Intelligence and the Lower IQ Averages of Blacks and Sub-Saharan African Countries

The subject of the possible difference in intelligence across races is highly sensitive, yet critically intricate, to such a point that if it were to be properly treated, a whole-picture analysis is all that would suffice. Here is a dive at one. This essay addresses the science, the facts, and the ethics around IQ studies. It discusses the discrepancy in scores across races, particularly about the reportedly lower averages of sub-Saharan African countries, and critiques the relevance of various reactions to and interpretations of these results.

1. Intelligence is a thing; IQ is a thing

This entire endeavor is based on the assumption that intelligence does exist, it can be clinically defined, and IQ tests are valid measurements of this definition. Here is an attempt at establishing the reliability of this assumption:

Intelligence exists: Some relativist arguments hope to discredit ‘intelligence’ as being a mere social construct. But unlike many everyday concepts, intelligence has been clinically defined, and beyond this strict scientific formulation, there is a fairly consistent perception of intelligence between individuals and across multiple applications. It is unlikely that one who is considered generally intelligent in one culture is essentially ‘stupid’ in another, even if this tag is based on different superficial reasons. Also, “intelligent” people tend to recognize each other with substantial accuracy. We may agree on a rough definition of intelligence as the ability to solve problems beyond the information at one’s disposal, and this definition would cover a broad range of occurrences of the concept; from behavior during everyday activities to performance in specialized environments. The violent resistance to ideas related to intelligence, then, is not a war of righteousness but one that holds grudges against a special feature of the trait. I reckon that this the feature of displeasure is its obviously uneven distribution, which results in various forms of social discrimination.

Just about all positive traits or qualities attract some variant of envy; beauty, wealth, power, admiration, fame, and even less definitive qualities like happiness. We find that social value is attached to any degree of these qualities based on their scarcity. And the higher the bar one sets for what counts as admirable, the rarer they get. Intelligence especially as a psychologically defined concept, however, is further removed from these unevenly distributed qualities, as in addition to being rare, it is considered mostly fixed. One does nothing to get it, one does minimally to maintain it, and when it does change it more likely does so towards a decrease than an increase. For all practical purposes, this is permanent, hope-deprived discrimination.

As overwhelming as the egalitarian sentiments against the concept of intelligence may seem, it does not measure up against the compelling evidence that justifies the continued relevance of the construct. Society’s reaction to intelligence is not uniform: where the deciding group finds it useful, intelligence—not much unlike beauty in pageants—is often celebrated.

The relevance of the intelligence quotient: IQ is—to the best of our scientific knowledge and tools,—an objective measure of intelligence. It is the most reliable measure of what we mean when we say someone is “smart,” “sharp,” or “brilliant.” Ironically, if you asked a random sample of anti-IQ-ers to present their best, most complex arguments against IQ, the result would be such that the best debaters will—themselves—have higher IQs than the lousy ones.

Some naysayers often object that IQ tests “were designed to identify mental retardation among French boy pupils.” However, this point simply ignores the fact that the science of psychometrics has been revised by numerous credible psychologists and other contributing researchers over several decades. Whatever the tests were initially designed for matters less than the fact that they are reliable for whatever purposes we have taken to applying them at present.

IQ has earned its place as one of the most valid constructs in the social sciences.

A lot more than mere numbers: The claim that IQ tests are a poor attempt at reducing such a complex phenomenon as human intelligence to a 2 or 3 digit number is very, very true. Luckily for us all, that is not what IQ scores are. IQ scores are essentially based on a comparison of cognitive abilities among human beings presumably sharing a similar form of intellectual complexity.

Indeed, the reaction known as “laughter” cannot be represented with a mere number. However, we can compare one person’s “laugh” against that of another, considering any of the features of laughter in general. Quantitatively, we could measure the relative loudness of two distinct laughs, the pitch of these sounds, and other variables like the laughing duration. These give us a quantifiable idea of who laughed “more.” More ambitiously, we could, measuring these definable features, construct a practical model of what laughter “is”, and given certain desired outcomes, decide what “good laughter” is and which ones, from a sample, are generally better.

