Book Review: Why Evolution Is True (2009) by Jerry Coyne

October 18, 2013


I read this book just to get an introduction before going to the heavier stuff. Not that I’m completely ignorant on the subject but I often find that going back to the basics is the best way to re-kindle and interest and as a launch pad for the heavier literature. The obvious choice for a non-expert would probably be Richard Dawkins, but I find his style a bit pompous; he sounds too much like the character Buzz Killington in Family Guy. So I settled for biologist and evolutionist zealot Jerry Coyne instead. He has a clear and simple albeit impersonal style like so many writers in Academia. Unlike many other biologists, he focuses on the theory and doesn’t get bogged down in a myriad of empirical facts, something that has always turned me away from reading books on biology; maybe it’s an aspergery trait of biologists, I don’t know.


He starts off with a presentation of the basic concepts of the theory, like natural selection, how gene variants in a population will become more or less frequent depending on whether they will promote survival and reproduction in a species. Then there is the less natural selection that is due to the fact that most species reproduce by sex rather than by cloning themselves. This means that we only pass on some gene variants to our offspring. Gene variants that aren’t good or bad can then become more or less common in a species just by random recombination, so-called genetic drift. It could also happen when a species dwindles to a very few individuals (called a bottleneck). If these individuals all happen to have pointy ears and this trait is neutral, then pointy ears it is. This random effect is not a big factor but it does happen.


The other big thing is speciation: how every species ends either in extinction or by splitting into two new species. This means that the ancestral tree of all species is binary, and full of dead ends as most species become extinct without leaving any descendants. Speciation usually happens as populations of the same species are separated in different environments. A new environment will make new traits more adaptive, that is leading to survival and reproduction. And so the gene variants that cause these traits will become more common. This means that the populations become genetically less related. At some point they can’t interbreed anymore and the species has split. Unless Homo sapiens becomes extinct, we too will split eventually. I bet that will be awkward…


The evidence for evolution can be found in many places. In spite of modern DNA technique, fossils remain an important clue to how life has evolved. We can date fossil by looking at what layer of rock it is located in, or by radioactive material that breaks down at a certain pace after the rock formed. Another dating method is based on the fact that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down so that days are getting longer and years are getting shorter – 380 million years ago, a year had 396 days and a day had 22 hours. Some organisms have growth markers for both day and year that are preserved in their fossil and can be dated this way.

What the fossil records tell us is that life has evolved, become more advanced and better adapted to various environments. When we go backwards in time we can find how tetrapods evolved into reptiles that evolved into birds and mammals. And all the fossils can be dated to the time period when they are supposed to be if evolution took place. That’s pretty hard evidence.

In a way art is like fossil - something alive in the mind of the artist that has been petrified and frozen in time. Art by Jenny Edlund. For more of her work just click the image.

In a way art is like fossil – something alive in the mind of the artist that has been petrified and frozen in time. Art by Jenny Edlund. For more of her work just click the image.

We can also find evidence in the form of vestiges, like the wings of ostriches. Both DNA and fossil records show that they descended (hehe) from flying birds. So at some point flying was not beneficial anymore and they started to evolve new traits. But wings can’t just disappear from one generation to the next, so in the case of the ostrich they represent a transition between the flying wing and whatever trait they will evolve into in the flightless existence. Why did it happen? One clue is that they are common on remote islands with few reptiles and mammals that could prey on them.

Or we have the hind legs of whales, small bones no longer connected to the rest of the skeleton, encapsulated in their bodies. They make no sense at all unless whales descend from land-living animals. Same goes for dolphins that have inactive olfactory receptors. Or our own genes for tails, also inactivated in most of us. And so on. Overall, Coyne presents this evidence well and makes a good case.

The Mystery of Sexual Selection

But when it comes to sexual selection, in which choice of mate decides the reproductive success of the individual, he fails to deliver a clear and reasonable explanation. Even Darwin had problems with this phenomenon. This type of selection is partly about male competition, the strongest walrus will knock out his competitors and mate with the females. That’s easy to understand because strength and endurance required to win these battles are heritable qualities that will then be passed on to the next generation. But in some cases, like peacocks, the males just show off gaudy traits like bright colors and large tail feathers and such. And for some reason the gaudiest win.

It seems that females (and in some species males) will choose whatever is novel and intense. You can glue some random blingy stuff on males and they will be transformed into desirable alphas. This makes less sense because unlike an alpha walrus who was selected for traits that enable him to search for food or fight off other animals, the gaudy traits are useless, even harmful as they reduce the animals mobility and attract predators. Or are they?

This, apparently, is what a real male looks like.

This, apparently, is what a real male looks like.

