The Bell Curve and Its Relevance to India

October 09, 2007

I know this is a highly controversial topic, but the authors of The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray have argued that intelligence is one, if not the most, important correlative factor in economic, social, and overall success in America.

They maintain that, apart from having lower income, people with lower IQ tend to have lower ethical standards and are prone to committing more crimes than their higher IQ peers.

I don't agree with all of the authors' assertions, but at the same time do believe that a higher IQ of the general population in India would be a significant factor of its economic growth in the coming decades. And working towards that is the most significant investment we Indians can make today, to pave the way for a higher standard of living in our future.

And, no, I am not going to suggest any controversial scheme like eugenics, for instance. What I am going to recommend instead is improving education in rural areas, and taking care of IQ-affecting health issues simultaneously.

Where do we Indians stand?

According to another book, IQ and the Wealth of Nations, the average IQ score for an Indian is 81. To put this in perspective, the corresponding figures for Japan, China, the US, Philippines, and Nigeria are 105, 100, 98, 86, and 67 respectively. According to the same book, differences in national income (in the form of per capita gross domestic product) correlate with differences in average national IQ.

So what does this mean for us? According to some analysts, India is supposed to have the third largest GDP behind the US and China by 2050. From 2007 to 2020, India's per capita GDP in dollars will quadruple. They base these estimates on current trends in the economic growth patterns of these countries.

But I am skeptical about these figures. These financial analysts seem to be oblivious of social factors that could dampen these kind of rosy projections.

Some major factors include corruption, lack of planning or foresight, terrorism, refusal to honour basic social contracts (witness the political drama in Karnataka now), Maoism, goondaism, disregard for the environment, etc.

In all these regards, China is much ahead of India as of now. Right now their main problems seem to be a lack of knowledge of English, and a substantial rural population (with lower productivity). But given China's rapid pace of building new cities and encouraging their children to learn English, these problems would diminish in the next couple of decades. China is poised to become the superpower of the mid-century, easily overtaking the US.

Unfortunately, we Indians don't seem to have any such long-range plans. Our infrastructure projects are haphazard and paved with controversies of one sort of the other. Corruption is rampant at every stage of the bureaucracy and political machinery. Politicians indulge in vote bank politics, and not focus on key issues like primary education and health care for everyone.

This is perhaps the pitfall of being a democracy where the majority of the voting population does not even have a high school education. Since there is a strong correlation between education and IQ levels, I guess one could say the main fault lies with the voting populace itself.

If we go back to the history of developed countries, we will find that the majority of them had fared much worse at some point in time. But they somehow managed to extricate themselves from their miseries and rose up to becoming what they are now.

On the other hand, countries with an average IQ substantially less than that of India (like most in sub-Saharan Africa) degenerated into complete disasters with famine, civil wars, genocides, AIDS epidemics, etc. and are constantly looking towards the rest of the world for assistance of one form or the other.

It is my own belief that, however rotten the current system might be, India can find a way out, and that would be largely due to the efforts of people in the top ten percent of the IQ profile in all levels of the administration and the corporate world.

But at the same time, we have to make sure the remaining ninety percent don't derail this process. This is because, most of the factors which are detrimental to progress, like corruption, religious fundamentalism, crime, Maoism, and just plain incompetence, have to do with the sections of the population that are towards the lower end of the IQ distribution, approaching that of sub-Saharan Africa.

One way to mitigate this is to shift the whole IQ profile up by at least 5-10 points, so that even those on the lower end are out of the range that leads to societal collapse.

Fortunately, I believe, there have already been some social and infrastructural changes that are in favour of higher IQ for future generations of Indians. Let me list them out.

1. General awareness has increased - Thanks to televisions, cell phones, and even the Internet, many Indian youths (even rural ones) have become more knowledgeable on a range of topics compared to those ten years ago. Many now are aware of the opportunities that globalisation has presented them with, and attempt to learn new skills (even brown collar ones). Since job opportunities for these skill sets are limited in the rural sector, there has been unprecedented migration to urban areas. While this does place a burden on the urban infrastructure, at least they are not rotting in villages with nothing to do. However, it seems like communities with less clout like the Scheduled Tribes and the Dalits are not reaping the benefits of this paradigm shift, since they are kept out of the loop by some of the castes higher up in the order. The growing Maoist threat is a direct result of this frustration among these unprivileged sections.

