With a title like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is an article about how people from some cultures are smarter than others.
But that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re exploring the connection between intelligence and culture.
Instead, this is a discussion of how the concept of intelligence and our measures of it are constructs and products of the cultures they are created in.
In other words, what you think is smart might not be the same for someone from another culture.
So, let’s look at how intelligence is measured in different places and what it means to be a smarty pants in other parts of the world.
Whether it was the philosopher Voltaire, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, or the writer Mark Twain who first said it doesn’t really matter. They were all right:
Common sense is not so common.
Although it’s defined as the good judgment in practical matters that everyone shares, we’re constantly reminded that common sense isn’t shared by all.
If it was, we probably wouldn’t need to have a word for it!
But in fact, just about every culture has a phrase that means the same thing, like le bon sense (good sense) in French, alfutrat alsalima (common sense) in Arabic, or cháng shì (general knowledge) in Chinese.
But is common sense really common?
Think about all the basic, practical things a person has to know to survive and thrive in a cold country like, say, Norway – how to stay warm and find food. How does that compare with living in a hot country like Sudan, where you need to know how to stay cool and keep hydrated?
Not quite the same, right?
This simple example lets us know that common sense is different between geographical regions.
Since this so-called “shared intelligence” is the basis for most people’s concept of smarts, we can already see how different cultures could have developed different ideas of what it means to be intelligent over time.
Someone born into a hunter-gather society deep in the Amazon rainforest would be esteemed as highly intelligent if they knew the names and uses of thousands of plants and animals, were able to construct tools and weapons out of basic materials, and were able to remember and recite dozens of the tribe’s stories vast tracts of their oral history.
But this same intelligent individual might not score very high on a modern IQ test if they could even take the test in a language they could understand.
What does that say for measures of intelligence?
Culture has a hugely important role in what we think of as intelligence and how we design tests to measure it.
Each of us might feel like we know a lot, but in fact, most of us are pretty useless without everyone else as a part of our culture.
Hilarious sci-fi writer Douglas Adams summed this problem up perfectly in his book Mostly Harmless, saying of his main character:
“Left to his own devices, he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich, and that was it.”
Imagine you were hurled back in time hundreds or even thousands of years ago. You’d definitely have no internet, and charging your phone would be a struggle. Would you be able to do anything?
If the modern hunter-gatherer joined you in your time travel, people would very likely be more impressed by their intelligence than yours.
You might be able to explain differential equations to medieval farmers, but I’m not sure they’d be all that interested, to be honest.
So, while each of us has a certain level of intelligence that may indeed be higher than people in the past, it’s our collective intelligence that’s even more important.
Altogether, we’re able to remember the names of millions of species, isolate and combine thousands of chemicals, and remember how they’ll react, construct skyscrapers, and even fly human beings safely into outer space. As a culture, we may be more intelligent than people who have a more basic, natural lifestyle.
On the other hand, the pollution and destruction our lifestyle wreaks on the planet, our environments, and our own health throws the question of who’s more intelligent back in our faces.
The “Flynn Effect” – Rising IQs
Named after intelligence researcher James Flynn, the “Flynn Effect” is a general upward creep in IQ scores over time.
Flynn recognized that raw scores on IQ tests were going up in various societies by about three IQ points every decade. That means that if you have kids at the age of 30, they’ll grow up to have IQs nine points higher than yours.
Well, on average, anyway. All things being equal.
But all things aren’t equal around the world, across different countries, or even across different communities in the same city.
A lot of different ideas have been put forward as to why IQ scores might be increasing over time.
If IQ is simply genetic, we should see roughly the same scores over time since parents just pass on their genes, and there shouldn’t be any reason for kids to be smarter than their parents. Some would be smarter and some less intelligent, so it would average out.
Proper nutrition can have an important effect on childhood development.
Not only does getting enough of the right foods help children’s bodies to grow properly, it also has hugely important effects on their brains.
So, in cultures that have been able to improve food quality over the years, especially for children, you’d expect to see increases in intelligence. When brains and bodies are properly nourished, everything works better, and IQs could certainly go up.
I can think about the food available to me when I was a child and compare that with what my grandmother told me she ate during the Great Depression in the 1930s…
School and test smarts
It’s hard to do anything well the first time, whether we’re talking about riding a bike, coking a perfect French omelet, or having sex.
So why would taking an IQ test be any different?
These tests are designed to check for two different things: fluid and crystallized intelligence.
Crystallized intelligence is the ability to remember facts and set procedures. If you’re shown a picture of a monkey and a picture of a tortoise and asked, “Which one is a mammal?” you’d be able to answer based on your crystallized intelligence.
Fluid intelligence is your ability to adapt prior knowledge to new situations and often uses abstract reasoning. An example question that tests fluid intelligence is, “1, 2, 5, 26, x. What is the value of x, the next number in this series?”
Over the decades, children have been spending more time in school, therefore learning more facts and figures to boost their crystallized intelligence.
They also more frequently encounter thought exercises that force them to use fluid intelligence. Therefore, IQs may be increasing because people have more exposure to the types of questions that IQ tests use.
Thinking back to the Amazonian hunter-gatherer, their crystallized knowledge of plant and animal names wouldn’t be as much use on a modern IQ test as knowing how to compute algebraic equations. Their fluid intelligence that allows them to create innovative tools from local resources wouldn’t help to solve number series.
So, modern IQ tests are skewed towards testing certain types of knowledge that are taught in modern schools. They have a clear cultural bias.
Disease and pollution
There is evidence that IQs can be lower in populations that are affected by pollution and certain diseases.
One study has shown that higher levels of lead in the blood, a pollutant that was once added to leaded gasoline and paint, caused reduced IQ.
Lower levels since the 1970s have shown a 5.2-point increase in IQs.
Similarly, parasitic diseases like malaria can interfere with brain development in children. Those areas of the world with more of these diseases are expected to have lower IQs on average due to this environmental factor.
Smarter and smarter?
While it does seem that IQs are going up worldwide, there are a lot of factors involved.
We should expect populations with better nutrition, less infectious disease and pollution, and more years of rigorous schooling to have higher IQs. These populations can represent whole cultures or just smaller groups within the same culture.
At the same time, IQ isn’t the only measure of intelligence that’s important. Other cultures are intelligent in ways that IQ tests simply don’t test for.
Different cultures might vary in IQ but have other forms of intelligence and wisdom based on their historical values and the environments they inhabit.
In exploring the connection between intelligence and culture, we can see that intelligence measures are generally based on cultural values and don’t readily apply across cultures.
So, are some cultures smarter than others?
It all depends on who’s doing the measuring.