Our adventure needs not to stop there. We can apply our newly-developed laughter model to crowds at a stand-up comedy show. And with those simple measures, plus the frequency of laughter, the diversity of the laughers’ demographics (compared to that of the general audience), and the number of comedy shows factored, we can derive a good mathematical formula with which we may compare the funniness of various comedians!

Let us call the output of this formula the Funniness Quotient, FQ. If Comedian A’s FQ is significantly greater than Comedian B’s, we can say, with statistical confidence, that the former is funnier than the latter. This is how science works.

The IQ digits are not supposed to ‘capture’ the complex concept – intelligence any more than a few digits of FQ should describe to an alien what humor is, or than a thermometer scale perfectly captures such a complex phenomenon as heat.

For IQ, the global average is 100, scores around 120 – 130 occur are achieved by roughly 1 in 50 people and are generally considered high, while much higher scores are a lot rarer and are attainable with fewer degrees of precision and accuracy. For illustration, an IQ of 156 occurs at about 1 in 10,000 and may be the average for eminent scientists [1] and self-made decabillionaires [2]; 180 occurs at about 1 in 20 million [3] (note that the, in practice, the rarity may differ across populations.) The standard deviation (SD) of the reported score indicates the scale to which it belongs. The current convention for most tests is to report scores in sd15, and higher SDs (e.g. sd16 and sd24) report higher figures for equivalent sd15 scores.

In a meritocracy, IQ may be correlated with intellectual achievement and performance in intellectually demanding roles even at the high extremes [4].

The global average IQ of 100 is the one for White males. Other races have demonstrated different averages. In fact, within the same race, different averages are reported across ethnic groups. Today, when one takes a proper IQ test, their cognitive ability is measured against not just those who have taken the test, but every human alive and potentially those dead and unborn.

“The majority of people have an IQ score between 85 and 115.” Source: https://cnx.org/contents/Sr8Ev5Og@5.66:8iySjqqi@8/Measures-of-Intelligence

The grand achievement of intelligence research, one could conclude, is the discovery of g – the general factor of intelligence, by Charles Spearman. In short, this implies that top performance on one type of reasoning test means one is likely to perform relatively well in all other types. This general ability factor is the spine of the modern construct of IQ.

2. The lower IQ averages of Sub-Saharan African countries

As a matter of much controversy, Blacks and Sub-Saharan African countries are generally reported as having a lower IQ average [5]. Some key points on the matter are listed below:

  • Multiple research results within the USA consistently show a relatively constant disparity in average IQ scores across races, with the average for Blacks being the least (around 85), Latinos next up before Whites (around 100), and East Asians higher (around 107).
  • Tests conducted in the original regions of these races, including African countries, show a similar hierarchy in IQ scores, with the countries in sub-Saharan Africa averaging at around 70 (some as high as 91, others as low as 65). While some of these reports have been challenged, especially due to the questionable circumstances under which some of these studies were done, the affected countries have failed to come up with counter-studies that could be considered as more reliable. Experience denotes that intelligence is severely under-researched in Africa, and those unattractive results seem to be the best available.
  • The socioeconomic conditions across nations, including the prevalence of diseases, illiteracy, violence, and hunger correlates significantly with national IQ averages.
  • Africans are under-represented in many indicators of intellectual productivity such as patents, research output, and top awards. Of the 24 African Nobel laureates, 10 are Black and 9 got their prizes for Peace, with Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka being the only Black Nobel Laureate in a predominantly intellectual category [6]. Beyond a likely shortage of talent, the sociocultural factors that may influence this situation are discussed later.
  • Other notable observations of features that may be ascribed to lower average intelligence, including social responsibility, failed governance, adherence to superstitions, and religious fanaticism, also lend credence to the conclusion.

