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How Modular Is Intelligence?
Great at reading or recognizing faces? You might not do so well on an IQ test.
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The English psychologist Charles Spearman was the first to argue that a single factor, called “g,” explains most of the variability in human intelligence. When observing the performance of children at school, he noticed that a child who did well in math would also do well in geography or Latin. There seemed to be a general factor that facilitates almost any kind of mental task.

Spearman did, however, acknowledge the existence of other factors that seem more task-specific:

[…] all branches of intellectual activity have in common one fundamental function (or group of functions), whereas the remaining or specific elements of the activity seem in every case to be wholly different from that in all the others. (Spearman, 1904, p. 284)

That is where things stood for over a century. In recent years, however, we’ve begun to identify the actual genes that contribute to intelligence. These genes are very numerous, numbering perhaps in the thousands, with each one exerting only a small effect. Many act broadly on intelligence in general and may correspond to the g factor, which seems to be a widespread property of neural tissue, perhaps cortical thickness or the integrity of white matter in the brain. Other genes act more narrowly on specific mental tasks. The ability to recognize faces, for instance, seems to have no relation at all to general intelligence. You can be great at recognizing faces while being as dumb as rocks (Zhu et al., 2009).

One way to locate these genes is through genome-wide association studies. We look at the various alleles of genes whose locations are already known, typically SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), and see whether this source of variability correlates with variability in a mental trait. If we find a significant correlation, the genes for that trait must be nearby. The same kind of study can also show us how narrowly or broadly these genes act. Do they merely influence intelligence in general? Or do they provide more specific instructions? Such as how to recognize certain objects or how to react to them?

A genome-wide association study has recently shed light on various mental traits. In most cases, a common factor seems to explain about half of the genetic variability. This common factor is weakest for emotion identification, i.e., the ability to identify the emotions of other people by their facial expressions. Emotion identification actually correlates negatively with nonverbal reasoning (-0.25) and only weakly with verbal memory (0.17) and spatial reasoning (0.26). The highest correlation is with reading (0.40) and language reasoning. (0.45). Reading and language reasoning are highly intercorrelated, perhaps because they share the same mental module (Robinson et al., 2014).

This partial modularity has been confirmed by a recent twin study on reading and math ability. If we look at the genetic component of either reading or math ability, at least 10% and probably half affects performance on both tasks. Conversely, the other half is specific to either one or the other (Davis et al., 2014).


An evolutionary mystery?

But how can reading ability have a specific genetic basis if people began to read only in historic times? Indeed, history is said to begin with the first written documents. Surely humans weren’t still evolving at that point?

To ask the question is to answer it. Not only were they still evolving, they were actually doing so at a faster pace than their prehistoric ancestors. Humans have undergone much more genetic change over the past 10,000 years than over the previous 100,000 (Hawks et al., 2007). This is a difficult fact to swallow, let alone digest, but we must learn to accept it and all of its implications.

The new findings on reading ability are consistent with other ones. The human brain has a special region, called the Visual Word Form Area, that is used to recognize written words and letters. If it is damaged, your reading ability will suffer but not your recognition of objects, names, faces, or general language abilities. There will be some improvement over the next six months, but reading will still take twice as long as it had previously. This brain region varies in size and organization from one individual to another and from one human population to another, being differently organized in Chinese people than in Europeans (Frost, 2014; Gaillard et al, 2006; Glezer and Riesenhuber, 2013; Levy et al., 2013; Liu et al., 2008).

Genome-wide association studies may help us pinpoint the actual genes responsible for the Visual Word Form Area. In fact, we may have already found one: ASPM. This gene influences brain growth in other primates and has evolved in humans right up into historic times. Its latest allele arose about 6000 years ago in the Middle East and proliferated until it reached incidences of 37-52% in Middle Easterners, 38-50% in Europeans, and 0-25% in East Asians. Despite its apparent selective advantage, this allele does not improve performance on IQ tests (Mekel-Bobrov et al.,2007; Rushton et al., 2007). It is nonetheless associated with larger brain size in humans (Montgomery and Mundy, 2010).

