View Full Version : How Important is the Role of Intelligence in the Rise of Civilization?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008, 10:09 AM
by Maria T. Phelps, University of Western Ontario

Abstract : Looks at the importance of intelligence in the rise of civilization. Racial differences in test scores as a reflection in the rise of civilization; Agriculture as a necessary precursor of civilization; Technological and social innovations as a result of a multiple causative network; Conceptualization of civilization as an event.

Lynn (1991b) contends that racial differences in intelligence test scores are also reflected in the rise of civilization. During the Neolithic period, only Mongoloids and Caucasoids exhibited all the defining characteristics of civilization such as agriculture, writing and number systems. In contrast to Negroid populations, Mongoloid and Caucasoid populations were exposed to the extreme cold of the main Wurm glaciation, resulting in a process of selection in favor of higher intelligence in the populations occupying the Eurasiatic land mass. Lynn (1991ab) suggests that this increase in intelligence was the causative agent responsible for the rise of civilization.

The author argues, however, that although intelligence might be a necessary condition for the rise of civilization, it is not by itself a sufficient reason. She argues, that agriculture, a necessary precursor of civilization, developed when hunting and gathering were no longer ecologically viable. The technological and social innovations that followed were the result of a multiple causative network and cannot be attributed solely to increased intelligence. Finally, the problems of conceptualizing civilization as an event instead of a process are discussed.

An analysis of global intelligence test scores conducted by Lynn (1991b) revealed that Mongoloids living in North America and Asia obtain higher mcan IQ scores (101-108) than North American or European Caucasoids (100), and Caucasoids obtain higher mean IQ scores than American-Negroid (85) or African-Negroid (70) populations. Because intelligence is highly heritable (e.g., Bouchard, Lykken, McGec, Segal & Tellegen, 1990), Lynn (1991ab) argued that these differences in intelligence are genetically based. Rushton (1988) has expanded the list of heritable factors that serve to differentiate the three races to include physiological, reproductive and personality variables. Further, a number of studies examining the relationship between reaction time and intelligence also indicate a similar ordering of the three races, with Mongoloids exhibiting faster reaction times than Caucasoids and Negroids, respectively.

This latter finding is particularly noteworthy in two respects. One, reaction time is a measure that is unaffected by experience. Two, other studies, not concerned with the ranking of the races by intelligence, have demonstrated that reaction time is positively associated with intelligence (Vernon, 1993). The universality of racial differences in IQ test scores and reaction time measures supports Lynnís (1991ab) claim that the explanation for these differences cannot be solely accounted for by environmental factors such as social and economic conditions.

Lynn (1991b) then makes the claim that racial differences in intelligence are reflected both in the level and complexity of civilization attained by the three races. He reasons that if scientific, intellectual and technological innovations are made by a few highly intelligent individuals then there will be more of these in a population where average intelligence is high.

Consequently, Lynn argues (1991a) that Mongoloid and to a lesser extent Caucasoid populations, in contrast to Negroid populations, exhibited all the defining characteristics of civilization such as agriculture, mathematics, legal, ethical and religious systems. According to Lynn (1991ab) the level of intelligence necessary to create civilization, however, was not to be attained until the Neolithic period, approximately 9,000 years ago. The problems of survival during periods of extreme cold caused by the main Wurm glaciation (24,000-10,000 years ago) was the selective force that produced further increases in intelligence in Caucasoid and Mongoloid populations and this increase in intelligence laid the foundation upon which civilization is built (Lynn, 1991ab). Because Negroid population were not exposed to the main Warm glaciation, they did not undergo a transformation in intelligence that was a necessary precondition for the rise of civilization (Lynn, 1991ab).

