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.

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Disagree With Ron Unz’s Conclusions On Chinese IQ

He writes:

These scores are indeed truly remarkable, and completely confirm the apparent pattern of Lynn’s IQ samples, in which desperately poor East Asians tend to score at or above the levels of the most successful and well-educated Western populations… But since the total population is at least well into the hundreds of millions, heavily rural as well as urban, the average PISA score of 520—corresponding to an IQ of 103—cannot be too dissimilar from the overall Chinese figure. And with China’s per capita GDP still only $3,700 and well over half the population still living in rural villages when the tests were conducted, these are absolutely astonishing results… Although opinions may certainly differ, I regard this new evidence as very strong support for my “East Asian Exception” hypothesis.

China isn’t anywhere near as backward as he portrays it.

(1) The urban-rural ratio was essentially 50/50 according to the 2010 Census. Furthermore, rural Chinese don’t really suffer from the absolute destitution common to peasants in Third World countries. They own their own land and it is almost impossible for them to lose it. Malnutrition is now close to non-existent. Slums are now very rare. According to a Gallup poll, Chinese now actually struggle less than Americans to buy food.

(2) Total Chinese meat consumption overtook US meat consumption in 1990, signifying a nutritionally adequate figure (as Americans eat a lot of and perhaps a bit too much meat anyway). Today Chinese meat consumption is half the US level. The PISA 2009 cohort would have been born in 1993, when Chinese nutrition had already essentially converged with the First World.

(3) He uses nominal GDP per capita which is quite meaningless. The PPP level of Chinese GDP per capita is $8,400 and that figure is probably underestimated.

Basically, if we adjust for the fact that in terms of basics (food, education, housing) China is now essentially equivalent to developed countries, it would make sense that its average IQ level is now only about 5 points from its potential maximum.

But really my fundamental problem with the “East Asia Exception” hypothesis is the huge paradox it exposes: Why was it Europe, and not China, that first underwent the Industrial Revolution? And the (initially unrelated) Scientific Revolution, for that matter? If as Ron Unz says the Flynn Effect barely applies to East Asian populations, then what you’d have had five centuries ago is 100mn Chinese, 20% of them urban – with an average IQ of maybe 95; and 100mn Europeans, only 5% of them urban – with an average IQ of 75. Sure Europe had various advantages (as chronicled by Jared Diamond, Kenneth Pomeranz, etc) but surely it couldn’t have trumped the effects of a 1 S.D. IQ advantage? That is why I believe the East Asia Exception to be historically implausible.

Analysis Of China’s PISA 2009 Results

As human capital is so important for prosperity, it behoves us to know China’s in detail to assess whether it will continue converging on developed countries. Until recently the best data we had were disparate IQ tests (on the basis of which Richard Lynn’s latest estimate is an IQ of 105.8 in his 2012 book Intelligence: A Unifying Construct for the Social Sciences) as well as PISA international standardized test scores from cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. However, the problem was that they were hardly nationally representative due to the “cognitive clustering” effect. The Chinese did not allow the OECD to publish data for the rest of the country and this understandably raised further questions about the situation in its interior heartlands, although even in 2010 I was already able to report a PISA representative saying that “even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average.”

As regards Chinese intelligence

Happily (via commentator Jing) we learned that the PISA data for Zhejiang province and the China average had been released on the Chinese Internet. I collated this as well as data for Chinese-majority cities outside China in the table below, while also adding in their PISA-converted IQ scores, the scores of just natives (i.e. minus immigrants), percentage of the Han population, and nominal and PPP GDP per capita.

Reading Math Science Average (native) IQ (native IQ) %汉族 GDP/c (n) GDP/c (P)
China* 486 550 524 520  ~ 103.0  ~ 91.6% 5,430 8,442
China: Shanghai 556 600 575 577 589 111.6 113.4 99.0% 12,783 19,874
China: Zhejiang 525 598 567 563 ~ 109.5 ~ 99.2% 9,083 14,121
Hong Kong 533 555 549 546 557 106.9 108.6 93.6% 34,457 49,990
Macau 487 525 511 508 514 101.2 102.1 95.0% 65,550 77,607
Singapore 526 562 542 543 550 106.5 107.5 74.1% 46,241 61,103
Taiwan 495 543 520 519 534 102.9 105.1 98.0% 20,101 37,720

* Twelve provinces including Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu totaling 621 schools, 21,003 students. Results have been released for Shanghai, and later on for Zhejiang (59 schools, 1,800 students – of which 80% were township-village schools) and for the 12-province average.

(1) Academic performance, and the IQ for which it is a good proxy, is very high for a developing nation. Presumably, this gap can largely be ascribed to the legacy of initial historical backwardness coupled with Maoist economics.

(2) The average PISA-converted IQ of the 12 provinces surveyed in PISA is 103.0. (I do not know if provincial results were appropriately weighed for population when calculating the 12-province average but probably not). We know the identities of five of the 12 tested provinces (Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu). They are all very high-income and developed by Chinese standards. Furthermore, these five provinces – with the exception of Tianjin – all perform well above average according to stats from a Chinese online IQ testing website.

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