Its Middle Eastern origin some 6000 years ago suggests this allele may have owed its success to the invention of writing. Most people had trouble reading, writing, and copying lengthy texts in ancient times, when characters were written continuously with little or no punctuation. There was an acute need for scribes who could excel at this task, and such people were rewarded with reproductive success (Frost, 2008; Frost, 2011).



Human intelligence is modular to varying degrees, and much of this modularity seems to have arisen during historic times. It is a product of humans adapting not only to their physical environments but also to their more rapidly evolving cultural environments.

While there is such a thing as general intelligence, it seems to be only half of the picture. Two people may have the same IQ and yet differ significantly in various mental abilities. There may also be trade-offs between general intelligence and more specific mental tasks. If you’re great at abstract reasoning, you may be lousy at decoding facial expressions. This may be because the two abilities compete with each other for limited mental resources. Or it may be that selection for abstract reasoning has occurred in an environment where people can trust each other and have no need to scrutinize facial expressions for signs of lying … or imminent physical assault.

The same applies to human populations. Two populations may have the same mean IQ, and yet differ statistically over a large number of mental and behavioral traits. Although these differences may be scarcely noticeable if we compare two individuals taken at random from each population, their accumulative effect over many thousands of individuals can steer one population along one path of cultural evolution and the other along another. Furthermore, two populations may arrive at a similar outcome via different paths of cultural evolution and via different mental and behavioral packages. Europeans and East Asians have both reached an advanced level of societal development, but this similar outcome has been achieved in East Asian societies largely through external mediation of rule enforcement (e.g., shaming, peer pressure, family discipline) and in European ones mainly through internal means of control (e.g., guilt, empathy).


Davis, O.S.P., G. Band, M. Pirinen, C.M.A. Haworth, E.L. Meaburn, Y. Kovas, N. Harlaar, et al. (2014). The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component, Nature Communications, 5

Frost, P. (2008). The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene, Medical Hypotheses, 70, 17-20.

Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740-748.


Frost, P. (2014). The paradox of the Visual Word Form Area, March 1, Evo and Proud

Gaillard, R., Naccache, L., P. Pinel, S. Clémenceau, E. Volle, D. Hasboun, S. Dupont, M. Baulac, S. Dehaene, C. Adam, and L. Cohen. (2006). Direct intracranial, fMRI, and lesion evidence for the causal role of left inferotemporal cortex in reading, Neuron, 50, 191-204.

Glezer, L.S. and M. Riesenhuber. (2013). Individual variability in location impacts orthographic selectivity in the “Visual Word Form Area”, The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(27), 11221-11226.

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.

Levy, J., J.R Vidal, R. Oostenveld, I. FitzPatrick, J-F. Démonet, and P. Fries. (2013). Alpha-band suppression in the Visual Word Form Area as a functional bottleneck to consciousness, NeuroImage, 78C, 33-45.

Liu, C., W-T. Zhang, Y-Y Tang, X-Q. Mai, H-C. Chen, T. Tardif, and Y-J. Luo. (2008). The visual word form area: evidence from an fMRI study of implicit processing of Chinese characters,NeuroImage, 40, 1350-1361.

Mekel-Bobrov, N., Posthuma, D., Gilbert, S. L., Lind, P., Gosso, M. F., Luciano, M., et al. (2007). The ongoing adaptive evolution of ASPM and Microcephalin is not explained by increased intelligence,Human Molecular Genetics, 16, 600-608.

Montgomery, S. H., and N.I. Mundy. (2010). Brain evolution: Microcephaly genes weigh in, Current Biology, 20, R244-R246.

Robinson, E.B., A. Kirby, K. Ruparel, J. Yang, L. McGrath, V. Anttila, B.M. Neale, K. Merikangas, T. Lehner, P.M.A. Sleiman, M.J. Daly, R. Gur, R. Gur and H. Hakonarson. (2014). The genetic architecture of pediatric cognitive abilities in the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort, Molecular Psychiatry, published online July 15

Rushton, J. P., Vernon, P. A., and Bons, T. A. (2007). No evidence that polymorphisms of brain regulator genes Microcephalin and ASPM are associated with general mental ability, head circumference or altruism, Biology Letters, 3, 157-160.

Spearman, C. (1904). “General intelligence,” objectively determined and measured, The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.