It is only the latter point, that civilization is an intellectual achievement, that this author takes issue with. Most anthropologists feel that agriculture is the necessary first step toward urbanization and complex social and political systems that characterize civilization (Childe, 1967; Fiedel, 1992; Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977; Henry, 1989; Layton, Foley & Williams, 1991; Redding, 1988; McCorriston & Hole, 1991; Perkins & Daly, 1974; Stigler, 1974). The adoption of agriculture as a subsistence mode occurred because hunting and gathering were no longer ecologically or economically feasible (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1988; Layton et al., 1991; Redding, 1988; McCorriston & Hole, 1991; Perkins & Daly, 1974). The explosion of cultural innovations that followed, for example, writing, number systems, standardization of measurement, and astronomy, were attempts to adapt to the changes brought about by the new agricultural economy by creating new tools (Childe, 1967; Fiedel, 1992; Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977; Henry, 1989; Redding, 1988; Perkins & Daly, 1974; Stigler, 1974). It will be argued that the technological, organizational and ideological changes associated with the rise of civilization are the products of a multiple causative network and can not be attributed to a single causative agent, such as intelligence.

Agriculture: The Best of a Bad Job Strategy

Lynn (1991a) postulates that his theory solves a problem that has long perplexed anthropologists, namely why didnít civilization and its precursor, agriculture, occur prior to the Neolithic revolution? Lynn (1991a) suggests that the reason is because prior to 10,000 years ago Homo sapiens had not attained a level of intelligence high enough to invent civilization. I argue that the reason why agriculture and civilization did not occur between 200,000-10,000 years ago is more likely due to the fact that the precultigens (i.e., ancestral populations of the major cereal grains, maize etc.) were absent because of the prevailing climatic conditions of the Pleistocene (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1989; Layton et al., 1991). To put it more simply, it is difficult to have agriculture as a subsistence mode when the plant resource base has not come into existence. The precultigens were selected by the early farmers because their short reproductive cycles and self-fertilization were easily manipulated, thus making them ideal candidates for domestication (McCorriston & Hole, 1991).

What has perplexed anthropologists, however, are two anomalies in the archaeological record of early farming communities in both the New and Old World. One, the archaeological record of early farming communities show that agriculture did not arise in lush environments but rather in marginal, arid semi-desertic ecological zones (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1989). The second anomaly concerns the apparent ill-health of the early farming populations, relative to both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1989; Layton et al., 1991). For example, skeletal remains of early farmers exhibit numerous instances of nutritionally based and infectious diseases.

The question that anthropologists ask is why did humans abandon the previously successful subsistence mode of hunting and gathering and switch to agriculture? One answer is that these early farmers had no choice. The changes in the prevailing climatic and environmental conditions in combination with increasing population size forced these people to abandon hunting and gathering and adopt an alternative subsistence mode, agriculture, in order to survive (Fiedel, 1991; Henry, 1989; Layton et al., 1991; McCorriston & Hole, 1991; Redding, 1989). Further, the mass extinction of the megafauna due to increasing aridity of the climate also necessitated the broadening of the resource base to include the harvesting of vegetal material.

In order to maximize their rate of return from the new resource base, nomadic hunters and gatherers became sedentary, devoting more time and energy to the efficient cultivation and harvesting of the cultigens. One of the peculiar side effects to adopting a sedentary lifestyle is the consequences it has on female fertility and fecundity. Because fertility in females is dependent upon the body fat to body weight ratio, decreasing the time spent in the search for and pursuit of mobile food items acts to increase femalesí reproductive output (Henry, 1989). In addition the switch from a high-protein, meat-based diet to a high carbohydrate, low-protein, cereal-based diet also contributed to higher body fat to body weight ratios (Henry, 1989). Once a group becomes sedentary and adopts a plant-based diet, it sets into motion a vicious cycle of increased offspring production, which in turn requires increased food production, forcing groups to develop more effective means of resource extraction. In other words, necessity is the mother of invention. It is at this point in human history that intelligent individuals can make a difference by ensuring group survival through technological or intellectual innovation. In the absence of these ecological pressures, however, I argue that there is no need to invent more effective farm tools when survival is largely dependent on a mobile meat-based resource.

