Book Review: Hive Mind

I took a long time to write a review of Garett Jones’s book Hive Mind, which looks at the role of IQ in societal functionality. I finished the book in June, and since then have had a rather difficult time trying to express my thoughts. Waiting so long was definitely a mistake. My memory of the details is inadequate to do a convincing job, and I didn’t particularly want to reread the entire thing.

To further complicate matters, IQ is a touchy subject. Jones starts out by trying to establish for readers that, while it may be an imperfect measure, it definitely is measuring something, and something desirable at that. There’s a fairly large body of research backing this up, but when did uncommunicated studies ever convince anyone?

The first several chapters attempt to rectify this problem. Jones stresses his preference for geometric, language-neutral assessments, which is shared by the psychological researchers still willing to touch such a toxic area of study. However, the applicability of geometric tests is not limited to assessing math skills, because of what Jones calls the Da Vinci Effect i.e. people who are good in one area are usually good in other, related areas. The research supports this interpretation, since older-style test which cover multiple areas show a positive correlation between different sorts of cognitive abilities.

Referring to IQ as a collection of skills is not a mistake. While genetics certainly contribute, IQ is hardly immutable. You can train yourself to be more intelligent, at least temporarily.

This strays dangerously close to “[insert standardized test type here] just tests your knowledge, not smarts” territory, but any serious student of engineering knows there’s a big difference between memorizing facts and understanding how to apply them in a wide variety of situations. We’re pretty sure that that’s what standardized tests are measuring.

All of this is very interesting, but why should we care?

The next section deals with the application of intelligence in group dynamics. In particular, what role does a population’s average intelligence play in the functioning of society, economic output, and political stability? This is the book’s real focus.

Jones draws from a number of examples to argue that more intelligent groups are more cooperative and better at cooperation. The interesting thing is that average IQ is not the single relevant factor. The less intelligent members actually hinder the success of such group.

From a policy perspective, this is very important information. It tells us that a focus on raising the IQ of disadvantaged populations very well could be a more effective societal intervention than equivalent intelligence increases at the opposite end of the bell curve. (Attempts to test this hypothesis have been frustrated by insufficient national data.) Furthermore, since group intelligence plays a significant role in political and economic success, this suggests that one-time investments in poverty-stricken nations can in fact permanently raise them to an decent mode of existence.

This is not a book about how to raise IQ, and Jones only briefly discusses the matter. His goal is to motivate better research on the subject, since only a handful of studies have been done and we really don’t have a clear picture of what does into brain development. There’s a couple of possibilities put forth. One is childhood nutrition. Studies where researchers gave a nutrient-rich foods to children in disadvantaged areas found that those same children later tested higher than their malnourished peers. This seems like a good strategy in particularly poor nations. Other experiments suggest that better schooling, especially in problem-solving and mathematical thinking, can drastically raise an individual’s functional intelligence. Finally, the intervention most people can agree on is removing lead on other toxins from the environment. It’s notable that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the few major regions which still uses leaded gasoline.

Which interventions are most effective is an open question. The idealist answer is to attack all of these problems simultaneously, but as usual the world is less convenient than that. It may be that certain strategies make implementing other strategies easier. For example, agricultural development increases the availability of a balanced childhood diet.

Hive Mind is remarkably honest in admitting when the information simply isn’t available. Society is complicated and Jones does not pretend that even the best statistical analysis can overcome that complexity given such limited data. Simply put, we need a lot more research before we can know with any degree of certainty. It’s clear that IQ is a decent predictor of social outcomes. It’s also clearly a weak predictor of individual outcomes. To be clear, individual IQ matters, but only as much as several other factors. Some we can control, some we cannot. Effecting positive social change depends on policymaker’s ability to balance these factors.

Creating better institutions through smarter populations is a promising method of overcoming many of our longstanding structural problems. There’s real potential here. Let’s get to work on it.

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Hive Mind by Garett Jones