Monday 3 November 2014

The grand sweep of history


Historians differ between those who study specific instances and those who detect general patterns. The former immerse themselves in a defined period, the latter take a broader sweep. Arnold Joseph Toynbee was a good example of that latter, grander genre of comparative history, his best known work being “A study of History” in 12 volumes. Immediately, you can see why few people read him nowadays. 12 volumes is a lot to read, particularly if the punch line comes at the very end, 26 years later. In his day he was extremely popular, and very influential. Not now.

He studied the rise and fall of 26 civilizations and concluded (in the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica)  that they rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. I suppose that coming to a conclusion like that was a major reason why he fell out of favour. That was history in the style of Thomas Carlyle, who believed that history showed that dynamic individuals like Frederick the Great could master events and make a difference. Toynbee believed something similar, in that he believed that the growth and decline of civilizations was a spiritual process, writing that "Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort."

The counter reaction to Toynbee was pretty severe. Some argued, on the basis of attacks levelled against his particular historical examples, that the whole edifice was doomed. Seriously, they asserted that getting one period wrong in some particulars invalidated the idea of general forces in human affairs. No room for approximations or even moderately strong correlations. As Joachim Fest said later in his 1973 biography of Hitler, the first substantial account of the dictator by a German scholar, that although Marxist historians saw biography as little more than courtly flattery compared to the inevitable forces of class struggle, the one thing you could certainly say about Hitler is that here was a man who had made a difference, a terrible difference. History would have been different without him. People can make a difference, for good or ill.

These matters link to a related debate, about the wealth and poverty of nations, and the extent to which the general wealth and health of a nation depends on the intelligence of the people, or in a refinement, on an intellectual minority. From an empirical point of view, this becomes a matter of predictive power. In calculating the wealth and health of a nation, is the best prediction to be obtained by knowing the average intelligence of the people, or the intelligence of the brightest 5%? Come to that, is intelligence required for national success, or is it better to have a good climate and plenty of valuable natural resources?

Toynbee imagined that neither biological endowment or geographical environment caused the rise and fall of civilisations, but he was very probably wrong on that count. Certainly, the current argument is between those (probably a minority) who stress biological endowment against those (probably a majority) who believe that geographical environment is the key factor. “Guns, Germs and Steel” was widely read, even though it was obviously wrong from page 19 onwards. It was written by a scholar willing to say things he did not really believe, but which suited the times. If the citizens of Papua New Guinea are really the most intelligent persons on earth as Jared Diamond asserted, then we would hanging on every word they say, and employing them to sort out the world’s problems. As per usual, the polemic was widely read and commonly believed. Far fewer people have read any publications on group differences in intelligence. A minority interest, to be sure.

I take the view that the most plausible hypothesis is that, over many generations, people adapted to the geographies in which they lived, and took on characteristics which included some differences in intelligence and personality. They created societies which initially arose out of those geographies and which were also increasingly moulded by those inherited genetic adaptations. The adaptations are never perfect, but are a work in progress, always delayed and somewhat out of step with new circumstances, particularly when those circumstances change fast, as in sudden changes in climate, disease, and invasion. So, the state of any current society will be a snapshot of accumulated genetic differences and more recent cultural adaptations. I see intelligence as the cause of differences in wealth and health, though those differences are mediated by institutions and habits (arising out of earlier clever or not so clever solutions to problems). I also accept that it may turn out that a common factor of system integrity is the cause of both intelligence and health. That is the nuisance about the empirical ideal: every conclusion always requires updating.

Some of these views are shown below:

Now, in the grand historical tradition, Gerhard Meisenberg has launched a thought provoking chapter which makes striking, if gloomy, predictions.

G. Meisenberg, 2014: Cognitive human capital and economic growth in the 21st century. In: T. Abrahams (ed): Economic Growth in the 21st Century: New Research, pp. 49-106. New York: Nova Publishers.

His chapter explores the interdependency between economic growth and cognitive human capital, which is also described as cognitive skills or intelligence and is measured either as performance in scholastic achievement tests or IQ. It shows that unlike the mere amount of schooling, intelligence has been a robust predictor of economic growth in the recent past. Plausible mediators of the intelligence effect include greater labour productivity, better institutions, more competent management, lower fertility, and wider time horizons.

Gerhard believes that the Flynn Effect will boost emerging countries but peak soon, and thereafter the main trend will be demographic and downwards, a clear dystopian perspective. Ever cheerful, I bring you the main arguments:

The starting point for this chapter is the obvious fact that economic change is the result of human agency. Therefore we need to seek its sources in the physical, mental and moral qualities of the economically active population. In other words, we have to seek explanations for large-scale economic developments in the human capital of the population: how it is formed, and how it is translated into economic outcomes.