Agriculture and Civilization

Agriculture propelled population growth, and as a function of a positive feedback loop, the increased population size could only be supported by the adoption of more intensive farming methods, such as irrigation, and terracing (Fiedel, 1992; Perkins & Daly, 1974; Stigler, 1974). Coincidentally, intensive agricultural practices also produced a resource surplus that enabled farmers to remain sedentary during periods of resource fluctuations (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1989). In contrast, hunters and gatherers typically respond to scarcity by dispersing and migrating in search of new food sources (Fiedel, 1992). In addition, the increase in intensity of land use activated the processes culminating in complex social and political institutions such as the state (Fiedel, 1992; Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977; Henry, 1989; Perkins & Daly, 1974; Stigler, 1974).

As land was used more intensely, there was not only an increasingly large gap between the most valuable land and the least valuable land but also a progressively smaller amount of valuable land (Fiedel, 1992; Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977). For example, nearly 35% of the total land of western Iran is optimal for the hunting of ungulates (Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977). However, the shift to dry farming decreased the percentage of optimal land to 10% and the shift to irrigation farming to only 1% (Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977). Consequently, specialized social groups evolved for the purpose of holding and maintaining these scarce resources (Fiedel, 1992; Flannery, 1969; Hardesty, 1977; Perkins & Daly, 1974; Stigler, 1974).

These specialized social groups led to new patterns of political and religious authority, class stratification, the appearance of new economic classes not directly engaged in producing their own food, and mechanisms for apportioning wealth (Fiedel, 1992; Stigler, 1974). Agricultural surpluses made this possible by feeding construction workers, religious authorities and town-dwellers (Fiedel, 1992; Perkins & Daly, 1974; Stigler, 1974). Thus, agriculture is the foundation upon which civilization is built. Agriculture necessitated social and political change that evolved to manage the scarce resource of arable land and also provided the surplus to feed those not directly involved in resource extraction. If human groups had not been forced to adopt this new subsistence mode, the infrastructure necessary to attain and sustain large groups of even highly intelligent people would be absent.

The Tools of Civilization

Contrary to popular opinion, most hunting and gathering societies possess religious, ethical and legal systems in which certain behaviors are either proscribed or prescribed by the group (Fiedel, 1992; Greenwood & Stini, 1977). What hunters and gatherers do not evidence are the stereotypical tools of civilization, writing, mathematics and astronomy, that most anthropologists typically associate with civilization. The issue that I wish to address is why these traits co-occur with urbanization and agriculture. I argue that the differing demands of civilization compared to hunting and gathering necessitated the development of these new tools. That is, the appearance of these additions to the human tool kit at this point in human history can not entirely be accounted for by an increase in the level of intelligence.

One of the most complete examples of the evolutionary history of writing is provided by the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia. In the civic and religious buildings of these ancient peoples, the earliest clay tablets are found that record the evolution of pictographic form writing into an ideographic-cum-phonetic system, the standard cuneiform of later Mesopotamia (Stigler, 1974). The functional raison díe tre of the writing system is readily apparent in these fossils. They are account ledgers, records of livestock and harvest yields, receipts, expenditures and wage lists (Childes, 1967; Stigler, 1974). In other words, these clay tablets document the administration of an agricultural surplus that supports specialists who do not produce food directly but rather build temples, pottery and agricultural terraces (Childes, 1967: Stigler, 1974).

The economy of mobile hunters and gatherers dictates a different pattern of adaptation because for this lifestyle the costs associated with maintaining a resource surplus can exceed the benefits (Layton et al., 1991; McCorriston & Hole, 1991; Redding, 1988). When the energetic and nutritive demands of each individual in the group are met, as is characteristic of hunter-gatherers, time and energy spent in the maintenance and defense of a resource surplus is unnecessary (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1989). Further, the mobility required by the hunter-gatherer resource base also prevents the maintenance and defense of the surplus from other groups (Layton et al., 1991). The assignment of individuals to activities not directly involved in food production would detract from the rate of energetic gain for the entire group (Layton et al., 1991). And, in the absence of a surplus, there is no need to document its use by those not directly involved in resource extraction.