It is important to note that while the “average IQ” of a nation is a useful measure, it does not reveal much about the actual spread of intelligence across the population, beyond the theoretical assumptions of the Gaussian distribution of IQ.

3. The environment plays a significant role

It is known that poverty stunts IQ heavily. Intelligence in poor communities may be affected more by nurture than nature, beyond what is expected in more prosperous societies.

Nutrition: Malnutrition causes significant deficits in cognitive ability. As a result, one could effectively improve the IQ scores of a population of malnourished kids by simply providing them with a better diet [7]; nutritional supplements improve cognitive development in developed countries [8]; dietary interventions may improve cognitive functioning in healthy adults [9].

Health: The occurrence of diseases, such as malaria, have a very significant effect on child IQ, sometimes resulting in a permanent intellectual deficit. The effect of medical intervention may be dramatic. For instance, in addition to significantly improving school attendance and specific learning outcomes in poor regions, increases cognitive performance in the long-run [10].

Education: Kids may temporarily show a drop in IQ when they are out of school for long. This dependency on formal education, however significant during childhood, is not permanent. As children mature into adults, their cognitive abilities tend to even out; and IQs in young adults will match their predicted average. It is noteworthy, all the same, that this South African study showed a significantly greater increase in performance on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test by African students upon practice than non-African students [11].

Climate: The current literature offers conflicting results on the relationship between ambient temperature and cognitive ability development [12], from experience, a hot environment is unideal for optimal mental performance. The exact consequences of the hotter climate in Sub-Saharan Africa on cognition are not known, but there are likely some negative influences from sheer discomfort due to the absence of temperature regulation in most homes. Extreme cold seems to have a detrimental impact, as well [13].

4. At the root of it all, is genetics

Despite the significant effect of environmental influences on individual and group-average intelligence, there is great evidence that the racial discrepancies in IQ have a genetic underpinning. The following highly convincing results are gotten from a meta-study covering 30-years of intelligence research [14].

Socioeconomic correction: The USA provides a unique environment for interracial studies on intelligence if one found it interesting, owing to its diversified demographics and shared progressive culture. However, due to the ugly history of racism and oppression—notably against Blacks,—one may justifiably reason that the Land of the Free might just not be the perfect Petri dish for this experiment; as the bitter Black history, such an individual would say, does account for all the socioeconomic disadvantages they face; this, they would reason, results in a plethora of unfavorable conditions including the apparent deficit in cognitive abilities that ‘leads to’ the lower average IQ of the Black population. However, this claim would be considered as having been disproved to all scientific certainty, if one were to admit the conclusions of the various studies where these socioeconomic factors were controlled for; including cases involving intervention programs.

Adoption studies and Asian catch-up: Studies involving adopted children of African and East-Asian descents suggest that the adopted Black kids had a higher average than their non-adopted counterparts while averaging lower than the Whites in White homes to which they were adopted. This phenomenon is more significant when we consider that in the case of East-Asians, they ultimately averaged higher than the White kids in their adopted homes; even though they had once averaged lower due to malnutrition. In essence, they catch-up… and overtake. This lends credence to the position that a strong genetic component controls the racial IQ averages.

Cultural bias? One anti-geneticist stance is that IQ tests are inherently biased to language and culture. In a bid to investigate this possibility, culture-fair tests have been developed and administered. They, such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices, generally have little to no natural language instructions and measure the general factor of intelligence by testing one’s ability to determine missing pieces from detected patterns. Ironically, studies show that African-American test-takers do better on the culture-unfair tests—with all the knowledge, English, and math requirements—than they do on the pattern-only tests. Curiously, there is a general tendency for the scores of Non-Black test-takers to show less discrepancy across test types.

Racial admixture: Say there are two primary groups – AA and BB, and a mixed group – AB as determined by genetics. On some measure – mQ, group AA scores a lower average than Group BB. If there is a strong genetic component to the inter-group mQ variety, then—depending on the significance of the score differences,—members of the mixed group – AB should score a higher average than Group AA, but a lower average than Group – BB, right? Well, this is precisely what happens with interracial IQ variation.