Coyne explains this as having to do with the fact that the sexes have different numbers and sizes of their gametes (eggs and sperm). But why did sexual reproduction become so common in the first place? The author says this is unclear. And why two sexes rather than three or five? And why the asymmetry of the gametes? Coyne says these are “messy” issues and just states these things as facts the reader will simply have to accept. I guess that saved him a lot of hard work, but it does nothing for the reader. But since the number of sexes and the asymmetry of gametes are facts, let’s move on and see if Coyne can explain sexual selection – and especially the weird gaudy traits that even Darwin was worried about.

Since the number of gametes is higher for males it means they can sire more offspring. The author exemplifies with the male record holder, a Moroccan emperor during the 1700s who had around 1000 children as opposed the female record holder, a Russian women (also living in the 1700s), who had 69 children. However, he fails to mention that women have hundreds of thousands of eggs so that doesn’t appear to be the limiting factor. It seems to me that the length of the pregnancy would be a more obvious reason why women can’t have a thousand children. He does mention that females have a larger investment in this way too but how does it relate to gametes?

But again, it is a fact that females are usually more invested and this means they have to be more picky regarding who they will mate with. But how do we go from that to the preference for gaudy traits? This is how Coyne explains it,

Males must compete to fertilize a limited number of eggs. That’s why we see the “law of battle”: the direct competition between males to leave their genes to the next generation. And that is also why males are colorful, or have displays, mating calls, bowers, and the like, for that is their way of saying “Pick me, pick me!” And it is ultimately female preference that drives the evolution of longer tails, more vigorous displays, and louder songs in males.

I can’t see how this explains the gaudy traits though. A female would always be better off with a male who does battle and wins over other males since this would be an indication of gene variants conferring strength and stamina. The bright colors and long tail feathers on the other hand impair the individual so that even if it’s somehow a proxy for health this would be largely cancelled by this impairment. The choice between a healthy male who is strong and mobile and a healthy male who is strong but attracts predators and has less mobility should be easy. Coyne mentions the American house finch as an example, how brightly colored males bring more food to their offspring, and how this might be an indication of health and it certainly gives females a direct advantage since lots of food increases the survival rate of the offspring. But this still doesn’t explain why she wouldn’t prefer a male that gets her lots of food without bringing predators in his wake. And do peacocks with large tail feathers that impair mobility bring more food too?

Coyne just fails miserably to explain this. And it’s even more disconcerting that there is so little evidence that gaudy males really produce more viable offspring – two studies to date. One of these is on frogs in which the males with the loudest call gets the females. But this is more of a physical display of strength than genuine gaudiness. This leaves us with one single study of peacocks in a semi-natural environment in Britain as the entire body of evidence. And then there is a number of studies that found no such effect; Coyne doesn’t say how many. But he does admit,

This belief, in the face of relatively sparse evidence, may partly reflect a preference of evolutionists for strict Darwinian explanations—a belief that females must somehow be able to discriminate among the genes of males.

This seems problematic, to say the least. Belief?

Debating Creationists

But even more problematic is the criticism of creationism that permeates this book. Obviously any creationist who accepts scientific method as the only way of understanding reality would have to concede that Darwin beats the Bible. But creationists are into metaphysics, they work under the assumption that there is an almighty creator – who created our ability to use scientific method in the first place. If this creator exists – and there is no way we can know – then all bets are off. Disproving God with science just isn’t science.

He also addresses the concern of evangelical author Nancy Pearcey and others who feel that the theory of evolution will undermine moral and cause social decay,

But Pearcey’s notion that these lessons of evolution will inevitably spill over into the study of ethics, history, and “family life” is unnecessarily alarmist. How can you derive meaning, purpose, or ethics from evolution? You can’t.

He also mentions congressman Tom Delay’s idea that the Columbine massacre was inspired by the theory of evolution, implying that this is nonsense. But he fails to mention the fact that one of the perpetrators, Eric Harris, entertained fantasies of superiority and of killing retarded people. At the day of the massacre he wore a t-shirt with the text “natural selection.” And Finnish school shooter Pekka-Eric Auvinen called himself a social Darwinist and who declared that, “I, as a natural selector, will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.”

Self-proclaimed social darwinist Pekka-Eric Auvinen.

Mass murderer and self-proclaimed social darwinist Pekka-Eric Auvinen.

Still Coyne claims that evolution doesn’t tell us to behave like these guys and that most human behavior isn’t even dictated by evolution. That may or may not be true, but that’s not the issue – it’s about how human behavior may be influenced by the theory per se, a cultural influence. Maybe some people will become inspired to acts of violence by the idea of natural selection.

