Sunday, July 17, 2022

Cognitive evolution on the Italian Peninsula


A recent polygenic study has shown that mean cognitive ability is higher in the North of Italy than in the South. Cognitive evolution seems to have gone the farthest in the Northeast, perhaps because the Northwest earlier went through the Industrial Revolution, which severed reproductive success from economic success.




As a country, Italy came into existence only a century and a half ago. Regional differences are still strong, particularly between the North and the South. The “Southern question” is usually said to date from the unification of Italy in the 19th century:


In the decades following the unification of Italy, the northern regions of the country, Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria in particular, began a process of industrialization and economic development while the southern regions remained behind. At the time of the unification of the country, there was a shortage of entrepreneurs in the south, with landowners who were often absent from their farms as they lived permanently in the city, leaving the management of their funds to managers, who were not encouraged by the owners to make the agricultural estates to the maximum. Landowners invested not in agricultural equipment, but in such things as low-risk state bonds. (Wikipedia 2022a)


De Rosa (1979) argues that the South had already fallen behind the North by the 18th century. At that time, its middle class was small, and economic relations were still structured by paternalism and familialism. One could go back even farther, to the Renaissance or even the late Middle Ages, to identify the moment when northern Italy, and Western Europe in general, embarked on sustained economic growth and thus pulled ahead of the rest of the world.


That sustained economic growth brought sustained demographic growth, particularly of the middle class. Gregory Clark found that the English middle class expanded steadily from the twelfth century onward, its descendants not only growing in number but also replacing the lower classes through downward mobility. By the 1800s, its lineages accounted for most of the English population. That demographic change coincided with mental and behavioral changes: higher cognitive ability, lower time preference, and a lower threshold for violent behavior. In a word, the English became more middle-class in character. “Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving” (Clark 2007, p. 166).


Elsewhere in Western Europe, the middle class similarly expanded during late medieval and early modern times. The result would be a growing contrast between regions that had participated in this economic and demographic change and those that had not, such as southern Italy. The contrast can be seen not only on purely economic measures but also on mental ones, like the INVALSI standardized test—an annual test of skills in Italian schools. It is divided into two sections: Italian language skills and Math skills. On both tests, northern Italian students do better than southern Italian students, the difference being a little over half a standard deviation:


Yes, the North-South gap in academic achievement could have a purely environmental cause—and this is a recurring problem when we try to tease apart genetic and cultural evolution. If economic development is held back by a culture of poverty, that same culture may discourage students from trying to do better at school. Those students may also have less access to proper nutrition, medical care, libraries, and so on.


Polygenic scores for cognitive ability


That is why there is so much interest in measures of innate cognitive ability. The most promising one is the polygenic score (PGS)—the summation of alleles (genetic variants) that have been associated with cognitive ability, as measured by educational attainment.  At present, we have identified enough of these alleles to explain 11-13% of the overall variation in cognitive ability (Lee et al. 2018).


Yes, those alleles are just a sample of the total number, but why would they be an unrepresentative sample? More to the point: why would PGS data show certain geographic patterns and not a lot of random noise? The mean PGS does indeed differ geographically among human populations. It is highest in Eurasia, with East Asians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Finns having the highest scores. That geographic pattern is in line with IQ data (Piffer 2019).


Polygenic scores on the Italian Peninsula


In a recent study, Piffer and Lynn (2022) have found regional differences in Italy for alleles associated with educational attainment. They used two datasets: one encompassing 129 Italian individuals and the other 947. All of these individuals had all four grandparents born in the same part of Italy (this requirement was imposed to eliminate the effects of recent interregional migration). When the authors grouped the data into three large regions—North, Central, and South—they found “a clear north-south gradient, with central Italians occupying an intermediate position.” There was more overlap between central and southern Italians than between central and northern Italians.


The datasets were too small to show genetic differences within each of the three large regions. If we go back to the INVALSI data, we see that academic achievement is much stronger in the North-Northeast (Lombardia, Trentino, Veneto, Friuli) than in the Northwest (Valle d’Aosta, Liguria).


At first thought, that geographic pattern may seem counter-intuitive. In northern Italy, industrialization began in the northwest and came later to the northeast: “the diffusion of industrialisation that characterised the northwestern area of the country largely excluded Venetia and, especially, the South” (Wikipedia 2022b). If economic development had driven cognitive evolution on the Italian Peninsula, why would this evolution have gone farther in the northeast? Why would it be negatively associated with industrialization?


Because the Industrial Revolution put a stop to cognitive evolution. It severed the link between economic success and reproductive success. Previously, businesses were family-run, and the family provided the workforce. Successful business owners were incentivized to have larger families, and their children would have the means to marry at a younger age. Then, in the late 19th century, that stage of economic development began to give way to industrial capitalism. Financial success no longer translated into early marriage and large families who could help with the work. If more workers were needed, they would simply be hired. Business owners now tended to have smaller families because of the high maintenance costs of middle-class children (Canlorbe and Frost 2020; Frost 2018).