Cranial capacity: There seems to be a slight positive relationship between cranial volume and brain size with IQ; Once again, the Black-White-Asian chain is left unbroken. And, no, it is not the case that body size is not accounted for. The numbers indicate that the Black kids involved are usually larger during infancy (in cases where nutrition is balanced), and they consistently measure smaller brain sizes on average. However, the neurological basis for intelligence is rather tricky, involving cerebral blood flow [15], gyrification [16], and inter-sectional brain structure [17], such that smaller brain size alone does not imply lower intelligence.

5. Nice guys agree last

For obvious sentimental reasons, the racial differences in intelligence may be a tough bite to chew. Some of the educated people who are skeptical about genetic causes in the lower average scores in Black populations have no trouble accepting the same for the supposedly high IQ average (about 117) of Ashkenazi Jews; Or the fact that the occurrence of Neanderthal genes in a population’s DNA correlates with having a higher average IQ. A good number of these ‘kind’ folks are sensitive White people who do not want to promote racist ideologies. While I—on behalf of my ancestors—thank them for their consideration, I do not there is much ultimate gain in denial. The ‘loyalty’ of science lies in the pursuance of truth—as guided by reason and evidence—wherever disturbing it may lead. And the truth is the racial differences in IQ, aside from being overwhelmingly factual, make sense in the light of the currently accepted history of mankind according to anthropology. The long story is summarized thus:

100,000 years ago, the ancestors of the now Caucasians left Africa. Some 45,000 years ago, the ancestors of today’s East-Asians were separated from the Caucasians. Although there has been lots of interbreeding over the millenniums, the fairly preserved genetic compositions that we call ‘race’ today has profound implications on the similarities and differences of human populations. It is okay. Irrespective of what the actual history of the human species is, the essential truth remains that our various ancestors made different, sometimes tough, adaptation choices in the harsh game of survival. It makes sense that they bred for varying degrees of raw intelligence in response to their specific environmental requirements. As discussed below, this is nothing to apologize for.

6. The actual cultural factor in Intelligence

There is a legitimate concern over intelligence-perception bias, and it is barely about the underlying nature of IQ tests themselves:

Qualitative discrepancies: There are certain discrepancies in what constitutes intelligent behavior across races. One finds clear qualitative dissimilarities in factors such as creativity, social importance, sociability, cultural health, divergent thinking threshold, conscientiousness and assertiveness, ambition and so on, as they should correlate with a given IQ level. Since these observations function largely as ‘filters’ in our perception of intelligence, they point to an interesting form of bias, one not simply about the accuracy of IQ tests, but about how much g is indeed needed for various levels of real-life functioning.

Owing to the phenomenon above, qualitative studies on the relationship between perceived ‘giftedness’ or ‘retardation’ and IQ will not realize the same patterns in Canada as it will in Cameroon for IQ scores in the same range (e.g. 130-145 versus 145-160; and 55-70 versus 70-85.) Features like one’s vocabulary size, hobbies, and taste in music will vary across these cultures despite the level of education and exposure. It would be interesting to know exactly how these vary, but such comparisons may be difficult to make outside the same physical or virtual experimental environment.

One may attempt to completely dismiss the relevance of this bias, referencing the consistency of the “bell curve” distribution in all populations and races where IQ tests have been administered, and that it does predict certain intellectual achievements in those environments; they may also note that any abnormalities in the correlation between IQ and such achievements, in general, would be politically rooted. But this is either poorly conceived or dishonest. In the Funniness Quotient analogy, it would not be surprising to find that a population in Japan laughs differently than one in Nigeria. Maybe one group laughs louder, more frequently, or much longer per outburst, on average. Yet, we may find a similar data distribution in both cases. It is also safe to assume, in the absence of cultural absurdities, that ‘more laughter’ would mean a better comedian in both cases. However, similar FQs may have different cultural meanings in Nigeria and Japan, and this cannot be eliminated by simply applying a common scale. Because the scores do not describe the concept itself, mathematical sameness does not imply psychological exactness.

