Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Recent cognitive evolution in West Africa


If we look at alleles associated with higher educational attainment, we find more of them among the Yoruba of Nigeria than among the Mende of Sierra Leone. The reason may be differences in social evolution over the past 1,000 years, particularly in trade, urban settlement, State formation, and other forms of social complexity. 

Ife king's head (14th or early 15th century) (Wikicommons - Vassil)



How can we measure the genetic component of cognitive ability? We have long used IQ tests to get a rough idea, but they are not an ideal yardstick. Twin studies have shown that genetic factors explain about two thirds of the variance in IQ results, perhaps even less for comparisons between people of different cultural backgrounds.


In recent years we've found a new yardstick: the polygenic score. It's a more direct genetic measurement, being a summation of alleles that have been linked to higher educational attainment. As a method for estimating the mean cognitive ability of a population, it seems to be as good as IQ tests. Piffer (2019) found a 90% correlation between the two methods. In his latest study, he has again found the same correlation (Piffer 2021, see Figure 8).


Interestingly, that study shows differences in mean cognitive ability within West Africa: the Mende of Sierra Leone score much lower than the Yoruba of Nigeria. In fact, the Yoruba have almost the same polygenic score as do African Americans, even though the latter have about 20% European admixture. Unfortunately, we have no data on the Igbo of Nigeria, who are known to be high achievers at school and in other areas of life (Frost 2015).


These differences within West Africa support the argument that mean cognitive ability has continued to increase in some human populations, even in relatively recent times. With respect to the Yoruba, their cognitive ability may have increased in tandem with their advances in trade, urban settlement, and State formation from the tenth century onward (Akintoye 2014; McIntosh and McIntosh 1988). Meanwhile, the Mende remained at a lower level of social complexity.


There is one problem with using polygenic scores for West Africans, or for any non-European population. To identify alleles associated with higher educational attainment, researchers have used genomes of European origin. There is evidence, however, that the architecture of cognitive ability may differ in different human populations. The same alleles might not explain high cognitive ability in West Africans and Europeans. Indeed, Lasker et al. (2019) found a lower correlation between polygenic scores and cognitive ability in African Americans than in European Americans.




Akintoye, S.A. (2014). A History of the Yoruba People. Dakar: Amalion.


Frost, P. (2015). The Jews of West Africa. The Unz Review, July 4



Lasker, J., B.J. Pesta, J.G.R. Fuerst, and E.O.W. Kirkegaard. (2019). Global ancestry and cognitive ability. Psych 1(1)



McIntosh, S.K., and McIntosh, R.J. (1988). From stone to metal: New perspectives on the later prehistory of West Africa. Journal of World Prehistory 2: 89-133. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00975123  


Piffer, D. (2019). Evidence for Recent Polygenic Selection on Educational Attainment and Intelligence Inferred from Gwas Hits: A Replication of Previous Findings Using Recent Data. Psych 1(1): 55-75. https://doi.org/10.3390/psych1010005  


Piffer, D. (2021). Divergent selection on height and cognitive ability: evidence from Fst and polygenic scores. OpenPsych



Anonymous said...

I think your last paragraph is very true.

painlord2k@gmail.com said...

It is possible, if not probable, different gene code for similar effects in different populations.
Like with lactose tolerance in adult developed independently in Africa and in Europe, because the populations were separated for a long time and under different selective pressures.

The interaction between intelligence and personality is important, because being abstractly good at solving complex problems is not useful if you are not conscientious enough to exploit this capability.

akarlin said...

Their ironwork which I saw at the British Museum a few years ago struck me as quite impressive.