Jul 1st 2010 Economist Magazine
Disease and intelligence
Mens sana in corpore sano
Parasites and pathogens may explain why people in some parts of the world are cleverer than those in others
HUMAN intelligence is puzzling. It is higher, on average, in some places
than in others. And it seems to have been rising in recent decades. Why these
two things should be true is controversial. This week, though, a group of
researchers at the University of New Mexico propose the same explanation for
both: the effect of infectious disease. If they are right, it suggests that the
control of such diseases is crucial to a country’s development in a way that
had not been appreciated before. Places that harbour a lot of parasites and
pathogens not only suffer the debilitating effects of disease on their
workforces, but also have their human capital eroded, child by child, from
At the bottom of the average-intelligence list is Equatorial Guinea, followed by St Lucia. Cameroon, Mozambique and Gabon tie at third from bottom. These countries also have among the highest burden of infectious diseases. At the top of the list of countries with the highest average intelligence is Singapore, followed by South Korea. China and Japan tie in third place. These countries all have relatively low levels of disease. America, Britain and a number of European countries, follow behind the leaders. A list of the countries included in the study can be found here.
The consequence of illness
There is, moreover, direct evidence that infections and parasites affect cognition. Intestinal worms have been shown to do so on many occasions. Malaria, too, is bad for the brain. A study of children in Kenya who survived the cerebral version of the disease suggests that an eighth of them suffer long-term cognitive damage. In the view of Mr Eppig and his colleagues, however, it is the various bugs that cause diarrhoea which are the biggest threat. Diarrhoea strikes children hard. It accounts for a sixth of infant deaths, and even in those it does not kill it prevents the absorption of food at a time when the brain is growing and developing rapidly.
The researchers predict that one type of health problem will increase with rising intelligence. Asthma and other allergies are thought by many experts to be rising in frequency because infantile immune systems, unchallenged by infection, are turning against the cells of the body they are supposed to protect. Some studies already suggest a correlation between a country’s allergy levels and its average IQ. Mr Eppig and his colleagues predict that future work will confirm this relationship.
The other prediction, of course, is that as countries conquer disease, the intelligence of their citizens will rise. A rise in intelligence over the decades has already been noticed in rich countries. It is called the Flynn effect after James Flynn, who discovered it. Its cause, however, has been mysterious—until now. If Mr Eppig is right, the near-abolition of serious infections in these countries, by vaccination, clean water and proper sewerage, may explain much if not all of the Flynn effect.
When Dr Lynn and Dr Vanhanen originally published their IQ data, they used them to advance the theory that national differences in intelligence were the main reason for different levels of economic development. This study turns that reasoning on its head. It is lack of development, and the many health problems this brings, which explains the difference in levels of intelligence. No doubt, in a vicious circle, those differences help keep poor countries poor. But the new theory offers a way to break the circle. If further work by researchers supports the ideas of Mr Eppig and his colleagues, they will have done the world a good turn by providing policymakers with yet another reason why the elimination of disease should be one of the main aims of development, rather than a desirable afterthought. deliberative capability 'dynamic stability' inevitable dirigiste heurism' 'diasporatively cheap natural resources and labor' 'democracy of ignorantly autonomous peoples and nations'
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