This analogously applies to IQ, except that the discrepancies would be culturally influenced and rooted in genetics. IQ isn’t intelligence itself but a very, very good indication of it; more so, the scores reflect an approximation of the essence of the psychological construct of intelligence – the general ability factor, g. Consequently, the Flynn effect—the observation by James Flynn that average IQ had increased over decades in developed countries—does not imply a direct ratio in increased intelligence in those populations. The general ability factor may be responsible for 40-50% [18] of the variance in individual performance in standard IQ tests. (Other factors like conscientiousness and overall creativity may play significantly greater roles in one’s performance on high-range [19] tests.)

Sociocultural mental states: I offer a formulation of this as a product of the emergence of a social sense doing via interpersonal interaction. It constitutes normal social behavior and is analogous to personality in individuals. Factors that influence this include the intelligence and personality of individuals making up significant proportions of the population; more stable social features like the economic climate and the geographical environment; and the more radical variables like wars, natural disasters, or epidemics.

The Sociocultural Mental States (SMS) of many African countries is one that emphasizes collectivism at the expense of individuality: ‘groupthink’, family values, elders’ advice, myths, and superstitions are some common characteristics. These structures offer a strong sense of community, cultural richness, and heritage. On the other hand, it implies that the society is optimized for stability (which may degenerate into stasis) rather than change (which may ingenerate progress.) In such societies, one could lead a productive life by simply doing things ‘as our forefathers’ did them. While this offers fewer incentives and—in fact—limited exploratory opportunities for most of the community members with higher intellectual ability, it provides a haven for those with significantly less ability. Conversely, more individualistic societies may encourage and hence attract expression of extreme activities. What this means, comparing IQ scores between two cultures, is that the culture with a higher average score may have ability-fostering features, while the other has survived prioritizing other socially valuable traits over raw intelligence. This priority may be evident in the fact that even today in many African countries, intelligence is grossly under-researched and psychometric tests are not popularly administered by institutions.

Genetic peculiarities: It is noted that Nigerians have an extremely high occurrence of the so-called ‘happiness gene’ [20]. One could imagine that differences such as these have personal and cultural influences on general outlook to life, and hence, several choices that could influence one’s options regarding and reliance on intelligence. This may have also played out in the reverse, with SMS selecting for those hedonic genetic features.

An IQ conversion factor: Given the considerations above, one should best think of trans-national IQ as having a conversion factor like currencies, and note that what an IQ of 110 means for a (Caucasoid) American, a Swiss, or a Singaporean is not what it means for a Kenyan, a Ghanaian, or a Senegalese. It may not mean the same for their sociocultural health – in the manner earlier explained, just as there are varying implications for purchasing power, what is considered as ‘wealth’, and hence social class and material satisfaction across economies. Noting the score as being x-standard deviations above the mean of the reference population may paint a more suitable picture. Of course, it is more practical to simply note scores IQ in terms of the global average. However, the significance of these geographical differences become more pronounced when one hopes to make localized decisions based on these scores.

7. The ethics are as important as the facts

Facts are neither harmful nor helpful in themselves. But there are, however truly absolute facts may be, no such things as ‘facts in themselves’ as far as they are conceived of and communicated by the human mind and are utilized in making decisions in the real world; there are both natural and circumstantial implications to merely stating a fact. Given that scientific knowledge is pursued—presumably—for the benefit of mankind, it is a mark of weakness, and not of bravery not to ensure the most ethical applications of scientific discovery.

Social psychology: It is observed that being reminded of racial stereotypes has a significantly negative influence on the test performance of the affected group [21]. This reveals how the influence of ‘facts’ can, under certain conditions of abuse, worsen performance in the otherwise competent, thereby self-fulfilling the incompetence prophecy. It is undoubtedly unethical to ignore such effects—where they are noticeable—when constructing and administering tests for certain groups. We must note, considering psychological concepts like priming, framing, and association, that one’s choice of words significantly influences the reaction of the listener.

