What I am saying might sound silly. But I am born and raised in India. Our culture has always given utmost importance to grades. In fact, we overdo it. But now at the age of 40 facing one of the worst times of my life as a small business owner (thanks to COVID), I feel that no matter what happens at least I have my degree and my education with me. When I read the last part of your post I can't help but ask this question to you, does the west have a death wish? If one removes grades as a measurement criterion what else is left? I do not mean to say it should be the only factor, but it has to figure in the matrix somewhere right?

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Good post!

Re "Around 200,000 years ago the growth of our brains leveled off, probably due to biological constraints. The large head of the human fetus runs up against the limits of the mechanics of childbirth."

I think most now believe the 1960s birth canal limitation idea is false, eg


Even wikipedia is pretty up to date on it.


Re the broader first sentence, I think the idea of biological constraints on brain has no data backing it. It's a flattering intuition for smart people to hold. So it never dies. If true, it would imply that there is a natural upper limit to IQ, and the breeders equation does not hold in the upward direction. Which is of course false. The obvious answer is an energy consuming brain is a trade off, and bigger brained people started having fewer children since 200k years ago, as the trade off hit the balance point. Which has plenty of evidence through all known human history, and plenty of data shows it applies right now in spades throughout the world. Also, consider Cochran et al 2006 paper. Must be false since breeder equation can't work due to these never stated mysterious biological constraints that don't exist. Gregory Clark also must be wrong too by the way. It's like being too tall. Evolution can always evolve to be a bit taller if selection favors it. It just selects until it's balanced against something. Often energy constraints. But for a cooperative hypersocial species, social selection constraints as well. Just not biological.

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Very good essay, Razib. Just a couple of side points.

1. Tocqueville told us that democratic societies will be opposed to intellectual excellence. So we should not be surprised by the anti-testing movement. Just by the fact that it took so long to build up a head of steam.

2. The same people who are trying to abolish testing are also trying to destroy the liberal arts curriculum and replace it with Mao Tse-tung Thought. They also want to destroy the teaching of mathematics and objective science. They will be the kings of a desert with no water in sight.

3. The troll response to abolish testing should be admission by lottery. The testing opponents have absolutely argument against it. After all, it is utterly fair.

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Great post, but I have one quibble with the idea that high abstract intelligence would have been useless in prehistory or early agricultural history. For one thing, how could exceptional abstract intelligence have ever evolved (in a subset of the population) if for 95% of species history there was no use for it - in other words as a mere spandrel? Secondly, there surely was a use for it: we think of rural life today as being stupid (Marx refers to peasants as 'potatoes in a sack') because of selective pressures removing the sharpest minds from the countryside and because of reduced agency / choices facing farmers since feudalism and especially since the industrial revolution. But being a farmer in 1000 BC must have been immensely challenging. There was no seed shop and no extension agency to turn to for advice. Making flints is also not a dumb process - it requires multiple phases of material selection and tool making which are not obvious at all. One could pile up countless examples of areas where Von Neumann type abilities would have been highly advantageous in prehistoric environments (including the production of complex rituals and religious-conceptual systems as well as obvious technological and astronomical examples). In fact a counter hypothesis would be that the genetically programmed component of IQ has probably reduced over the last 500+ years, while social intelligence has increased so dramatically as to mask that fact.

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Great post but I think the dichotomy between hereditary nobility and examinations isn't quite correct. What people practiced in medieval Europe was a third way - not sure what to call it. Darwinian examination, perhaps? Until well into the Renaissance a life of a lord at any level was a high stakes IQ and personality test. If you failed too badly you and your descendants would lose their nobility status or be dead. Even a moderate failure was pretty bad for you. You had to demonstrate administrative skills, generalship, get along with people and be popular to name a few. Being a noble gave you a significant leg up but did not assure success or survival. Failure was not uncommon and nobodies entering the noble rank due to their talents and skills weren't uncommon either. I wonder how percentages of that happening would compare with Chinese examination system. Of course, for such a Darwinian system to function you need an absence of strong centralized power and endemic local warfare. Something Europe was abundantly blessed with and China (comparatively) not as much.