Cognitive evolution thus ended earlier in the Northwest of Italy than in the Northeast. By the same token, interregional migration has had more time to erode the cognitive advantage that evolved in the Northwest. Yes, the datasets were limited to people who had all four grandparents born in the region, but, for most people, that limitation would not eliminate the effects of interregional migration before the mid-20th century.





Canlorbe, G., and P. Frost (2020). Why are human groups so different? American Renaissance, March 20.  


Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, 1st ed. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, USA.


De Rosa, L. (1979). Property Rights, Institutional Change, and Economic Growth in Southern Italy in the XVIIIth and XIXth Centuries. Journal of European Economic History 8(3): 531-551.


Frost, P. (2018). Rise of the West. Part II. Evo and Proud, December 27  


Lee, J. J., Wedow, R., Okbay, A., Kong, E., Maghzian, O., Zacher, et al. (2018). Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals. Nature Genetics 50(8): 1112-1121.


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.    


Piffer, D., & Lynn, R. (2022). In Italy, North-South Differences in Student Performance Are Mirrored by Differences in Polygenic Scores for Educational Attainment. Mankind Quarterly 62(4), Article 2.  


Wikipedia (2022a). Economy of Italy – Southern Question  


Wikipedia (2022b). Economic history of Italy.  



Al Smith said...

Was it malaria? And could it have also influenced height? said...

I find strange including Lombardy in the North East.
And not naming Piedmont in the North West.
But could just be too difficult to find a young with 4 grandparets from Piedmont as the immigrating from the south was really big.

Lombardy was a strong industrial province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was able to resist the economic depredation when Italy was unified by Piedmont. Veneto and the South were not. This allowed the industries in Piedmont, Liguria and Lombardy to access low cost workers (and caused a large emigration to Europe and America)

The North East Model was supported by many emigrants returning with savings and experience and investing in small family enterprises; the "capannoni" went up like mushrooms and propted an economic miracle in the late 60s up to the 80's.

Santocool said...

This kind of narrative seems to suggest that the blame for the underdevelopment of a country or a region lies solely with its people and not its elites.

The Italian elites, especially those from the south-central region, are quite corrupt.

Peter Frost said...

Al Smith,

Malaria might have had some indirect effect, since it discouraged settlement of coastal regions and thus added an extra cost to trade. Could you elaborate more on your idea?

Parsis and Ashkenazi Jews tend to be short, but that doesn't seem to have hindered their cognitive evolution.


I should have written North-Northeast. It looks like industrialization began in the domains of the Kingdom of Sardinia (which was more liberal in economic policy than the other Italian kingdoms). Lombardy was not annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia until 1860.

I asked the authors why they didn't have IVALSI data from Piedmont, or from Emilia-Romagna, Sicily, and Sardinia. So far, I haven't received a reply.


On the contrary, the elites were largely responsible for the underdevelopment of the South. See the quote in the post:
"landowners ... were often absent from their farms as they lived permanently in the city, leaving the management of their funds to managers, who were not encouraged by the owners to make the agricultural estates to the maximum. Landowners invested not in agricultural equipment, but in such things as low-risk state bonds." said...

@Peter Frost
It is not malaria.
Up to 1800, people on the coast of South Europe risked to be captured by North African and Middle East Pirates and sold in Muslim slave markets.

The Social trust in South Italy was socially devastate after it went under the control of Spaniards.

The Unification in XIX century was followed by "The War on Brigands" (actually a civil war) that caused the emigration of a lot of the Middle Class from the South.

yeong said...

Slightly tangetial, but I wonder what you think of the recent Roe v Wade reversal. Decades of eugenic reproduction undone by conservatives out of pure spite. A few women in my acquaintance are worried about having to carry severely disabled (trisomy 13, 18) children to full term, and thinking of postponing family formation.

Bill said...

I know that this kind of science has sometimes spurious results and correlations but Fig 2 is really a statistical mess. I'D rather not try to read anything meaningful out of it. said...

Your acquaintances are probably not very smart or not very informed (probably both).
RvsW just moved the regulation from the Federal Level to the State level.
They can just move to a different state if the legal framework in their current state is not to their liking. They can also move to a different state if they diagnose a severe disability in utero.
If this is their fear, they can just use assisted fertility clinics to screen embryos before implant. They can also screen for desired genes in the meantime. Of course, in the right state.

Santocool said...

I am referring specifically to social development that is not entirely dependent on a ''traditional'' mode of economic development.

I don't know what can be considered ''eugenics'' to stop having children with certain conditions when they hardly procreate.

It is similar to the forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities that took place in the US in the first half of the 20th century.

It would be more efficient to promote discreet or moderate family planning depending on the range of cognitive ability, to begin with...

But, as I always said, there is no eugenics in its ideal practice without the peaceful and efficient elimination of genetic lineages associated with the antisocial personality spectrum, if these individuals are most responsible for conflicts and problems in human societies.

It would also be interesting to promote the more empathetic types. The only major problem or potential is the supposed association between heightened empathy and depressed intellectual discernment [a strong inclination to believe in sophisticated bullshitism].

yeong said...

