Culture has a huge influence on our intelligence and character. Before we have any chance to leverage our skills we are influenced by our family and mentors, the national and local culture, school, and extracurricular activities. These environmental factors affect the evolution of individuals and societies. Quite possibly personal success is equal part luck, hard work and good decisions. More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Some nations are inherently smarter than others. Being a Jew, you are expected to be smarter than anyone else from day one. Initially, it does not work this way. Kids who are malnourished or kids in families with substance abuse are at a disadvantage. Everybody else tends to be roughly the same, approximately until school.
Then year after year some kids get better books, tutors, and extracurricular activities. Even without those, the personal example of parents doing intellectual activities or simply valuing education is powerful. So by the time kids reach high school, the cultural effects aggregate. Kids of some cultural backgrounds like Asians in US score better on tests.
Simply getting better test scores is a sort of superpower, landing better education and job opportunities. Some countries have better universities, venture capital, mentoring, and market access.
The initial IQ at the age of 10 does not really matter. The aggregate effect of all opportunities creates “smart” nations with many Ph.D. holders and advanced technologies as well as less intelligent nations where a high IQ means better positioning on the corrupt power ladder.
Luck or culture?
Anyone can be successful. Higher chances of success are generated by hard work, luck, and culture.
Being born into an educated family in an advanced country is luck. Maybe 10% of the world’s population is so lucky. Preserving relative well-being through decades without extreme family dramas, severe health or psychological issues, and dreadful economic downcycles – that is generational luck. Some generations are just not as lucky as others. Some generations like US baby boomers dictate the culture that promotes the specific generation.
All of this luck combined generates some culture that enables success. To develop successfully one needs psychological well-being, social acceptance, and intellectual challenge, as well as physical nourishment and initial capital.
A lucky individual in a supportive culture can work hard to enhance his skillset and eventually achieve career goals. Then the well-being of the organization that serves as a workplace, its luck, and its culture, generate a supportive environment for a hardworking individual to prosper. Top-tier professors, C-level managers, and top experts often come from such organic growth.
Notice, all of this discussion is middle-class-oriented. Upper classes may have very different priorities and may prefer nepotism over meritocracy. Poor people find breakthroughs by taking risks or by being exceptionally talented. Moreover, very few people are consistently lucky and make consistently good decisions. We are usually deeply damaged and need to work with whatever we have.
Since the 16th century, history is very generous to the middle class success story I just described. If we take nations with advanced economy and healthy demographics, usually we will hear stories of middle class dream come true. We can describe Jewish lawyers and doctors, English financial sector, German engineers, Chinese enterprenuers, Italian designers and so on. Each successful nation tries to create a competitive advantage and benefit from it in global economy.
Nations that could not implement this environment struggle to be competitive. Experts often compare south and north Korea, Haiti and Dominican Respublic, USA and Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Some cultures are not just luckier than others. Their values make them more successful. Many countries found natural gas and oil, but Norwegia is almost a singular success story of turning these resources into a successful national fund.
Another example is polygamy. Initially almost every country had polygamy. With time, countries that practiced monogamy were financially and militarily more successful. They reduced to the bare minimum the effect of deprived risk-taking young males. So today monogamy is a global norm.
How smart were the Neanderthals?
The role of the personal skill can be easily overrated. Neanderthals used to have large brains, and well-developed physic. Yet they had some reproduction and adaptation issues. For millenia modern humans mated with other humans that they found, takin neanderthal women into their clans, until all other humans can explain below 5% of our DNA.
Were neanderthals stupid? Probably not. They had advanced stone tools and art. Europeans and South Asians have significally more Neanderthal genes than Africans. Neandertal population was initially small. They lived in caves, and supply of caves is very limited. Their bigger bodies required a lot of food. Large heads of Neandertals caused reproduction issues.
Neandertals demise should probably be attributed not to their tools and intelligence, but to demographic pressure. About 20% of the neanderthan DNA survives. Asian populations showed clustering in functional groups related to immune and haematopoietic pathways, while Europeans showed clustering in functional groups related to the lipid catabolic process.