And perhaps the author himself can’t handle the theory of evolution. When discussing “the sticky question of race” he admits that race is not a social construct since it is defined as differences on certain traits between populations of the same species. But he insists that the differences between races don’t amount to much since we left Africa so recently,

At the genetic level, then, human beings are a remarkably similar lot. That is just what we would expect if modern humans left Africa a mere 60,000 or 100,000 years ago.

And while he acknowledges that different groups have different intelligence and behavorial traits, he says we can’t know if this is due to evolution or not because we can’t conduct the research for ethical reasons,

Such studies require controlled experiments: removing infants of different ethnicity from their parents and bringing them up in identical (or randomized) environments. What behavioral differences remain would be genetic. Because these experiments are unethical, they haven’t been done systematically, but cross-cultural adoptions anecdotally show that cultural influences on behavior are strong.

So we have all these creative ways of dating fossil but when we come to a politically sensitive issue there is one and only one way to find evidence – and that’s forbidden for ethical reasons, so we shall never know. Personally, I think that if you can believe this nothing-to-see-move-along-folks trick then maybe belief is your forte, in which case you may prefer the Bible to this book.

Still, for some odd reason the author implies that anectdotal evidence of cross-cultural adoptions could give us a hint,

As the psychologist Steven Pinker noted, “If you adopt children from a technologically undeveloped part of the world, they will fit in to modern society just fine.” That suggests, at least, that races don’t show big innate differences in behavior.

If that’s the case then let me provide such an anecdote. A few months ago I visited a library and was using one of its computers. A White woman walks by and for some reason drops her 6-7 year old daughter next to me and walks a way to do whatever she came for. Bad parenting, right?  Normally, I would have objected to this because I know what Swedish kids are like when unsupervised. But this was a child of clearly East Asian origin. So I relax and go on working on the computer knowing – or prejudicially assuming – that I most likely will not be disturbed by her. Sure enough, she remains quiet and stationary for over an hour until her mom picks her up.

Was I prejudiced in believing in this outcome? Are East Asian adoptive children every bit as loud and rowdy as Western children? It’s almost a rhetorical question. I suspect most people share my experience that there are indeed big innate differences between Whites and East Asians. Note that this doesn’t contradict what Pinker said. That girl fitted in just fine – but her behavior was still very different from ethnically Swedish children.

Creationists Are to PC Liberals as PC Liberals Are to HBD

So it seems like Coyne and his ilk are much more similar to creationists than they care to admit. Coyne views Pearcey’s fear of evolution and its social ramifications as “alarmist” but when it comes to divergent selection for behavioural traits in humans – when his own values are at stake – he becomes defensive and says it would be unethical to find out. And that, in my view, makes him a failed scientist.

But what about Coyne’s and Pearcey’s concerns? It’s possible that spree killers are inspired by Darwin as creationists fear, and it’s equally possible that racists are inspired by research on biological differences between human races as Coyne fears. I honestly don’t know. But should we ban scientific research on sensitive issues for this reason? And if so, do we abandon research exclusively on race or do we abandon the theory of evolution altogether?  Whatever your answer is, don’t do like Coyne: pretend like you’re a scientist and the bail on it when you get cold feet.

That said, this book is pretty good introduction to some of the basics concepts of evolution, and it certainly provides insights into how politics intermingles with science in the academic community. And it’s an easy read.

The Meth Hypothesis: Why Normal People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

October 9, 2013
You wake up one day and you're Steve Buscemi. Not worth it.

You wake up one day and you’re Steve Buscemi. Not worth it.

Is America losing it? It would seem so judging by polls on weird beliefs and opinions in recent years. Here is a recent handful from Public Policy Polling (PPP),

28% of voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government

37% believe that global warming is a hoax/conspiracy

4% believe shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining power. May not sound like much but that’s almost one in 20, so it’s very likely you know a person who is perhaps wondering whether you are one of the lizards.

9% believe the government is adding fluoride to the drinking water for sinister reasons.

21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell in 1947.

15 % believe the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals.

It may of course be that Americans have always been crazy but that the media is reporting more of it than before to satisfy the public’s pressing need for entertainment – it seems most news sites have a “weird” section these days.  It’s hard to find any longitudinal data on conspiracy theories, but Gallup has data on odd beliefs, often held by the same individuals, from 1990 until 2005 and it suggests an increase. But why?

The Meth Hypothesis

We already know a category of people who hold both bizarre and persecutory beliefs – schizophrenics and schizotypal personalities. We also know that amphetamines will make a normal person start thinking like these people. Psychologists will even use amphetamine addicts to study schizophrenia and schizotypy for this reason.  Could this be what is causing this increase? There may be other factors contributing to the increase in weird beliefs – the rise of the internet, increasing marijuana use, globalization and diversity, fears regarding the environment etc. But only amphetamines are proven to produce odd and persecutory beliefs (the evidence for cannabis is much weaker). So let’s look at the stats. Since there doesn’t seem to be any official statistics on the overall number of meth users, I’ve chosen treatment admissions as a percentage of the population from SAMHSA as a proxy. These are all amphetamines but they all have a similar effect and meth is the most common.


