In 2008, Neil Turok, an eminent phycisist, gave a talk about trying to find the next Einstein in in sub-Saharan Africa. I was thinking about this a few days ago after his initiative re-surfaced in a minor news story,and wondered “what are his odds?”
Coincidentally, this morning I stumbled across the key figure needed to upper-bound them while researching something else.
So, how do you estimate something like that? Formally, what you’re looking for is an estimate of the frequency of Einstein-class brains in sub-Saharan Africa (“SSA” in the rest of this post). Or at least a statistical upper bound; that way we can make generous assumptions where we have a choice, insulating the calculation against various kinds of special pleading.
It may not be a sufficient condition for an African future Einstein to have Einstein’s IQ – he may have had some special creative spark not captured by testing – but tensor calculus is hard and depends on qualities about which there is no dispute that IQ captures well. (That is: both capacity for long chains of abstract logical reasoning, and spatial visualization.)
Therefore, we can upper-bound Turok’s number with an estimate of the number of people with Einstein-plus IQs in SSA. There are two problems with this project.
One is that Einstein never took an IQ test. There is, however, a mini-industry among psychometricians of estimating the IQs of historical figures from various proxies. If you do a little research you’ll find that the minimum IQ attributed to him is 160 (all figures Stanford-Binet).
I think this is low, myself; I’ve seen a median estimate of 175.
But since we’re looking for an upper bound, we’ll start with the low figure; this leaves statistical room for the maximum number of African Einsteins.
The other problem is that you need to know at least an IQ average for SSA. What I stumbled over this morning is just such a thing. The paper argues that previous estimates have erred by oversampling elite populations – and in African conditions that’s a pretty damn plausible argument. It marshals several lines of evidence for an average IQ of 68.
That’s almost all we need. I have a handy table of IQ percentages and rarities. Needs to be used with a bit of caution for two reasons. First, it’s based on a 100 average, so we need to slide our IQ target by 100-68=32 points to re-norm it. Second, it fails to account for the fact that black Africans probably have a slightly narrower IQ dispersion than the mostly Euro population the chart was based on.
I’m going to cheerfully ignore the dispersion issue (and avoid having to dig up cites for that claim) because, if anything, it will cause a slight overestimate of the fatness of the high-IQ tail in African populations. That is OK because (as with choosing a low estimate for Einstein’s IQ) it will make our upper-bound estimate err on the high side.
We also need one last piece of information: the population of SSA. This site says 1,050,135,841.
Time to crunch numbers. I didn’t actually do this calculation before I started writing this post, so I don’t know what the result will be. We’re targeting an IQ lower bound of 160 + 32 = 192 on the chart. That gives us a 16SD 1/X of 212343687. Dividing into population, we should expect 4.9 Einsteins per Africa.
Well, that could have gone worse. Me, if I were looking for Einsteins, I’d try the obvious population first: Ashkenazic Jews. (Well, duh!) But at least it’s good to know Turok is not, statistically speaking, fishing in a completely dry hole.
…Or is he? Most of the plausible ways for the inputs to be wrong punch hell out of that number. In particular, a median 175 estimate for Einstein’s IQ drops it to….looking…less than 0.9%. Actually probably a lot less since my chart tops out at IQ 202 and the target would be 207. Even at 202 that’s less than one Einstein in 100 Africas.
OK, that’s not so good. At that level Turok’s odds look really bad unless there is some way to drastically elevate SSA’s IQ mean. The good news is that Africa is the only place left in the world this might still be possible, and it leads to actionable advice for Turok’s plan.
Adult IQ is hard to increase. You can jack it up slightly and temporarily with drugs like DMSO and Modafinil, but there aren’t any known interventions (even in childhood) that are reliable and permanent. On the other hand, it is easily lowered by environmental insults in childhood. There’s a lot of indirect evidence that neurological growth can be stunted by poor early-childhood nutrition.
In most of the world poor childhood nutrition is largely a solved problem; this was not true as recently as the late 1960s and represents one of the great human achievements of the last half-century. Africa is the dolorous exception.
So this is my advice to Turok: if you want an Einstein in thirty years, start by improving the diet of young children in Africa now.
This isn’t guaranteed to work. To know how effective this would be we’d have to look at mean adult IQs in a representative sample of SSAs that have had good childhood nutrition…
…OK, as I was typing it occurs to me that that test may have been run already. Lynn & Meisenberg think that previous average-IQ estimates have been high due to oversampling elites, and they cite one of 80 that they criticize. In Africa, “elite” is pretty much defined by “you get to feed yourself and your kids decently”.
So, hm, what happens if we take 80 as an estimate of the average IQ of SSAs not subjected to severe childhood environmental insults? Let’s call this the “future SSA” estimate. One reason to think this estimate is plausible is that the average IQ of SSA-descended American blacks is about 85.
As before, I don’t know the answer yet; I’m calculating as I go. Target IQs on my chart is now either 160 or 175 + (100 – 80). That’s either 180 with a 16SD 1/X of 3483046 or 195 with a 16SD 1/X of 1009976678.
It turns out that these assumptions predict an upper bound of 301 Einsteins per future Africa and a most likely figure of almost exactly 1 Einstein per future Africa. That’s if Turok or others can prevent malnutrition and other insults from keeping Africa as a whole below the performance of their elites.
For comparison, the U.S’s population of 325,700,000 should include 10320 Einsteins at 160 IQ and 93 at 175. That makes 175 look much more plausible to me, which unfortunately implies that 1 Einstein per future Africa is probably an upper bound.
Of course, one Einstein can make a continent-sized difference. I wish Neil Turok the best of luck finding him or (though less likely) her.