not be smart enough to realize the environmental changes and their necessary adjustments.

Think of all the technological innovations that the French colonizers brought to Haiti and the result of the Haitian revolution later. We are delighted as our geniuses of technology but we are neglecting our geniuses of real philosophy and you will not find in the academic humanities centers.

Regarding iq tests, I summarize the world of cognitive psychology more or less this way, the perfect world ...

a bit of the theory of multiple intelligences Howard Gardner

a little more on traditional intelligence tests

Human intelligence is not restricted to the partially superficial technical skills that IQ tests analyze. And based on the logic that the more intelligent types, tend to be cognitively super-specialized. I think Lewis Terman longitudinal study is primarily responsible for this targeting. And the results that we are seeing in schools for the gifted, said to be intelligent managers, who for decades have used arbitrary rules to select their student body such as to replicate the stupid ceiling iq 130 to join the school.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the alleles in the Rimol study were the ones discovered back in 2005 that were found to correlate with brain volume. They were indeed ASPM and MCPH alleles, but not the derived ones.

Anonymous said...

Er, meant Evans and Montgomery.

Peter Kilbridge said...

"Cats and dogs have no inherent right to life..." Science, or simple cultural prejudice (i.e., "speciesism")? The Buddha would have disagreed, and millions of Indians and Chinese with him. Philosophers are aware of the paradigm of the aliens who land on Earth. They are all evolutionarily as far above Einstein, da Vinci and Shakespeare as these three men are above Rin Tin Tin. Would they have the "right" to seize your children and use them in medical experiments, or to eat them? Why or why not?