Keep in mind that this chart is of treatment admissions rather than actual use. The peak in 2005 represents people who have been doing the drug for a while before understanding that they need help. The actual use of meth must have peaked earlier, exactly when is hard to tell but given how destructive this particular drug is, it’s probably not later than sometime around 2002-2003.

Witches, Hauntings and Aliens

Now compare this chart with some others showing how many Americans believe in various weird stuff (as a percentage of the population); the data is taken from Gallup. What we’re looking for is an increase during the 1990s and a peak a few years before 2005, in this case we have data for the year 2001 as the closest fit. So, here goes,


This is not a great start, I’ll admit that. There is no gradual increase in the 1990s, but there is a small peak at 2001 and consequently a drop to 2005. This is also the belief that is the least odd with an average of 47 percent believers and 21 percent disbelievers.


This data is even less kind to my meth hypothesis. It has none of the three features and with 42 percent believers and the same percent disbelievers it’s not that odd, although clearly polarizing with few uncertain. It’s possible that since this question was specifically about the devil it could be linked to religion in a way the others aren’t.


Healing shows a gradual increase but that’s about it. Then again this is also one of the more conventional beliefs with 52 percent believers and only 29 percent disbelievers. So I wouldn’t count this one at all. A majority view is in no way odd.


Telepathy is moderately odd with 34 percent believers and 39 percent disbelievers. It has no initial increase but it peaks in 2001.


Hauntings is also moderately odd with an average of 34 percent believers and 40 percent disbelievers. This one has all the features, a gradual increase with a peak at 2001.

alien visitation

Alien visitation has 28 percent believers and 43 percent disbelievers so I’d consider it to be clearly odd. Although we only have data for three years, these do illustrate the features that support the hypothesis.


Clairvoyance, here defined as the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future, has an average of 28 percent believers and 48 percent disbelievers, again a clearly odd belief. And it shows an increase during the 1990s, and a peak at 2001.


A little surprising, astrology counts as clearly odd belief with a ratio of 25/55 believers and disbelievers. It has most of the 1990s increase but beginning with a drop, then peaks at 2001.


With 31 and 51 percent believers and disbelievers this is also a clearly odd belief. And it has all the right features.


At 23/51 believers and non-believers, reincarnation is also clearly odd. It has the year 1994 that ruins the initial increase but it shows an increase from 1990 to 2001 so overall there is an increase, followed by a local peak at 2001. 4 out 5 years confirm the hypothesis.

communicating with the dead

Also a clearly odd belief (23/54), with same flaw that the previous chart had – all years except 1994 confirms the hypothesis. The peak in 2001 is of the same magnitude as that of 1994.


This is my personal favourite. It’s what I’d call a very odd  belief with only 19 percent believers and 69 percent disbelievers. Witches are also malicious agents that plot against people, making this belief very similar in nature to conspiracy theories. The chart has all the right features.


Finally, channelling, the ability that some have to go into a trance and let spirits talk through them. This is also a very odd belief (9/66) that fits the meth data perfectly.

Summing Up the Evidence

Which of these beliefs should be considered sufficiently odd? We can certainly not say that spiritual healing is an odd belief since it is held by a small majority. As for the rest, it’s admittedly a bit arbitrary but, I would define a belief as odd if it has fewer believers than disbelievers, which seem like a minimum requirement. This means that healing, possession and ESP are out, leaving us with 10 odd beliefs. So how well did these 10 confirm the meth hypothesis?

7 out 10 showed an absolute peak at 2001. Of the rest telepathy and communicating with the dead showed shared a maximum peak at 2001 with another year. The remaining belief in reincarnation showed local peak at 2001. That’s pretty peaky.

As for a continuous increase in the 1990s there are three categories: 5 had unequivocal increase throughout the 1990s, 4 had overall increase from earliest year to 2001 but interrupted with a local decrease (for hauntings this decrease was very small), and one, telepathy, had the same value for 1990 and 2001. No overall decrease at all.

So the data seem to support the hypothesis pretty well. But there are of course other possible factors to consider,

Alternative Explanations

As I said earlier, marijuana is sometimes mentioned as a drug that could contribute to schizotypal and outright schizophrenic thoughts and beliefs. But unlike meth, this drug has increased continuously since the early 1990s and has still to peak. Another candidate is the internet. I’m not going to do a chart for it but the number of internet users is constantly growing so no peak there either. Yet another candidate could be changing demographics. Perhaps the Catholic immigrants to America bring their superstitions with them? But looking at Mexicans, the overwhelmingly largest Hispanic group, there is no peak, not even a local, in their part of the population, only a continuous increase over the years.­

How Can This Be?

