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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Poverty is a contraindicator for survival. If you are poor, on average, you will die sooner than if you were not poor. People are generally not poor by choice [1].

Poverty is not a strong indicator of intellect (i.e. there are lots of smart poor people), but childhood poverty is linked with reduced intellectual abilities [2]. In 2003, 12.5% of the population of the USA (or 35.9 million people) were living in poverty. Simply being poor doesn't make you less intelligent, but it could have an effect on your children, the next generation.

In addition to this, poverty reduces available options for education, which exacerbates the problem. The 1998/99 World Development Report specified "narrowing knowledge gaps" and education to be top priority for the poor, with case studies of how national education programs have bettered peoples lives and improved economic growth in developing nations.

It's hard to argue that having a lower overall intelligence (measured by any standard) is somehow beneficial for a society (although I'd guess that some ruling castes disagree). It's hotly debated whether or not education has any influence on innate intelligence (which is amorphously defined anyway) but that's a side point. A better educated society acts more intelligently because it has more knowledge and understanding on which to make its decisions.

Knowledge is power, and better education is correlated with higher pay, which in turn is correlated with higher survival rate. By educating populations, we can reduce poverty, increase survival rate, and (ostensibly) make better decisions in domestic and world affairs. However, education costs. As Derek Bok (or Andy McIntyre) said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance". Unfortunately, as always, money and the decisions on where to spend it is locked up in the pockets of the rich, and the very rich don't even value education for their own children as highly as everybody else [3], so why would they be interested in bettering others? [4]

The most bang for the buck we can get in education is with the low end. The Flynn effect describes the rise in the IQ scores, in cultures all around the world, in the last century. Most of the gains have been in the lower half of testing and little in the top half. That is, whatever factors placed people's abilities in the lower bracket have been improving. It is my personal belief that we will benefit more as a species from raising the floor of general intelligence than raising the ceiling.

If we want to increase the average intelligence of humanity, we need to remove financial barriers for anybody with an ability to become further educated. An old doctor of mine was educated in Britain. He spoke of how in his day, anybody who qualified for post-secondary education got it, paid for by the state. By freely educating anybody who wants it (and qualifies for it), we incrementally increase the average effective intelligence of humanity. There are a finite number of people on Earth, and we're not all smart (we all live with the cards we're dealt), but poverty should not be a barrier to education. "Good help is hard to find" is equally true at all levels of intelligence. For increased economic prosperity, both locally and globally, we should be increasing the educated pool of help as much as we possibly can. To do this, we need to optimize the training of all the capable minds we can find, not try and train only those who can afford to be trained. The number of humans is countable. Let's make the best use of the minds we have. Would you rather see one Einstein and Ramanujan every century because we got lucky, or a hundred of them because we removed barriers?

It's debated if there is any genetic component to general intelligence, but there's no good reason to believe there isn't. (Update: there is a genetic component - see update, below) Many people won't touch the topic because they do not want to be put in the same camp as racially-discriminating eugenicists. People have different hair, different heights, and a multitude of obvious physical differences. The brain is part of the physical body, and will vary from person to person just like any other physical trait. I am most definitely not saying that one person is better than another because of any genetic brain structure variation. However, if we remove poverty as a barrier for furthering general intelligence through education and general intelligence really does have a genetic component, selection will increase the average intelligence of humanity (by raising the floor) over the generations because of the higher education->higher pay->higher survival rate correlation. For selection, only a tiny (but real) advantage is needed to swamp the genetic pool over generations. This does not necessitate that genetic lines will be wiped out, it means that the best traits will more quickly spread through the population.

The beauty of it is who gets to decide what are the "best traits". It's not me, it's not you, and it's not some fascist leader bent on eradicating people who he or she thinks of as a threat. [5] With equal education available for all, based on ability, whatever intelligence traits actually increase our survival will be selected naturally as "best traits".

Unfortunately, I don't think any of us thinks this will happen in our lifetime. Those in power (i.e. money) have little reason to empower the peons, especially when they could possibly pose a threat to their power down the line. Education of the population is the antithesis to controlling them.

"Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to describe... the general prey of the rich on the poor." --Thomas Jefferson

If you have any suggestions on how to universally improve world education, let me know. I don't have any good ideas. I suppose we should do it one person at a time. Think globally, act locally in education as well.

Burton MacKenZie

Update: In November 28, 2007 News, "Previous research, based on twins and adopted children, suggests that about half of the variation of intelligence is due to upbringing and social factors, and the rest is inherited. [...] a complex trait like intelligence clearly results from the cumulative effect of a wide combination of genes [...] Intelligence is a function of the way the brain is put together, and at least half of our genome contributes in some way or another to brain function"

Update 2: I found the following to be a really interesting New Yorker book review on the topic of IQ/Ethnicity: "None of the Above: What IQ doesn't tell you about race"

[1] Possibly with the exception of those who take vows of poverty, etc.

[2] "Growing up in poverty is associated with reduced cognitive achievement as measured by standardized intelligence tests, but little is known about the underlying neurocognitive systems responsible for this effect.", Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development; Farah, Shera, Savage, Betancourt, Giannetta, Brodsky, Malmud, Hurt; Brain Research, Volume 1110, Issue 1, 19 September 2006, Pages 166-174

[3] From "How the Rich raise their kids", "Barely more than half of those surveyed who have net worths over $10 million said educational achievement was an expectation they had for their kids. Compare that to the 'working affluent' (those with between $1 million and $10 million net worth), for which 84% cited educational achievement for their kids [...] as expectations".

[4] President Bush (who keeps requesting hundreds of billions for war-making) vetos child health and education bill.

[5] Although, of course, this could still happen. Many leaders have nuclear bombs at their disposal, and may have an agenda to push.