2. Elimination of leaded petrol - More than 100 million people in India (or 10%) battle the debilitating effects of lead poisoning, according to a recent study. Children with high blood lead levels suffer from lower IQ, poor motor coordination, and anti-social behaviour. One of the main sources had been leaded petrol which was prevalent till a few years ago. With its phase-out, we will see less people exposed to high lead levels, and this would cause a positive shift in the IQ. Unfortunately, another major source of lead poisoning, leaded paint, is still being manufactured in this country on a large scale. It is imperative for the government to mandate a gradual phase-out of lead-based paints made here. It is noteworthy that China is precisely doing this now after the controversy surrounding its exports with high lead content.

3. Intercaste marriages - Indians have a diverse gene pool, since we have had migrations/invasions of several ethnic groups for millenia. Unfortunately, most rural people had historically married from the same village or extended family. This leads to IQ-diminishing recessive traits (where both parents have to contribute the defect) in their children. With more people migrating to urban centres, the odds of them getting married to someone from a different caste or region increases, and the likelihood that they share the same recessive traits diminishes, so the chances of their children being affected are much smaller. I have myself seen many cases where the children of intercaste marriages seem to be more successful compared to those from the same castes in question. Another advantage of intercaste marriages is that, the prominence given to castes will in itself diminish over time, since we will see a greater percentage of the population which doesn't have allegiance to any one community, which means fewer caste-based conflicts.

Even though the above factors are in our favour, they are not enough. We need to be more proactive in this regard. These are what I believe are needed-

1. Compulsory education for children - It is really sad that there is no successful government policy in place that ensures all children get the fundamental right to have a decent education. This is true of most of rural India (where the schools are totally dysfunctional), as well as the migrant labour population of urban India. The children have no choice but to help their parents with their work, effectively dooming them to the same standard of living as their parents.

2. Improving prenatal and childhood nutrition - If you observe the employees at your local Food World store, you can make out that most of them have stunted growth, and are not particularly smart either. The average "silly village girl" in India looks nowhere near Priyanka Chopra (who is 5'8), but rather is around 5'2 and weighing 45 kgs.

According to the Nutrition Foundation of India, 90 per cent of adolescent girls, women and children suffer from iron deficiency. In children, anaemia can cause a 5-10 point deficiency in IQ and hamper growth and language development. Fortunately, anaemia can be easily prevented by iron supplements which are really cheap. Two years ago, an `Anaemia-free India' campaign was launched by Lions Clubs International and the Indian Medical Association to address this problem. Let us hope it is successful.

I would also like to see fish oil made available to pregnant women across India (since this has been shown to boost the IQ of the children), but this is not practical given that a) many Indians are vegetarian and b) it is very expensive to produce high quality fish oil without toxins like mercury.

Regarding protein deficiency (which causes stunted physical growth), I speculate that the greater purchasing power of all Indians would automatically lead to a diet richer in protein. And this would be true of vegetarians as well as non-vegetarians.

If we take care of the above aspects, as well as phase out lead from paints, all the factors put together should bump up the average Indian IQ by about 10 points, to about 91. That would place it almost on par with a Western nation like Greece which has a value of 92 currently.

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October 9, 2007
07:49 AM

Regarding intercaste marriages, I'd say marriage is a matter of personal choice, and not about achieving some "greater social good".

Furthermore, is IQ the result of caste/ethnic dissociation, or is it the other way around -- is ethnic ("caste") dissociation based on differences in traits?

There is an old saying about how "birds of a feather flock together" -- that is to say, those with similar traits will coalesce together from wider society, simply because their similar traits make them more compatible with each other.

If I am a person who doesn't like to listen to loud music -- and I am -- then won't I be less likely to be found living with someone who likes to play loud music?

Eugenics is not the automatic determinant of everything. Often personal choice -- rational justifiable choice -- is a factor too.

If I am a clean and hygienic person, I'm not going to get married to someone who is unhygienic, just because you tell me it's for some "greater social good" -- because it isn't. Personal responsibility is for the greater social good, as well as for the one's personal good.

That means that you take responsibility for the fact that you like to listen to loud music, or the fact that you have poor hygiene habits. You don't blame it on eugenics, you don't blame it on somebody else's grandfather having "oppressed" your grandfather, claiming that this is what has caused your poor habits of today.

Personality responsibility is a basic prerequisite for being a human being. If you claim to be solely a product of your environment, and consequently refuse to accept responsibility for your own behaviour, then you're no better than an animal.