Fighting demographic pressure
It may sound strange, but some of the most successful cultures today are under the strongest evolutionary pressure. In oriental countries like Japan and Korea, there is approximately one child in a family. No matter how financially and intellectually sound these kids may be, the growing number of old people and demographic pressure this creates is potentially catastrophic.
In Europe the situation is better, since immigration and cultural absorption offsets the aging indiginous population. However, in Europe the education is sponsored, and the taxes are high. This creates a brain drain, where some of the most successful individuals emigrate, for example into the US.
The demographic pressure is somewhat different in muslim countries and India, where there are many children per family. The excess population emigrates to developed countries. Those who emigrate are usually the healthiest and most energetic individuals.
These very different migration processes typically strengthen developed countries with healthy growth like the US, Australia and Canada, Israel and Singapore at the expense of everybody else. Maybe the effect is not very strong, but it aggregates.
While the cultures compete, it makes sense as an individual to join the strongest culture with the most productive middle class. This may mean doing whatever it takes to get a practical education and some job experience, and then migrating or marrying into a family with strong family values. Or in may mean dealing with some deep childhood trauma through therapy or self-help techniques. Whenever our luck is not like we would love it to be, we can choose corrective measures.
One may choose the path of enterprenuership or artistic self-expression, skipping all the middle class constraints. This can be a high risk high reward decision. Only a very small percentage of businesses and artisitic careers are successful. Talents often take huge chances. There are stories of people who fail more than 50 times before becoming successful, and stories of those who became successful after their death. Stories of chronic failures are not even told. A society may benefit from a large number of risk takers. For individuals, reducing the risks is the sound approach.
It does not matter where our luck failed us. As individuals, it is best to settle down eventually and have families with two kids, generating for the kids the luckiest scenario we can, without generating entitlement. The society might agree or might offer a different vision, like working 24/7 or not using birth control. As long as our actions are lawful and nobody gets hurt, individual needs should overweigh the needs of the society.
Cultures promote very different economic values. Americans are coded by the society to consume as much as possible. Asians are taught to save as much as possible, and invest in a very safe way. Europeans tend to invest as much as they can, potentially in risky endeavors. Our individual needs usually are more balanced and flexible.
Families compete, inheriting some intellectual qualities. Arguably, these qualities ride on the X chromosome. Daughters inherit intellectual inclinations from both mothers and fathers, but boys for often than not from their mothers. Some other character traits are inherited through the father’s line balancing this effect. Genghis Khan’s DNA is present in about 16 million men alive today, so family influence can be powerful.
It’s not like we can do whatever we want given the limitations of our environment. Some behaviors are coded in our genes. Consider the Kennedy family and their “curse”. Researchers argue that Kennedy family was pathologically fearless. This meant that Kennedy offsprings chose high risk high reward path, which often led to incredible political success as well as a violent death.
We kind of carry “the pain” of our ancestors. Their stories are told to us when we are kids and we often choose them as blueprints for our own lives. For example, many of my life choices duplicate the behavior of my grandgrandfather whose name I took. He was very enterprenueral, and very committed to the people he worked with, but he enjoyed multiple business ups and downs and a complex relationship with an equally strong-willed son. While I often find myself making similar choices, they do not lead to a similar life. Luck and environment are different.
Evolution inside one brain
The cultures compete generating different career dreams and personal values. Families compete, passing down genes and stories family. People compete, choosing different paths and working hard on what matters to them. The competition does not end there. Within one brain, various brain cells further compete for the control over the personal narrative. As we learn new things, some narratives become stronger while other narratives die. This can be seen and physiological changes in individual neurons. Neural Darwinism s significant, because the researchers have pinpointed a specific molecule that can either reinforce or counteract climbing fiber “winners” and “losers” during the cerebellar pruning process.
Biology makes everything existential. Cultures, families, ways of life – they are all vunlarable and can die. Often the death comes not as a violent event, but as incorporation into something stronger. We can still trace neanderthal DNA in our own, but that way of life, the entire species is gone. Most of our ancestors used to live in farms, but now most of us live in big cities or small towns. Luck is not just personal or social – it is existential.