The Evolution Of Chinese IQ

In the discussion at the previous post, in which I took exception to Ron Unz’s theory of the East Asian Exception, he alerted me to so additional work on the matter he’d done as a Harvard freshman on Chinese IQ. You can read his summary of Social Darwinism and Rural China as well as Steve Sailer’s commentary on it.

Ron Unz’s Theory of Social Darwinism in Rural China

According to Ron Unz, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits for millennia on end. That is correct. Furthermore, Chinese rural life was “remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements”, far more so even than in England. I do not have the comparative knowledge to offer informed commentary on this, though I would stop to note that such a system may not have been so much a generator of “selective pressure for those able to prosper” under complexity as a reflection of already high IQ’s. After all on most social, economic, and technological metrics China was far ahead of Europe until the 18th century or so (though there were important exceptions). Furthermore, “virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing”, with far fewer of the feudalistic or caste distinctions that proliferate in India and pre-Enlightenment Europe. This is also correct.

This environment included a number of mechanisms that promoted a highly eugenic development path for the Chinese population. Ron Unz says that only the relative affluent could afford their wives for their children. This is not quite correct, or should I say permanently correct, as this issue only heavily manifested itself during times of Malthusian stress, when families opted to kill baby daughters resulting in skewed sex ratios. Otherwise, we should note that Europeans within the Hajnal Line married late and that the poor sometimes didn’t marry at all, so this particular eugenic effect was if anything stronger in Europe.

However the biggest, and most specific to China, eugenic mechanism is argued to be the Chinese custom of fenjia 分家, lit. “family division.” So if, say, a wealthy Chinese family produced four surviving sons, each of them would inherit only a fourth of the family land. The brothers would be back to square one and would have to hustle for money again. A couple of the brothers might be successful and build up wealth again; another would fall into poverty, and the last one would fail to even find a wife and have children. The effect was that every generation, “a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool.” As reproductive survivors would tend to be more intelligent and far-sighted, or so the argument goes, this selected for such traits within the Chinese population.

The system of meritocratic imperial exams, which enhanced the reproductive prospects of the very brightest who could pass them, was a further eugenic mechanism but one whose overall impact was “pretty small” compared with “the push from the bottom.”

Finally, Ron Unz compares his theory to Gregory Clark’s book Farewell to Alms, which argues for a eugenic mechanism in England in which the wealthy enjoyed greater reproductive success and, over the centuries, “civilized” the proles via genetic drift through downwards social mobility. As such, the traits of the aristocracy became inculcated in the English masses with all its attendant benefits, e.g. plummeting homicide rates. (This civilization doesn’t seem to have lasted very long however if yob culture and football hooligans are anything to go by). 🙂 He notes that these eugenic mechanisms operated in China for far longer than they did in England.

He also compares the selection pressures facing the Chinese with those that produced the famed intelligence of the Ashkenazi Jew. Unlike the latter, the Chinese didn’t only have to be bright and business-savvy; as a peasant, he also had to maximize “physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption.” As such, selection had a less one-sided skew in favor of intelligence.

 My Critique

This is a nice and elegant theory. It has no obvious contradictions. He is planning to publish his analysis in a formal manner pretty soon. However, before he does so I hope that he will address some of the following counter-arguments and discrepancies.

Re-The (relatively) complex legal environment selected for intelligence. HOWEVER, the Chinese – as do East Asians in general – only perform significantly (hugely) better than whites on visuo-spatial intelligence. That is good for hunting mammoths in the prehistoric tundra and some aspects of mathematics, but not anywhere near as good for navigating complex legal codes in which verbal intelligence is key. However, Chinese verbal intelligence if anything lags the indigenous peoples of most developed European nations. According to 2009 PISA results, Chinese verbal (reading) IQ was 98, which was inferior to Germany’s 102, the US’ 101 (including Blacks and Hispanics), and Poland’s 100; and equal to that of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece.

Here, ironically, Unz faces an additional dilemma: Either he has to reject his theory of the East Asian Exception (i.e. that the Flynn Effect barely applies to them), or he has to rethink his theory of Social Darwinism in rural China.

Re-The eugenic influence of fenjia. The model he sketches out is plausible enough on the surface. That said he has to account for several possible discrepancies.

Korea appears to have a max. potential IQ of about 107, while Japan is slightly lower. Did they have systems of land inheritance that also favored the development of IQ? I do not know. I hope Unz will investigate this matter. A potential problem, however, is that IF they did NOT have their own equivalents of fenjia, then it would be invalidated as a feasible explanation of why East Asian (including Chinese) IQ’s are so high.

Re-Comparison with George Clark’s theory. I don’t think this is a useful crutch to Ron Unz’s China theory at all. So supposedly England had this intensive genetic drift from the top to the bottom. However, today, UK natives (on PISA) score 101; in other IQ tests, the UK’s average is typically set to 100. These numbers are typically lower than those of the  Germanic countries like Germany, the Netherlands, etc. – and equal to the IQ’s of the Nordics, the Western Slavs like the Poles and Czechs, (Celtic) Ireland, and (Celtic-Germanic) France.

Really my critiques boil down to a few main issues.

(1) We need more comparative data on IQ, land inheritance systems in the past, etc. I strongly suspect that for all but a few exceptions (e.g. Ashkenazi Jews) the traits developed in prehistoric times still predominate above all others. After all, pre-agrarian prehistory accounts for 90%+ of homo sapiens sapiens’ existence; and selection pressures back then were FAR stronger because of small population sizes. Noncompetitive tribes got wiped out by hostile tribes or the vagaries of climate with chilling frequency. In medieval times, noncompetitive genes were far likelier to linger on to some degree, firstly because welfare systems – crude and rudimentary as they were back then (e.g. poorhouses; alms, zakat, etc; grain reserves; etc) – were still a league ahead of what can possible exist in a tribal hunter-gatherer society; secondly, because violent as the ancient and medieval periods were, they were vastly more peaceful (and populations were bigger) than was the case in the prehistoric era.

(2) To what extent was fenjia unique to China? Was is common to the East Asian region, or not? If not, why then doesn’t Chinese IQ greatly exceed Korea’s? Did it exist in Vietnam? If it did, why then is Vietnamese IQ substantially lower than China’s? Etc. Also, explain why these mechanisms didn’t result in a particularly high verbal IQ; after all, to understand legal matters, that is really what we need, no?

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