A number system would be as necessary a tool as a writing system in order to adapt to the new economy. For hunters and gatherers, notches on a tally stick for each bison slain by a hunter would suffice (Childe, 1967; Fiedel, 1992; Stigler, 1974). For enumerating the vast herds of a religious temple or the contents of a city granary, however, such a system would be inadequate (Childe, 1967). The new economic conditions also required the creation of arithmetic and geometry in order to ascertain and predict the number of bricks to be used for the building of a new temple wall or the number of men needed to build a new terracing system (Childe, 1967; Fiedel, 1992; Stigler, 1974). Thus, the genesis for this new tool is evident in its function. It was not created to satisfy an interest in the properties of numbers as such, or in the measurement of an abstract empty space (Childe, 1967).

Similarly, astronomy was developed in order to foretell the precise time to begin agricultural operations (Childe, 1967: Fiedel, 1992; Stigler, 1974). It is not an accident that many temple structures are aligned with some star or constellation that facilitates the determination of the precise time of the spring and autumnal equinox (Childe, 1967: Fiedel, 1992). Ascertaining the length of the growing season is an important consideration for farmers because it aids in the decision of when to plant and when to harvest. A sudden frost can spell disaster for a group dependent on a plant-based resource (Layton et al., 1991). For hunter gatherers dependent on a mobile meat-based resource, a sudden change in weather is handled by dispersing early or later in the year (Fiedel, 1992). This, however, is not an option for a group of sedentary farmers who provide for their own needs as well as the needs of non-food providers.

The standardization of measurement also arose in response to the demands created by the new subsistence mode (Childe, 1967; Fiedel, 1992; Stigler, 1974). In order to construct a hand-axe the needs of a hunter and gatherer are supplied by nature ó the length of a finger, or forearm would suffice (Childe, 1967). In contrast, the construction of a large temple or terracing system would be seriously hampered by the use of such measurement because not every arm is of the same length. To put it more simply, such an inaccuracy could result in some beams failing to span the temple while others would project beyond its walls (Childe, 1967).

Thus, the addition of new tools to the human tool kit occurred because of the new demands created by agriculture. What intelligence did was to ensure that these new demands or challenges were met successfully. For hunter-gatherers the use of these new tools would not be necessary and in some case would be cost-prohibitive. In other words, the intellectual capability to invent these new tools existed in Caucasoid and Mongoloid hunter-gatherer populations but it did not manifest itself in the form of writing and numerical systems until it was needed. The impetus for each new innovation and the innovations themselves are parts of an interlocking system that can not be explained by an appeal to a single causative agent, such as intelligence.

The Concept of Civilization as an Event

There may also be problems with Lynnís (1991ab) conceptualization of civilization as an event instead of a process. Obviously, there was not a time when a group of Mongoloid or Caucasoid hunter-gatherers, huddled around the camp fire, spontaneously decided to invent civilization; yet, this scenario is implied in Lynnís analysis. Rather than following a unilineal developmental sequence, the economic and social changes in the Old and New World are best understood in the context of consequences of an interaction of population growth and climatic environmental changes that were the catalysts for civilization (Fiedel, 1992; Henry, 1989; Layton et al., 1991; McCorriston & Hole, 1991; Redding, 1989).

An ecological approach to understanding the evolution of civilization is more compatible with the evidence than an event-based hypothesis. Anthropologists long ago abandoned the view of civilization as the end product of a unilinear trend due to the existence of a phenomenon known as reversion. Reversion occurs when a previously agricultural or urban group reverts back to a hunting and gathering lifestyle because of the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure due to variety of reasons, such as over cultivation or decreasing rainfall. Contrary to an event-based model of human cultural evolution, human groups may return to a Ďprimitiveí hunting and gathering subsistence mode due to changes in ecological conditions rather than a drop in intelligence. This illustrates the danger of perceiving the transition between hunting and gathering as a one-way process that in some sense constitutes a step up the evolutionary ladder.