Moving states is not that simple. There's also logistical issues with conditions that are diagnosed much later (eg +19 weeks like anencephaly or neural tube). In the worst case, ivf could be under scrutiny due to discarded embryos.

I don't know what can be considered ''eugenics'' to stop having children with certain conditions when they hardly procreate.
What about the opportunity cost borne by the parents in raising such children.

Santocool said...

Today, have any child is costly. Blame..."communists"??

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Southern Italy is NOT "Italian" but Greek. What you witness in Northern Italy is German character! The Lombards are a Teutonic Tribe.

Southern Italy was inhabited by Doric Greeks! In Calabria there are still two towns that still speak Doric Greek. I ought to know because I lived in the Last Greek speaking monastery in Italy, Grottaferata, which is outside Rome. There used to be 250 Greek-speaking monasteries in Southern Italy. Popes sometime in the 12th century (maybe earlier; my memory doesn't serve me well) ordered the suppression of the Greek language! They were fighting or breaking away from the Byzantine Empire that was Greek Speaking. That whole area was loyal to the Byzantine Empire.

There have always been conflict between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity.

The Popes who did this were Germans! Germans, with the Cluniac Reforms, moved into the papacy and really had NO idea of ancient Latin/Greek Christianity of the area.

The Mafia in America? They are NOT "Italians"---but Doric Greeks. The Doric Greeks if not disciplined become criminals by nature. One sees this in Crete, where once their ancient discipline slipped, became the pirates of the Mediterranean. The Spartans were Doric Greeks. (Mind you, Ancient Crete was not a racially homogenous area and neither was Sicily.)

One must be aware of the history of Italy. said...

@Santocool said...
"Today, have any child is costly. Blame..."communists"??"

The collectivists (The "cultural marxist") were raised by the old guard and infiltrated in place of power. They are even worse of the old guard because they are their children.
Elitists never worked a day in their life in anything where they could not pull favors.
They were always in power and had no idea what they were doing and are doing.

They don't understand second degree consequences. And they don't care.
They fuck up and then move to the next fuck up.

But fuck up have a exponential component and when it kick in it is VERY BAD.

Ask Chernobyl. said...


Don't get me wrong, I'm an anarcho-capitalist:
1) I don't like abortion BUT 2) I would not interfere with the woman seeking to terminate the pregnancy.

If you note the difference is terms is philosophical:
1) The woman has the right to terminate the pregnancy any moment, for whatever reason (right or wrong). It is her body connected to the embryo/fetus. She has total sovereignty over her body.
2) She (and the MD involved) have no right to seek the death of the embryo/fetus when she interruption the pregnancy.

The MDs (and the mother) MUST do what is reasonable to preserve the life of both human beings. If it is viable, you deliver, you don't kill. If technology is improved, we can make it viable sooner and sooner, until we can have an entire pregnancy without the woman.

The government will always try
to push for abortion and not pregnancy termination, because the newborn is a cost for the government (if leftist)
They will try to charge the woman (and the man) for the costs of rising the child (if they are "conservative").

My anarcho-capitalism soul just says:
deliver the baby, if possible, and give the baby to anyone available to take care of it.
But not force anyone to pay for it said...

"efficient elimination of genetic lineages associated with the antisocial personality spectrum"

"It would also be interesting to promote the more empathetic types."

I would suggest the selection should be left to parents and not any government.
If parents choose poorly, their children pay the price.
If the government choose poorly, the children pay the price and the government profit.

Empathy is only good if properly moderated.
You cannot, cognitively, empathize with too many people.
Someone will get first anyway and the empathizer will become his bitch.

You need empathy but the ability to switch it off when it is not useful.
You want to be empathic but able to analyze your own actions and understand if you are exploited or not.

As a nurse, I can tell you empathy is useful to understand someone else's feelings but not to decide what is the right course of action

Santocool said...

Capitalism, dear psychotic righ wing..

Santocool said...

"Don't understand the consequences of their acts"

Maybe for them but for capitalists, they understand and they don't care, even worse.

Ask for a former bureaucratic-military dictatorship??

Santocool said...

Most parents are idiots, period.

Government is an abstract term that can be bad, average or good.

Your anarchosocialdarwinism "soul" need therapy. Capitalism is a form of "market-state". You can't have a stateless and capitalistic "society".

Santocool said...

Capitalism is not essentially "private property".

Maybe most empaths are more empathetic in performatively declarative than in concrete ways.

Yes, too much empathy//compassion is not good. Quality always matters.

Still is important to differentiate pathological altruism from risky altruism//compassion. Typical pathological altruism is basically a Stockholm Syndrome, like right wing working class people who support "for-rich political right wing parties". Risky altruism is not necessarily pathological, like veganism or ethical cruelty-reductionism.

But you are replicating one of the myths about eugenics about your suggestion of parents. Eugenics doesn't need to be a radical or totally transformative practice, it can be practiced in moderation too.

Santocool said...

Capitalism is a society in which the capital is the fundamental wire that links it requiring a minimally centralized organization, a state, to "works properly".