James Flynn on Humanity's Huge Cognitive Leap

I know, it's one of those easily-mockable TED talks. But hey, just because they're easily-mockable doesn't mean they're worthless. This one is fascinating, even if cognitive ability isn't one of your hobbyhorses (it is one of mine). I even added German subtitles.

The 'Flynn Effect' is named for James Flynn, the man in this video. The Flynn describes the fact that in an absolute sense, humanity as a whole has become smarter every decade of the recent past. In the past 150 or so years, humanity has enjoyed steady increases in cognitive ability. Literacy has become almost-universal, average numbers of years educated has increased, the number of people engaged in cognitively demanding professions has skyrocketed, and the median level of cognitive ability has increased, making it normal and routine for people to think in abstract categories that would be unintelligible to people living in, say, 1890. The effects are concentrated mostly in the global North, of course, but they're spreading everywhere.

Forget just about everything you learned in sociology classes, this is probably the most important change in the human condition since the Renaissance. And most people have no idea it happened.

Cousin Marriage is a Disaster for Developing Countries

In some Muslim countries, over 50% of marriages are arranged, and involve cousins:


A sophisticated recent study finds that this inbreeding is associated with truly staggering losses in IQ:

We found significant decline in child cognitive abilities due to inbreeding and high frequency of mental retardation among offspring from inbred families. The mean differences (95% C.I.) were reported for the VIQ, being −22.00 (−24.82, −19.17), PIQ −26.92 (−29.96, −23.87) and FSIQ −24.47 (−27.35, −21.59) for inbred as compared to non-inbred children (p>0.001). The higher risk of being mentally retarded was found to be more obvious among inbred categories corresponding to the degree of inbreeding and the same accounts least for non-inbred children (p<0.0001).

The risks of inbreeding have long been known:

Inbreeding (consanguineous marriages among humans) produces homozygous offspring, since the mating of pairs occurs between genetically closely related individuals.... Consanguinity has been associated with significant decline in mean values for height, weight and body mass index (BMI) and the subsequent depression on children growth, much influenced in proportion to their inbreeding coefficients with least variation for non-genetic factors [21]. Inbreeding is also thought to predispose offspring to neuropsychological disorders such as hereditary Parkinsonism [34]. Several studies have identified parental consanguinity as an important risk factor for mental retardation or ID [26][27][35], and it has been shown that inbreeding is correlated with reduced cognitive performance [36].

The study results, in graphical terms:


The X axis is Full-Scale IQ. IQ scores of 75 and below are considered mentally disabled in Western countries, anything under 60 is profoundly disabled, generally requiring special education and lifelong assistance. (Which, of course, most developing countries can't afford.) There may be some confounding factors here, such as that higher-IQ, better-educated Muslims may be less traditional and more likely to avoid arranged cousin marriages, and higher-IQ wealthier Muslims may face less risk from malnutrition or pollution. But still, the well-known genetic danger of consanguinity is certainly explaining a lot of this unbelievably huge variance.

This is why IQ is so revealing. The debate on how to develop countries goes 'round and 'round, starting again every time the latest intervention (education, clean water, infrastructure) delivers less-than-overwhelming results. And the blame game goes back and forth, ad nauseam. But this study, and many more like it, point to an obvious factor which few squeamish PC Westerners are willing to discuss openly. Cousin marriage creates generation after generation of people with severe intellectual deficits. Eliminate it, and (after a few generations) you will unleash massive amounts of human capital that has been destroyed for centuries by the dead hand of tradition.

A Concentration of Citroen DS Cars

Visiting Belgium last weekend I came across a 'concentration' (as it's known in French) of classic Citroen DS cars. They're beloved all over the world, including the USA. Why, even the Wall Street Journal loves them, which means this may be the only French thing ever praised in that reliably Francophobe rag:

The DS is not just any old car, as is obvious should you park one next to a ’55 Chevy Bel Air, which then appears to have been built by cave-dwellers. The DS was a front-mid-engine, front-wheel-drive car with rear wheels closer together than at the front, allowing its sleek, tapering bobtail. The rears are enclosed in prim fender spats and, above, the remarkable panoramic greenhouse and fiberglass roof, canted like a beret. Did we mention it was French?

So without further ado, some Belgian Cirtoens:

Beige Gold Citroen

Beige Gold Citroen
Beige Gold Citroen
Beige Gold Citroen

Beige Gold Citroen


Die Zeit Gets on the Bandwagon

Once you begin looking at recent research on intelligence (as opposed to parti-pris polemics which are a dime a dozen), you begin to realize how much it explains about human flourishing -- and its opposite.

And lo and behold, none other than Die Zeit (Germany's most respectable upper-middle-class weekly newspaper) has perked up its ears. Perhaps someone there is reading my blog?


(Cover page of the current Die Zeit, with the title: "What Makes People Intelligent? Is it the Family or Schools? How much talent lies in your genes? And why do Vietnamese Children learn better than Turkish Ones?").