I have observed that talented individuals from groups who are generally regarded as underperforming in certain areas may, due to self-amplified pressure from the awareness of the popular perception of their group’s incompetence coupled with their personal fighting chance, become obsessed with ‘representing’ their group as a means to save their common reputation. This is termed Moses’ neurosis after the classic biblical case. Sufferers may often grow more aggressive or overly defensive during interactions with ‘the others’ compared to their behavior in non-triggering environments. This phenomenon may also contribute to a messiah complex in their attitude within the homegroup.

Responsible communication: It is important to state facts responsibly. The ultimate criterion for sticking to words or phrases should be their relevance to the described phenomena. Rather than saying, “Group-A Members have lower IQs”, one should state that such a group’s “average IQ is lower.” Doing the former and then stating the figure disingenuously attaches the low-scores tag on everyone who belongs to the group. Exactly what one should not do is upon meeting an individual of African descent, insist—against all evidence to the contrary, that they have an IQ of 70. This is clearly irrational behavior on the part of the judger.

8. A choice to make productive interpretations

Racial disparities in IQ is indeed significant. This is primarily because intelligence is an important area of study, and one cannot explore psychometric intelligence without spotting those differences. It does matter much that IQ is a good predictor of academic and job performance, and is reflective in virtually all forms of real-life functioning. The degree of alignment of a nation’s economic strategies to its intellectual resources is a key determinant of its prosperity in the innovation-driven economy. Countries not satisfied with the currently reported results should carry out independent investigations. Those that accept but are displeased with the fact may consider ethical ways to improve this aspect of the quality of their human resources.

Immigration and the brain drain: It has been my experience, and that of many who report on the matter, that intelligent Nigerians do way better in advanced economies than they could do in Nigeria. There is almost always a rise in the socioeconomic status of emigrated families and the usual spike academic performance of African students who study abroad. Whatever the root cause, it is evident that the system caters for their needs, or at least motivates them to excel. The compound outcome of this transition is a high representation of top-performing Nigerians abroad. For instance, the Igbo Nigerians are the top-performing groups academically in the UK [22], and Nigerians are altogether the most educated ethnic group in the US [23]. The risky possibility is that, perhaps, all the best brains end up moving westward, decreasing the skill quality back home. The reality of these average IQ differences should influence government policies, and inspire strategic programs to attract the brightest minds back to their home countries while retaining those who may be plotting their escape from hell.

Affirmative action: If we wish to consider efficient ways to tackle the under-representation at the very roots, understanding the intricacies of the racial variation in intelligence will be of key importance. If there is a natural discrepancy in what the tested abilities mean for cognitive functioning, this, where proven, ought to be the basis for ‘special treatment.’ Of course, one would have to draw the line somewhere between appealing to race and accounting for individual differences, but this a consideration that will be better controlled for in a more science-based approach than is currently employed.

Conclusion

Different groups have different average IQ scores. People of certain regions score a lower average IQ than others. Sub-Saharan Africans have some of the lowest average scores, according to the best available data. This is nothing to be angry about, to mourn over, or to apologize for; especially as those reactions will result in nothing useful. While it is reasonable for anyone to be displeased with these results, it is silly to make the situation a Black-versus-White thing as is the case. But the fact that this is often made into an interracial contest is not surprising. People are quick to brag about the academic reputation of Nigerian-Americans in the US, that Nigeria currently ranks number 1 in world scrabble, and that a Nigerian family is “the smartest family in the UK.”

The racial differences in IQ may cause psychological stress and the implications may spark up controversy, but it is worthy of note that the numbers in themselves do not offer subtle details. These details, we should look into with a practical, productive, and progressive approach, knowing that within these seemingly unfavorable circumstances may lie an infinitude of opportunities begging to be exploited; and the individual qualitative discrepancies and the collective socio-cultural differences across races point to an interesting direction to explore.