The Crowdedest Fifty People Known to Man
July 11, 2012
I belong to a list-serve of exceedingly bright people (I am not one of them) to include Ivy profs, who believe that IQ largely determines human destiny. This is in part I suspect because IQ is something they have, but it is possible that I am being snide in this. They regard as canonical the book IQ and the Wealth of Nations, which purports to show a correlation and by extension a causal relationship between mean national IQ and prosperity. They assert that the mean IQ of Mexico, where I live, is about 86, well below the mean of roughly 100 of white Americans. This, they further assert, accounts for the comparative backwardness of Mexico. Does it?
Now, some brush-clearing. Intelligence obviously exists, in the street sense that we all recognize. Some people obviously have more of it than others. There is obviously a genetic element. No biological reason exists to believe that genetically distinct groups cannot vary in intelligence. IQ, within cultures anyway, provides at least a rough measure of intelligence: It is easy to distinguish people with IQs of 180 from those with IQs of 80. So, in principle, Mexicans could be innately stupid. Are they?
I would like to think not, but what I want to think doesn’t seem to determine reality. (I regard this as a major design flaw of the universe.) How could I tell whether Mexicans were dull? It seemed to me that the alleged deficit, almost fifteen points, ought to be obvious. In fact I wondered whether a nation with a mean IQ of 86 could run airlines, hospitals, and telephone and internet companies. Which Mexico does.
While I could not test the entire population, I thought a reasonable approach might be to compare the apparent intelligence of Americans and Mexicans in professions of which I knew something. This I did.
A few days ago, I saw a retinologist in Guadalajara. Ophthalmological specialties are not for the fumble-minded, yet he was as intelligent and competent as any I have seen in the US. He also spoke near-perfect English. I tend to ask questions, which gives doctors a chance not to know the answers, or half know them. Not this guy. He was sharp. He sent me to a local retina clinic for optical-coherence tomography and a fluorescein angiogram. I have had these things done in the US, and saw no difference in the competence of those administering them.
Now, the IQist response, reasonable enough as a question, is to argue that even in a country with a mean IQ of 86 there will be a few who can perform at a high levels. True. This is the argument of The Only Fifty Smart Mexicans. The question is how many hundreds of thousands of the Only Fifty you can have before the numbers become embarrassing. After nine years in Mexico, I have seen a lot of dentists and doctors, using all manner of, for example, ultrasound-Doppler gear, and seen no difference in apparent intelligence.
A small difference would not be detectible by this method. But fifteen points?
Take another field, one that I know well: journalism. I have read lots of Mexican newspapers (they are on the web). They are as well-written as American. The Spanish in editorial columns is syntactically more complex than American journalistic English. Such journalists as Ihave met have been very smart. Television journalism is like the American, except that in talking-head shows there is civility and people don’t talk over each other. (And, overall, the content is less controlled, but this is anaother matter.)
The same happens in daily life. I have no sense that the civilized population is dim-witted. Here things are tricky: A large part of the country has barely risen above peasantry, and seems stupid, as much so as America’s Scotch-Irish louts of the 1800s or inhabitants of Chinese villages today. Among the approximately middle class—more a psychological than an economic designation—people seem as bright as Americans. I see them in banks, travel agencies, pharmacies. And I encounter way too many kids who have learned fair to good English, many in high school. I mean English English, not Frito bandido dialect.
With a mean IQ of 86?
An IQist asked me a bit challengingly how many kids I knew who could qualify for Harvard. Two. One is my stepdaughter. The other is a guy whose mother owns a local bar. Natalia is in university, he by choice in some nothing job. (The women in Mexico are regularly more impressive than the men.) Obviously kids whom Natalia chooses as friends are not average, but two Ivy intelligences out of the perhaps ten kids I know squares poorly with the IQist theory.
In saying all of this, I am not suggesting that Mexico has achievement the intellectual development of Finland. While it is generally literate, much of it is barely so. Very large chunks of the population live in ignorance and do not produce retinologists. What I do suggest is that far too many people here do technically and otherwise demanding things for the IQ-86 theory to hold water.
When do exceptions cease to be exceptions? Maintaining modern cars with their linguini wiring and computers is not for the stupid. They do it. Ditto, building highways through mountains. They do it. Ditto, walking internet customers through the internals of modems. The Telmex techs regularly do it. Ditto, pirating software with tight security, such as Adobe, or Windows 7 so that it updates. Young techs do it.
So, the IQists ask reasonably, if Mexicans are not stupid, why is the country backward? Where are the Nobelists in physics, the Intels, the Apollo programs? Why no Bill Gates?
There are several becauses. Because the society is profoundly corrupt, with (it sometimes seems) everything and everybody being for sale. Because of a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, a tendency to be content with enough. Because Mexicans tend to live entirely in the present, instead of having one foot in the future as Americans do. Because of a resentful envy of the smart and ambitious (cf. “acting white”) instead of following their example; this is serious. Because envy and distrust of one another make it hard for them to work together. Because of a lack of interest in study. Because so very many of the young marry at sixteen, have a baby, and do nothing thereafter.
If these were just Fred’s opinions, they would be ignorable. It is also the view of Violeta and Natalia. Should anyone want a truly insightful exposition of why Mexico is as it is, read Mañana Forever, by Jorge Casttañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico. His view, with which I entirely agree, is that Mexico is mostly a modern country creeping into the First World, but crippled by the culture of a century ago. See above.
Am I (and Castañeda) right about this? IQists tend to dismiss the invocation of culture as an evasion—real men believe in IQ—or to argue that defects of culture are the results of low intelligence. This is highly debatable. Consider the following list of founders of major companies in the information technologies (laragely from memory, so I hope right):
Google (Sergei Bryn, Larry Page), Intel (Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce), Apple (Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak), Microsoft (Bill Gates), Dell Computer (Michael Dell), Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg), YouTube (Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, Jawed Karim), Netscape (Mark Andreesen), Yahoo (Jerry Yang, David Filo), AMD (long list of guys from Fairchild Semiconductor), Twitter (Jack Dorsey), Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger), Unz.org (Ron Unz), PayPal (Peter Thiel), Ebay (Pierre Omidyar).
Note that they are overwhelmingly either American or working in America. Why America? Gringos are no smarter than Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans. The countries of all of the foregoing countries run huge high-tech companies, but their college kids don’t think, “Geez, I’m bored. I guess I’ll start Dell Computer, or Facebook, or maybe Microsoft. Beats doing a doob.” Certain thoughts seem embedded in American culture: “Why not?” “Who says I can’t?” “Bet me.” “Let’s wing it and see what happens.” It is not Mexico. Or much of anywhere else.