Like everything else in the world, the whole system eventually transformed to give us 18th century situation where being of a hereditary nobility ensured success. You could be more or less successful but your overall membership in the ruling class and good life was assured.

In any event, this was just historical musings. In our current world it does leave only two choices as you point out. No argument there.

(Though if you look at proliferation at warlord governed countries perhaps we are heading to that world again too!)

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Archival Quality Link.

Didn't know the Kubrick trivia!

Do we know why a von Neumann or Fisher brain would come to exist (in a hunter/farmer world) in the first place? Is this randomness? Meaning, why would some of our brains evolve to have such a massive potential if that potential hadn't ever come close to being realized until very recently in our timeline?

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the European Union has a - https://epso.europa.eu/help/faq/2718_en - test system for civil servants. It seems they place 1300 people from 43000 applicants yearly. In the US system many of these positions would be filled by political appointees I think.

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"The chart below shows the outcomes of 259 children identified as very gifted in their early teens on the SAT:

One out of thirteen of these extremely bright children became tenured professors. One out of thirty-three wrote a book. Nearly half obtained doctorates. These are not average kids who simply “test well.” There is luck in life, but the die is loaded. Very high intelligence is no guarantee of exceptional achievement, but it clearly changes the probabilities."

Might sound like a silly question, but did the study control for socio-economic background?

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There is an alternate theory to the leveling of brain expansion 200,000 years ago. I call it the Lineage Ender hypothesis, and it's written here. https://kirkmaxey.com/2015/04/21/lineage-enders/

In short, the bigger brained, intellectually curious tend to be distracted by their intellectual pursuits and do not want to be annoyed with the utilitarian burdens of child rearing. This works mainly be intellectually curious females abandoning breast feeding and caring for their infants earlier, which allows them to begin ovulating sooner and getting pregnant again sooner. Their yooung toddlers are fobbed off on close but dumber relatives, who still are full of human nurturing kindness and less distracted by mathematics. This was a stable equilibrium until the invention of the birth control pill. Suddenly, when the women who didn't much want kids were allowed to have none at all, (or 1, or 2) the ones happy to have 8 or 10 surged ahead of them in Darwinian fitness. You could almost hear the air going out of the average human cranial volume. Stay tuned as dumbness accelerates because education is no longer a reward of merit.

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Great post. I agree with the post completely and I think it is important for people to continue to make the ideological case for intelligence. On the other hand, it seems like some of the elite academic adjustments against aptitude testing are more reactions to market and social forces that are making cognitive skills more important. These institutions are more likely to flow with the tide in the big picture.

For example, over the last 10-12 years there has been a marked decline in students doing soft majors and quantitative majors are over-subscribed sometimes markedly so. In some sense, universities may have more "smart" students than they like, since smart students are likely to be on a waiting list for their comp sci classes. Low SAT/high participation students, on the other hand, are much more likely to choose their under-utilized classes. It doesn't seem surprising that even selective universities are down playing the SAT.

Grad schools (at least in my quantitative discipline) also have a surplus of well-prepared students. GRE quant scores are top-coded at such a low level that it isn't that helpful in selecting the "smartest" students. John von Neumann's GRE would be the same as a median student.

Of course, some of these changes are presented as supporting certain ideologies of equity (and also dovetail with certain upper class interests). A lot of these adjustments can also be viewed as more functional at the micro level and might have less long-term impact.

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What’s a greater prediction of income, IQ or how rich your parents are

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Suppose I'm an IQ skeptic. "Sure, intelligence correlates with everything. But this is social science, man! Everything correlates with everything. IQ correlates with health correlates with where you live correlates with socio-economic status, blah blah blah.... How do we know IQ *causes* any of these outcomes? We don't! And there's not even any way to find out, because you can't experimentally manipulate intelligence; you can manipulate education, but that's obviously not the same, or you can manipulate practice at IQ tests, but that's irrelevant. IQ is just one measurement among many, which nerds obsess about because it makes them feel superior." Why am I wrong?

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