But how does this happen? How does such a small group – according to most estimates just a few hundred thousand –  of people have such influence?  One reason is that a person holding an irrational belief is usually more interested in it than say a regular Christian is about transubstantiation. They will obsess about it constantly. Like former meth user Fergy Duhamel of the Black Eyed Peas says in an interview,

I had about 20 different conspiracy theories. I painted the windows in my apartment black so they couldn’t see in.

When a schizophrenic on the sidewalk rants about the government this doesn’t persuade anyone, but a more coherent and presentable schizotypal person can be appear much more convincing. And my guess is that a meth user online can probably do a pretty good job at selling his theories too – especially when other meth users are online on various forums saying similar things. While what they are saying may not make much sense it doesn’t have to. Just saying it repeatedly and with great conviction goes a long way. One thing social psychology (it’s not all bad) teaches us is that repetition is an effective way of persuasion, especially if you vary the way you say it a little – which is exactly what you get from an army of delusional meth addicts sitting up all night preaching their peculiar gospel.

But can they really sit still while on meth? It seems so. Because not all meth addicts are out partying or committing crimes. Some stay indoors cooked up in their houses or apartments. In an article in The Kernel, science writer Greg Stevens shares his experiences of some middle class meth addicts. One of them is “J”,

The window shades are drawn tight because J usually stays awake for 70 to 100 hours at a time. He knows that if the neighbours can see light coming from his house at all hours of the night, they will begin to suspect something. J has also placed a folding room divider covered with tinfoil in the hallway just inside the front door. This is to block any kind of infra-red or other types of electromagnetic spying equipment that the neighbours might be using.

It’s not hard to imagine how an intelligent, educated and hermit-like person like J combined with 20 conspiracy theories like Fergie would make an ideal person for spreading these ideas over the internet. If we guesstimate that there are 300K meth users in America and ten percent of them rant about conspiracies online, then that would be roughly twice as many as there are lobbyists in Washington. And they are no doubt much more persistent.

The IQ Breaking Point – How Civilized Society is Maintained or Lost

September 24, 2013
West Virgina at IQ 96. Life just below the breaking point.

West Virgina at IQ 96. Life just below the breaking point.

It’s a well-known fact that intelligence corresponds to various kinds of life outcomes at the individual level, such as income, education, drug abuse, criminality etc. A little less known is the fact that national average IQs correspond to similar outcomes on the national level. This has been shown by among others psychologists Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen, who have found staggering correlations between national IQ and things like health, education, income, crime, corruption, democracy.  To give you a rough idea, here are some of the findings,

Educational measures like TIMSS and PISA correlate 0.79-0.92

Number of scientists and engineers correlate 0.61

Measures of  per capita national income (GDP, GNP, GNI) correlate 0.51-0.89

Poverty and unemployment: -0.63 and -0.76 respectively

Crime in the form of homicide, assault and rape: -0.21 to -0.82 with distinctly higher correlations for the more accurate measure of homicide

Corruption: -0.27 to -0.68, all but one study above -0.54

Democracy: 20 of 22 measures show correlations around 0.60

Life expectancy: 0.51-0.82, expect for one study that found a negative correlation (possibly a typo)

Anyway, you get the picture. All the basic requirements for modern civilization – democracy, education, wealth, health and (lack of) crime and corruption – are strongly related to national IQs.

IQ 97: The Breaking Point

Seeing these correlations, it’s easy to assume that national IQ averages would correspond to specific degrees of development – that South Korea with an IQ of 107 would be much more civilized than Australia at 98, which in turn would be fairly similar to Russia or some other country at 97. But looking at the stats this is far from the case. Instead it seems like there is a point, somewhere around 97, above which a modern civilization can be maintained and below which things abruptly begin to fall apart. To illustrate this I’ll review some of the correlations mentioned above.

GDP (PPP) Per Capita

You can’t have civilization without money. It pays for education, healthcare, police etc. If we use the national IQs from, who appear to have the updated version of Lynn and Vanhanen’s data set (correct me if I’m wrong), and compare them with the GDP/PPP that takes local purchase power into account, we find clear support for the idea of a breaking point at 97 or thereabout. If we exclude oil nations, the top 20 with populations over one million, according to Wikipedia/IMF are,

Singapore, Hong Kong, USA, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Austria, Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Taiwan, Belgium, Denmark, UK, Finland, Japan, France, Israel and South Korea.