As stated previously, the catalysts for civilization include the pressure of population growth and the scarcity of basic resources produced by the adoption of agriculture as a subsistence mode (McCorriston & Hole, 1991; Redding, 1989). In such circumstances, societies had to reorganize in order to survive. The shift to a centrally organized, stratified society may not have been the only possible solution, but it is one that has occurred independently in many parts of the world. In that sense environmental and population stress may be conceived as an event. But, the occurrence of that event is heavily predicated on the occurrence of a population and environmental stress interaction. If these two factors do not co-occur, I argue that there is no reason to adopt an alternative lifestyle.

Finally the conceptualization of civilization as an event is a double-edged sword that can also be used to impale Lynnís (1991ab) argument. In contrast to the pattern observed in Europe, the archaeological record in China shows a 3,000 year interval between the development of agriculture and the rise of civilization. For over two centuries, Japan failed to capitalize on superior military technology (guns) despite their introduction by Westerners in the 1700ís. From an event-based perspective, these examples could be interpreted as evidence disputing north east Asians as intellectually superior to Caucasoids. By viewing civilization as an alternative subsistence mode or process, however, I suggest that Mongoloid hunter-gatherers would still obtain higher IQ scores than urban Caucasoid and Negroid populations. Based on Lynnís (1991ab) global survey of IQ scores and reaction time measures, such an argument is not incompatible with the evidence.

Source : Mankind Quarterly (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mank indquarterly.org%2F), Summer94, Vol. 34 Issue 4, p287, 10p.


Bouchard, T. L, Lykken, D. T., McGue, M., Segal, M. L, & Tellegen, A. 1990 Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Science 250: 223-228.

Childe, G. V. 1967 The advent of civilization. In N. F. Cantor and M. S. Werthman (eds). Ancient Civilization: 4000 B.C.- 400 A.D. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. Pp. 4-63.

Fiedel, S. J. 1992 Prehistory of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flannery, K.V. 1969 Effects of early domestication in Iran and the Near East. In P. J. Ucko and G. W. Dimbleby (eds). The Domestication and Exploitation of . . . and Animals. Chicago: Aldine Press. Pp. 73-100.

Greenwood, D. J. & Stini, W. A. 1977 Nature, Climate and Human History. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Hardesty, D. L 1977 Ecological Anthropology. Wiley & Sons.

Henry, D.O. 1989 From Foraging to Agriculture. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.

Layton, R., Foley, R., & Williams, E. 1991 The transition between hunting and gathering and specialized husbandry to resources. Current Anthropology 32: 225-273.

Lynn, R. 1991a The evolution of racial differences in intelligence. Mankind Quarterly 32: 99-121. 1991b Race differences in intelligence: A global perspective. Mankind Quarterly 32: 225-296.

McCorriston, J., & Hole, F. 1991 The ecology of seasonal stress and the origins of agriculture in the Near East. American Anthropologist 93: 46-68.

Perkins, Jr., D., & Daly, P. 1974 The beginning of food production in the Near East. In R. Stigler (ed.). The Old World: Early Man to the Development of Agriculture. New York: St. Martinís Press. Pp. 71-97.

Redding, R. W. 1988 A general explanation of subsistence change: From hunting and gathering to food production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 7: 56-97.

Rushton, J.P. 1988 Race differences in behavior: A review and evolutionary analysis. Personality & Individual Differences 9: 1009-24.

Stigler, R. 1974 The later Neolithic in the Near East and the rise of civilization. In In R. Stigler (ed.). The Old World: Early Man to the Development of Agriculture New York: St. Martinís Press. Pp. 98-126.

Vernon, P. A. 1993 Biological Approaches to the Study of Human Intelligence. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.