My claim is that intelligence is the most general driving force and a major limiting factor for economic growth. It has played this role in the past, and is predicted to continue doing so in the foreseeable future. The face validity of this approach is evident when we realize that sophisticated minds are required to create and maintain complex business enterprises and government bureaucracies, make inventions, and use these inventions in the service of greater efficiency. Fairly high intelligence is needed not only for innovation, but also for the maintenance of industrial and administrative structures once these have achieved high levels of complexity and efficiency.

Intelligence is distributed unequally across countries. Average IQs in Sub-Saharan Africa, although difficult to measure with confidence (Rindermann, 2013), are around 70 while IQs in East Asia average 105. With 15 IQ points defined as one standard deviation, this difference is more than 2 (within-country) standard deviations on the “global bell curve” (Lynn, 2008). One likely reason for the great magnitude of cognitive differences between countries is that Flynn effects have been small or absent in today‟s less developed countries at a time (roughly between the 18th century Enlightenment and today) when mental horizons and psychometric intelligence were rising in the West. The “great divergence” (Pomeranz, 2000) between the West and the rest in economic history was, to the extent that we are able to reconstruct it, accompanied by an equally great cognitive divergence.

If Adam Smith was right with his claim that the pursuit of personal gain translates into benefits for the entire economy, and if intelligence promotes personal economic success, it follows that everything else being equal, macroeconomic outcomes will be more favorable in a society with higher rather than lower average intelligence. This argument has been presented by Lynn and Vanhanen (2002, 2006, 2012) in their argument for a causal effect of intelligence on national wealth.




Intelligence is predicted to favour economic growth because it improves job performance, management practices, institutional quality, technological and administrative innovation, ethical conduct, demographic behaviour and/or investment decisions―in other words, most of the factors that economists have ever proposed as determinants of economic growth. Anything that is affected by intelligence net of other causes, and that itself affects economic growth, is a bona fide mediator of the intelligence effect.

Intelligence promotes economic growth through multiple channels. Reduced fertility is a major mechanism, and it appears to mediate the effect of education as well (see Figure 4). “Good government” is another important mediator of the intelligence effect although “small government” is not. Good business management, or “managerial capital” (Bloom et al, 2010; Bruhn, Karlan & Schoar, 2010), may be important as well, but no good indicators of managerial capital are available at the country level. It is reasonable to expect that the quality of business management tends to be high in countries with effective government institutions, because both depend on the competence of managerial personnel. Therefore the governance indicators may, in part, be proxies for good business practices as well.
Another possible mediator of intelligence effects that is difficult to measure at the country level is the willingness and ability to cooperate. A review by Jones (2008) shows that cooperativeness, measured in the Prisoner‟s dilemma game, is positively related to intelligence. This correlate of intelligence may explain some of the relationship of intelligence with governance. Other likely mediators of the intelligence effect include less red tape and restrictions on economic activities (“economic freedom”), higher savings and/or investment, and technology adoption in developing countries.

Meisenberg believes that the environmentally driven increase in intelligence will continue for a while and then plateau. Eventually, as the demographics change, intelligence levels will start dropping again.

I hope I have said enough to prompt you to have a read.


  1. I don't undertand the demographic discussion.

    "This general law of demography explains why the self-reinforcing spiral of Flynn effect and economic growth could take off in Europe but not in classical antiquity or the Muslim Middle East. Usually, the adoption of contraceptive practices by the cognitive elite during the earliest stage of the demographic transition will curtail the supply of highly gifted individuals and thereby prevent further advances that could trigger sustained economic growth. In the Muslim Middle East, in particular, where contraception (mainly by withdrawal) was tolerated by religion and was practiced widely during the heyday of Muslim civilization (Musallam, 1983), we can diagnose protracted cultural and economic decline over the last millennium."

    But he had just cited Cummins 2012 which argues that the rich were in the vanguard of the French demographic transition which started in the 1740s -- a century earlier than most of the rest of Europe.

    Clark & Cummins ( ) finds that even though the general demographic transition in England started circa 1890, the fertility of the rich had already converged with the rest of the population by circa 1780. That is, the "survival of the richest" stopped around the time of the Industrial Revolution in England.

    I don't know this Musallam source but it looks like a qualitative discussion of mediaeval contraceptive practises, not a study of fertility differences across social strata.

  2. By the way there is a two volume abridgment of Toynbee generally considered quite good. I read it back in the early 1990s and agree. His lifelong area of expertise was the Ottoman Empire -- that part is excellent.

  3. AnonymousForGoodReason3 November 2014 at 16:55

    What happens to the dysgenic trend when we start selecting our embryos with PGD?

    Like with mobile phones:

    First 1% of us, then 10% of us, then 30%.
    First pushing us 0.1 SD, then 1 SD, then 3 SD.

  4. "obviously wrong from page 19 onwards."