In these top 20, there are nine nations in the 98-99 range, but only two countries below 98 – Israel and Ireland. Both can be partly explained by the fact that they receive plenty of financial aid from USA and the EU respectively. And it’s unlikely that Ireland will stay in the top 20 given its huge public debt and very high unemployment.

And if we look at more “normal” countries with IQs below 98, those without oil or rich friends, we find Slovenia with an IQ of 96 at 24th place, then Cyprus with an IQ of 91 at 26th, and Greece with an IQ of 92 at 27th. And Greece may well have lost this spot as I write this. So at 98 there are plenty of wealthy countries, but at 97 it suddenly seems to evaporate. And this isn’t just about money; if we turn to corruption we find a very similar picture.


According to the Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI), the top 20 countries (again with a population of over one million) most free of corruption are,

Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Hong Kong, Belgium, Japan, UK, US, Chile, Uruguay, France, Austria and Ireland.

Strictly speaking this is 21 nations since Austria and Ireland share the 20th spot and it seemed a bit random to exclude the one or the other. Anyway, we find 10 countries in the 98-99 range – including the top 4 and 6 in the top 10. The only three countries below 98 are Ireland (see above), Chile with an IQ of 90 and Uruguay with an IQ of 96. Again we see how everything is fine at 98, but at 97 and below things go south.


Turning to crime, so to speak, we find the top 20 countries with the lowest homicide rates (and more than one million inhabitants) according to Wikipedia/UNODC are,

Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Bahrain, Norway, Austria, Oman, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Germany, Qatar, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, China, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Australia.

This clearly breaks the pattern since we have five nations in the 98-99 range and just as many low-IQ nations, all from the Arab world. However, if we are looking for a point at which modern civilization begins to crumble, then we shouldn’t look at dictatorships at all. They can keep the murder rate low with social control and oppression, but at in doing so they disqualify themselves as candidates for civilized societies. So if we limit our sample to at least somewhat civilized countries we get a different picture. This is of course a rather subjective method but I think we can all agree that the countries above can’t be a part of it. I have included Hong Kong but excluded China so that’s where I draw the admittedly somewhat arbitrary line. The top 20 at least moderately civilized countries with the lowest homicide rates then become,

Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Poland, France, Netherlands, Ireland, UK, Portugal and Serbia (IQ 89).

Again, this became 21 countries because the two last share the 20th place. We find nine nations in the range 98-99 and four countries below that. The anomaly here is Slovenia at 6th place, a country that was also a mild anomaly with 24th on the GDP per capita list. But overall, this confirms the previous findings in that there are plenty nations in the 98-99 range but at 97 or less they are few and nowhere near the top of the list.

Indeed looking at where the sub-98 countries are on these lists we find that they made places 9 and 18 on the GDP list; 17, 18 and 20 on the corruption list and 6, 18, 20, 20 on the homicide list. So they are not only few but mainly at the bottom.


Finally, let’s have a look at the Economist Democracy Index for 2012. The top 20 nations with more than a million people are as follows,

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Germany, UK, Czech Republic, Uruguay, Mauritius, South Korea, USA, Costa Rica and Japan.

As you might expect by now, around half of these, nine, are in the 98-99 range whereas only four are below that. Again, Ireland is breaking the pattern, as are Uruguay, Mauritius and Costa Rica with IQs of 90 and 89 respectively. We also find that four of the top five have 98 IQs whereas those below this level are at 11, 15, 16 and 19.

An Index of Civilization

So what happens if we add these measures up? I did this by scoring point in reversed rank order starting from 100 for each measure to create an civilization index. A statistician can probably come up with something better, but it will give a rough idea of the overall picture. The chart below shows the result,


As expected, there is a general pattern of higher degrees of civilization as intelligence increases. But the most civilized countries are all in a cluster with IQs between 98 and 101. Below 98 the level drops dramatically as can be seen by the lack of dots in the upper left part of the chart. The only distinct anomaly left is Ireland which scores 360 points for the 12th spot and, less striking, Slovenia at 20th with 335. Or, given what I’ve mentioned about the Irish economy, it may be Slovenia that is the more genuine anomaly here – clearly not as horrible as it’s portrayed in the Hostel movies. At any rate, combining these factors eliminates anomalies and further strengthens the support for an idea of a breaking point at approximately 97.


I haven’t found any official statistics for state-level IQs in America. There are however some estimates made by the Audacious Epigone, based on the NAEP scores, and educational measures are strongly correlated with IQs. He has also set the American average at 98 which matches the figures I’ve used above. If we exclude District of Columbia, which is common in these cases since it’s full of government money and temporary inhabitants, the top 20 GDP per capita (I haven’t found any PPP numbers), are as follows,

Delaware, Alaska, Connecticut, Wyoming, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Hawaii, Iowa, North Dakota and Louisiana.