Zhu, Q., Song, Y., Hu, S., Li, X., Tian, M., Zhen, Z., Dong, Q., Kanwisher, N. and Liu, J. (2009). Heritability of the specific cognitive ability of face perception, Current Biology, 20, 137-142.

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Interesting. I always assumed that reading ability was a kind of side effect of something else that was selected for. Now it seems actually possible that being a bookworm was a selection advantage in and of itself… (Or maybe no. Maybe just having better than average reading ability was a selection advantage, and bookworms are the homozygous ones, and it’s only a heterozygous advantage.)

  2. If it evolved in the Middle East, how come Africans can read?

    • Replies: @reiner Tor
  3. @Foreign Expert

    If I understand correctly, the point is not that without the allele(s) you couldn’t read or write at all but that it would be much harder for you. And Africans are not known for their exceptional literary abilities.

  4. How do you explain Asian adoptees’ lower crime rates, despite being raised without that kind of family discipline?

  5. Bill says:

    One way to locate these genes is through genome-wide association studies. We look at the various alleles of genes whose locations are already known, typically SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), and see whether this source of variability correlates with variability in a mental trait. If we find a significant correlation, the genes for that trait must be nearby.

    You have to be assuming no assortative mating (and no linkage disequilibrium) here. If guys with big feet always marry blondes, then blonde phenotype will correlate with big foot alleles, whether or not they are close to one another.

  6. Peter Frost says: • Website


    Most academics still think that way. They’ll even argue that the Visual Word Form Area must be an acquired trait because the invention of writing is too recent. Yet the VWFA is already present in kindergarten children who are just starting to become familiar with writing.


    Everyone can learn to read. Even if your Visual Word Form Area is completely destroyed, you can regain some reading ability, but you will never be able to read as well as before. The VWFA seems to be composed of face-recognition neurons that have become specialized for the task of reading. So I guess one can learn to read by using any kind of face-recognition neuron, but your reading ability will be below par.


    East Asians have low crime rates in cases where the crime is publicly witnessed. If the crime is not witnessed (other than by the person or persons committing the crime), the crime rate is much higher. This is the case with private crimes that we refer to as “corruption.”

    In general, East Asians have a strong capacity for shame but a relatively weak capacity for guilt. Shame is effective only against publicly witnessed wrongdoing. Guilt deters both public and private wrongdoing.


    This study used a Euro-American sample, and assortative mating is relatively weak in that population. Even for stature, the r value is only about 0.2 or 0.3.

    • Replies: @Oldeguy
    , @HA
  7. Oldeguy says:
    @Peter Frost

    “This is the case with private crimes that we refer to as “corruption”.’ Would this also refer to such activities as cheating on tests, false credentials and resumes ? I have read accusations of that type of activity and have tended to dismiss them as “sour grapes”.

    • Replies: @AG
  8. AG says:

    Fantastic post! This is very educational.

  9. AG says:

    According to you, Lance Armstrong must be an East Asian disguised as white man, who loves to cheat.

    Joke aside. Opinion is opinion. Facts are based on data. Guilt is closed to related to empathy. Studies show prevalence of psycopathy for major ethnic groups as black > white > East Asian. psychopathy is defined by lack of empathy. Most animals in this world lack empathy. So most animals will not give a damn about others suffereing. The studies have been backed up by historical evidence like Hitler nazi germany, KKK, ect. The very fact slavery is form of lack of empathy. Let us fact it. When unfortunate people suffer, how guilty or how much empathy the most white people feel about them? Just ask youself and your common white friends.

    Confucious teaching actually is most based on personal disciplines which only can be achieved by personal guilt and honor. When people like you make assumption about East Asian, it very much close to `whitchhunt’

    Just be honest, how much of your assumption is based on your cherry picking? Have you compared it to how much white prevalence of cheating? If you did not do that, you know what is going in your own mind. Sour grape? Studipity? or just whitch hunt? or just believe the world as you wish?

  10. @AG

    I don’t know. Your counterexamples are not very convincing, but neither was the original assertion.

    I think we need further studies to determine whether Asians feel more or less guilt independent of shaming.

  11. HA says:
    @Peter Frost

    “Even if your Visual Word Form Area is completely destroyed, you can regain some reading ability, but you will never be able to read as well as before.”