October 9, 2007
07:55 AM

hmmm, I don't think there is a correlation between IQ and education, is there? Isn't IQ just your innate intelligence and not necessarily a reflection on book learning? I could be wrong.

In any case, you seem to be talking about both interchangably and they are not.

October 9, 2007
08:06 AM

I am not sure what your point is.. in fact, you seem to only support my view.

To quote you -
"If I am a person who doesn't like to listen to loud music -- and I am -- then won't I be less likely to be found living with someone who likes to play loud music?

Eugenics is not the automatic determinant of everything. Often personal choice -- rational justifiable choice -- is a factor too."

So in that case, aren't you automatically giving higher priority to these aspects compared to caste?

Only in arranged marriages, people marry within their own community despite any lack of common interests and personal compatibility (see the arranged marriage thread).

Or are you saying that certain castes prefer listening to loud music or are less hygienic? If that's your belief, it is not shared by me or a lot of other people here, sorry.

October 9, 2007
08:21 AM

ss - there indeed seems to be a correlation, according to the authors. Actually primary education leads to higher IQ in adulthood (because mental stimulation at an early age improves the brain), and the level of education again is correlated to the IQ in adulthood. Of course, there are several other factors involved as well.

I stress the need for primary education for this reason. The effect of this is both direct and indirect (through increased IQ). That is why I have used them interchangeably in some places.

October 9, 2007
08:21 AM

I wonder how they calculate average IQ of Indians, for that matter any country except the likes of Vatican City.

Even if they take a sample of 1 million people (which ,on an absolute basis, is huge), it still is 0.1% of population.

I will take such numbers with liberal dose of salt and definitely not build any arguments based on it.

October 9, 2007
09:58 PM

Do they go into detail about how IQ was measured? What sample sizes? Western IQ tests tend to be biased towards white people. I am surprised the authors came up with enough material to write an entire book without considering the many obvious flaws in their thesis. But hey, nothing sells like controversy.

October 9, 2007
10:37 PM

"Or are you saying that certain castes prefer listening to loud music or are less hygienic? If that's your belief, it is not shared by me or a lot of other people here, sorry."

I was waiting for you to make that allegation, which is why I gave that example. No, I'm saying that communities can form around shared activities and lifestyles. There are fishing communities, there are stone quarrying communities, there are hunting communities, there are weaving communities, etc. These activities are not handed down through the genes, anymore than birds hand down their ability to sing through genetics. These activities and skills are taught -- they are nurture and not nature, but they are handed down nonetheless.

The key then to switching lifestyles is to alter one's own habits oneself, and not to instead blame one's own lifestyle activities on some grand conspiracy by society (brahmins, shylocks, etc).
It's upto you to change yourself for the better, and not upto society to change you. It's personal responsibility.

October 10, 2007
12:43 AM

Shashikant, wouldn't just a bus-load of tourists from a foreign country give you a good idea of the average height of its citizens?

Prateek, yes, they do go into details, and have taken the average from independent studies. In most cases, the correlations between the independent findings for any country have been pretty good (within 5 points). And no, they are not biased towards white people. East and far east Asians have the highest IQs, not whites. Hong Kong is the highest with 107.

Sanjay, you are missing the point. I am talking about the population that migrates to urban areas. Obviously there are not many opportunities for quarrying, are there? They leave behind their traditional occupations and take up new ones.

October 10, 2007
01:37 AM

I will wait for someone else with deeper knowledge to chime in but the numbers seem to be way to disparate. 67, 81, 105? IQ tests are designed to approximate a Gaussian curve with a standard deviation of 15.

Shashikant: There is a whole field of statistics dedicated to what you are asking about. Look up the wikipedia articles for sample size and confidence intervals. A "random" sample of 500 or so would probably (no pun intended) be large enough to be 95% confident. I am more interested in questioning the numbers themselves.

October 10, 2007
01:38 AM

Some analysis by those with real domain knowledge: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bell_Curve#Criticisms

October 10, 2007
03:06 AM

Prateek, the #s are the means for each country. The SDs are still assumed to be 15.

Of course, these are simplified assumptions. For example, countries with more heterogeneous populations can be expected to have higher SDs. In any case, one must not read too much into the numbers, but just look for qualitative trends.

And yes, it is a controversial book, with arguments and counterarguments on both sides.

October 21, 2007
02:06 AM

I totally agree that Indian are of IQ range from 81 to 85. That is why India is so poor with its democracy, market economy and English language heritage etc.

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