As in all the previous calculations, we find that states in the 98-99 make up roughly half of the sample, once more dominating the top positions – 1, 2, 4, 6, 8. Below this level we find only three states, California with an IQ of 95 at 11th position and Hawaii with an IQ of 96 at 17th and Louisiana with an IQ of 96 at 20th place. There may be some explanations for these anomalies although I’m not that familiar with American politics. But it seems clear that California is in at least as much trouble as Ireland.

Conclusions and Implications

I’m not going to say that every conceivable measure on every conceivable level will show this pattern, but overall I think we have to conclude the existence of an IQ breaking point somewhere close to 97, at which we see drastically different outcomes depending on whether a country is above or below this level. A country can of course still fail above this point, like Italy and most likely North Korea. But a national IQ above 97 represent a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success.

One implication, if this turns out to be true, is that immigration could pose a serious threat to the West, especially those countries and regions that are closest to the breaking point. The sad part is that since everything is going so well at 98 they may dismiss this risk. This is especially true for those countries and states who are right at 98 and whose immigrants have the lowest IQs, for instance France or Texas. As for California that state has now clearly passed the breaking point, it will be interesting to see if they will break the pattern. I suspect they won’t, given that the few countries that do fairly well below 98 (Ireland, Slovenia, Uruguay etc) are all small and lacking in diversity, which is the opposite of California.

It’s fully possible that someone else already has noted this breaking point, but since I hadn’t heard of it before and it didn’t seem like common knowledge, I figured it was worth sharing. I have no idea why 97 would be a magic number; maybe it’s just something in the human condition. I’ll be updating this article whenever I find any relevant information on this.

Can You Tell What a Person Is Like Just by Looking at Him?

November 13, 2012

It seems unlikely but there is a lot of research that illustrates that most people can assess someone’s personality based on very little information. A photograph, an office, bedroom, a personal website have all shown to be sufficient to achieve a better than random result in guessing personality as well as sexual orientation.

A German study on this (Borkenau 2009) found that just seeing a headshot of someone for 50 milliseconds was enough to assess extraversion. In order to find out how the participants were able to spot this trait, Borkenau and his colleagues had a second group look for visual characteristics in the headshots. It turns out the people who were rated as extraverted looked more cheerful and smiled more than others. This makes sense since a lot of research has found that extraverts actually are more cheerful than introverts.

While spotting extraversion by looking at a picture for 50 milliseconds may sound impressive, it’s probably not. Thing is, the study looked at all the five traits included in the popular Big Five model of personality – Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeability, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness. And the participants only got one right. So why did they get any right at all?

The answer may be found in how they got the others wrong. It turns out that the people with headshots showing cheerful and smiley faces were all considered to be extraverted, low on neuroticism, and high on agreeableness. These traits are all socially desirable. In other words, they attributed socially desirable traits to people who looked cheerful. And as it happens, extraverts generally report feeling happier than introverts so they probably smiled more – but that appears to have been just a happy accident.

This study suggest that people make judgments based largely on wishful thinking. They see a person who is smiling and they assume that he or she is what they consider a pleasant person. Social psychologists have shown this phenomenon numerous times; people look at conspicuous information, like a broad smile and ignore the less obvious information, like that the person in question is being photographed so he may be smiling even if he isn’t that cheerful or he may not be smiling because something caught his eye.

They way to assess someone’s personality is not by “speed reading”, it’s by long-term observation. To look at how people behave when you are familiar with the situation, to gather lots of data and see patterns emerge. If you thinks someone is pleasant because they smile it only means you’re an easy target for sales people.

72 Is Not Going to Be the New 30 for Honey Boo Boo – A Few Thoughts on National Character, Health, and Longevity

October 22, 2012

30 might just feel little bit like 72 for this girl…

Under the headline “Modern humans found to be fittest ever at survival, by far” Los Angeles Times recently featured an article about a study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, on the increase in life expectancy,

A typical Swede, for instance, is more than 100 times more likely to survive to the age 15 than a typical hunter-gatherer. And a hunter-gatherer who has reached the ripe old age of 30 is about as likely to die in the following year as the world’s champion of longevity — a 72-year-old woman in Japan.

But are Swedes and the Japanese really representative of all modern humans, or even of populations in the developed countries? I think it’s safe to say that these two people are known to have certain traits, national characters, that set them apart. Hardly anyone would argue with the claim that they are less impulsive than the average.

Research on national characters – the specific collective personality traits that distinguish on nationality from another – has proven difficult. A large study by Terracciano back in 2005 found that the national characters don’t accord with mean levels of personality traits. So is this idea just in our heads, that say the Chinese are more introverted than Americans?