    Or else, those unused brain cells, when rewired towards other activities, might give one an edge in developing other kinds of talents to an extent that people with a fully functioning VWFA are unlikely to ever match.

  12. Peter Frost says: • Website

    Mental traits vary within human populations just as they vary between them. The capacity for empathic guilt is no exception.

    Psychopaths seem to have intact cognitive empathy but impaired affective empathy. In other words, a psychopath has a keen understanding of how another person feels, but he doesn’t experience that person’s feelings, at least not the negative aspects. Is psychopathy less common among East Asians than among Europeans? It’s difficult to answer that question because the cultural constraints are different. East Asian societies are very effective at restraining psychopathic behavior through family and community monitoring. The problems arise when an East Asian enters an atomized Western environment where this kind of monitoring is largely absent.

    Research on Chinese subjects suggests that affective empathy does not differentiate from cognitive empathy to the same degree during adolescence, but more research is needed.

    “historical evidence like Hitler nazi germany, KKK, ect. ”

    You’re misunderstanding the nature of empathy. Empathy is an instrument for enforcement of social rules. If a person is perceived as being an incorrigible rule-breaker, empathy will go into reverse. The person will be judged to be morally worthless and excluded from the moral community.

    “When unfortunate people suffer, how guilty or how much empathy the most white people feel about them?”

    I see lots of empathy and guilt among white folks, especially guilt.

    “you know what is going in your own mind. Sour grape? Studipity? or just whitch hunt?”

    Sour grapes? No. I may be just plain stupid. That’s for others to judge.

  13. Max Payne says: • Website

    Yeah I laughed at the guilt part too. I have nothing against the white man and his culture but if the white man did feel guilt we wouldn’t have such great inventions such as nuclear weapons (in ludicrous apocalyptic amounts; as the rest of the planet struggles to feed itself), the Holocaust, colonialism, neocolonialism (because its not over just yet), commercial international slavery, and my personal favorite total war in the modern industrial era.

    But its a good and very informative article irregardless of the examples used.

  14. Oldeguy says:

    WOW ! Did you even bother to carefully read my post ? I doubt it because I wasn’t making any statement at ALL or making ANY “assumptions” at all. I was merely asking Mr. Frost his ( not your ) opinion concerning some allegations ( which I believed to be false ) which I had read. I gather from the fractured syntax of your post that English is probably not your primary language. I would suggest that for YOUR benefit you might have someone better grounded in the English language read what you mistakenly believe to be an insulting comment before resorting to the flame thrower.

  15. Wikipedia points us to a meta-review that calls into question the VWFA. Has this study been responded to? Or is it an old study that has been overturned by recent imaging advances?

    Link to the skeptical study:

  16. conatus says:

    I lived in Northeast DC for over 20 years, 20 years ago, back when DC was Blacker and meaner. I was in the DC Guard which was a mostly Black outfit. I didn’t have a car and I walked the streets a lot. I am prefacing this to explain my experience. It is my suspicion that Black people are not as dumb as they test out to be. Patterns on paper and SAT testing is just not what they evolved for. Isn’t that part of the point of this article? If Middle easterners are better readers due to something that happened 6000 years ago, would not the same forces work on Blacks?Anyway I have always felt they put their mental powers into body language and tone of voice. They read your twitches like a book.Ha ha. Move your eyes twice and that means more to them than it does to you, a white guy lost in his abstractions. So if human intelligence is modular, have they done studies on reactions to body movements, stance, relaxation etc.? or how about reactions to modulations and tone of voice. If they did, I think Blacks would score the highest.

  17. The American IQ, modular or otherwise, is nosediving. But not to worry — letting anybody into college and letting everybody pass every test so that they can graduate will solve the problem.

  18. Peter Frost says: • Website

    “if the white man did feel guilt we wouldn’t have such great inventions such as nuclear weapons (in ludicrous apocalyptic amounts; as the rest of the planet struggles to feed itself), the Holocaust, colonialism, neocolonialism (because its not over just yet), commercial international slavery, and my personal favorite total war in the modern industrial era”


    There seems to be a big misunderstanding over the nature of guilt (and also empathy, which is closely related). Guilt is something you feel when you break a social rule even though no one else has seen you break it. Guilt is a “virtual witness.” To differing degrees, people seem to have an innate tendency to identify social rules in their society and then feel guilty if they break them. But the rules themselves are arbitrary.