Most likely not, since all research into stereotypes so far tends to find a kernel of truth in them – Jews as a group make more money, African Americans as a group are more violent etc. But personality research is almost exclusively done with self-report questionnaires. When people answer question about their own personality they relate it to other people in their own country. This means that differences between countries can be due to other factors like how socially desirable a trait is in that country or how prone a certain people are to self-enhancement, portraying themselves as better than they are. Studies have found that East Asians are not as prone to this as Westerners which could explain why Americans for instance measure higher than the Japanese on conscientiousness.

Some psychologists have tried to get around this problem by looking at how personality traits are expressed in different cultures, or to use ethos in the form of institutions that embody ideals that are typical of certain traits. But that’s all very problematic since it involves measuring the same thing in different and indirect ways.

A better way to do this (which at least I haven’t read about) is to measure actual behavior related to personality traits. Because there are traits that have universal behavioral outcomes.  Take impulsivity for instance. This trait predicts drug abuse, violent crime, traffic accidents etc in all parts of the developed world.  So if these outcomes differ according to stereotypical notions of national characters then we have some evidence that these do reflect actual personality differences between nations.

Since I haven’t come across any such research I decided to dabble a little myself, just to see if there might be anything to this. I took two measures – adult lifetime use of cannabis, and road fatalities – and combined them into a composite measure of impulsivity. The countries included are mainly those commonly thought of as impulsive, New Zealand, USA, Australia, and Denmark. I contrasted these against the two nationalities mentioned in the article, those of Sweden and Japan. So here is what I found.

Adult lifetime use of cannabis according to Wikipedia/EMCDDA: Stereotypically impulsive nations like USA 42.4 percent, New Zealand 41.9 percent , Denmark 36.5 percent, and Australia 33.5 percent. As a contrast Sweden has 12 percent and Japan a mere 1.5 percent.

Road fatalities per 100K inhabitants and year according to Wikipedia/WHO: Again looking at the stereotypically impulsive nations we have, Australia 5.7, New Zealand 8.6, USA  12.3,  Denmark 7.4,  whereas Sweden has 2.9 and Japan 3.85.

If we combine these percentages to a composite measure of impulsivity by adjusting so both measures have the same average, we find the following order with life expectancy in the second column,

USA                       50           78.2

Australia               56           81.2

New Zealand        77           80.2

Denmark               67           78.3

Sweden                 24           80.9

Japan                    17           82.7

This gives us a clear indication that nations thought of as impulsive actually have more outcomes that are known to correlate with impulsivity on the individual level. Their average level is 62.5, which is 3 times the average of Japan and Sweden combined. It’s especially striking to see the big difference between the neighbors  Denmark and Sweden that are very similar in many other ways.  And this measure of impulsivity also correlates  -0.6 to life expectancy which is quite respectable.

…but not for this one.

Although it’s not a scientific study, I believe this little exercise clearly raises the question of whether any developed country can be taken as a measure of how technological progress translates to longer life expectancies in general. It suggest that this is not the case, and that differences in personality traits between countries, often referred to as national characters are in fact real, and affect health and longevity in the same way as they do on the individual level.

So Why Personality?

August 13, 2012

A new blog is born…


And it’s about personality. Why? Because it’s the big hidden parameter. You rarely hear anyone in the media talking about it. Writers, reporters, pundits and experts – they are all thinking in other categories. Most of them think of sex, age, race, religion or social background as the relevant factors in explaining human behaviour.

This is due to the influence of two highly intelligent and yet very clue-deficient men named Freud and Marx. Their theories on human nature suggest that human behaviour is best described as a product of social circumstances, in Freud’s case the family and in Marx’ case society. While these ideas have failed miserably, their influence remain strong at the universities in disciplines like sociology, history and psychology.  A great many of the intellectuals who “inform” the public on human nature have taken classes in these subjects and are either outright Freudians and Marxists, or at least retain their basic frame of mind. They firmly believe that social factors can explain most human behaviour, as well as personality itself.

This of course is nonsense. Personality is largely inherited and changes little over the life span. Anyone who has been to a class reunion knows this. And personality is a much better predictor of human behaviour than any other measure in most situations. In fact, there is a lot of evidence showing that personality is largely responsible for creating a person’s social circumstances – and not the other way around.

Studies published in major scientific journals in personality psychology  have shown that personality traits affect almost all aspects of our lives. For instance things like crime, divorce, political opinion, religious beliefs, school grades, work performance, intelligence, income, alcohol and drug abuse, and how many children you get.

So personality is a pretty big deal. And that’s the major reason I started this blog: to present and discuss some of the findings in this highly interesting yet sadly neglected field. But I’ll also be writing about all sorts of other stuff that interests me, like new, politics, movies, books etc. Hope you like it.


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