    If you live in a society where “racism” is the worst sin, you will feel profoundly guilty if you commit racism, even though this word did not exist a century ago. In general, a social rule functions by convincing people that (a) it is accepted by everyone in moral authority and (b) people who break it are morally worthless.


    Yes, that meta-study has been overturned by subsequent studies, notably:

    Glezer, L.S. and M. Riesenhuber (2013). Individual Variability in Location Impacts Orthographic Selectivity in the “Visual Word Form Area” The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(27): 11221-11226

    “Strong evidence exists for a key role of the human ventral occipitotemporal cortex (vOT) in reading, yet there have been conflicting reports about the specificity of this area in orthographic versus nonorthographic processing. We suggest that the inconsistencies in the literature can be explained by the method used to identify regions that respond to words. Here we provide evidence that the “visual word form area” (VWFA) shows word selectivity when identified at the individual subject level, but that intersubject variability in the location and size of the VWFA causes this selectivity to be washed out if defining the VWFA at the group level or based on coordinates from the literature. Our findings confirm the existence of a word-selective region in vOT while providing an explanation for why other studies have found a lack of word specificity in vOT.”

    The current debate is not over whether the VWFA exists but over whether it is hardwired or acquired through learning. In my opinion, it is hard to reconcile the second theoretical model with the presence of the VWFA in kindergarten children. When kindergarten children were asked to play a grapheme/phoneme correspondence game, their VWFAs preferentially responded to pictures of letter strings after a total of 3.6 hours of practice over an 8-week period. Only a few of the children could actually read, and even then only at a rudimentary level.

    Brem, S., S. Bach, K. Kucian, T.K. Guttorm, E. Martin, H. Lyytinen, D. Brandeis, and U. Richardson. (2010). Brain sensitivity to print emerges when children learn letter-speech sound correspondences, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., 107, 7939–7944.

  19. Syndrome says:

    It is worth noting that attitudes toward lying and corruption really are primarily driven by environment. East Germans lie more than West Germans: . Or compare Singapore with mainland China. There may be some racially driven differences in flavor–e.g. I can’t yet rule out the hypothesis that East Asians may be more comfortable with draconian punishments than NW Europeans because, in a society of East Asians, they may be more necessary–but they are demonstrably of at most secondary importance here.

    Construction and maintenance of high-trust environments is near, or arguably at, the top of the list of genuinely worthwhile social projects.

    • Replies: @David II
  20. David II says:


    The last sentence is quoteworthy, to say the least.

  21. “lying and corruption really are primarily driven by environment. East Germans lie more than West Germans”


    The study’s findings are correct. It’s your inference that is false. You seem to feel it is sufficient to show that variation in a mental trait has an environmental component to prove that this variation is primarily environmental. Do you see the flaw in your reasoning?

    I’m not arguing that mental traits are 100% heritable, any more than I’m arguing they’re 0% heritable.

    You make a similar mistake when you compare Singapore with mainland China. The relevant comparison is between East Asians and Western Europeans under the same social conditions. This would be a difficult comparison to make for two reasons:

    1. Even highly Westernized countries like Singapore and South Korea have not undergone the same degree of social atomization as Western countries have undergone.

    2. Unwitnessed “private” crimes are difficult to measure, by their very nature. The overwhelming majority fly under the radar of official statistics. Even when people get caught, charges are usually never laid. And if charges are laid, the matter is usually settled out of court. So the official statistics are of dubious value:

    “I don’t know any other major country ― South Korea is an OECD member, a G20 member, the world’s seventh-largest exporter, you know, a big economy now ― where it is now routine for people, not just any old businessman, but the top people … (to) get convicted of stuff, (then) they hardly serve any time and the very next thing they are pardoned because they are so important to the economy,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a long-time Korea observer based in the U.K.”

    Perhaps it doesn’t matter. These societies are able to deliver the goods: a high level of material well being. They do so, however, by maintaining a level of community surveillance and family discipline that would be unacceptable in Western societies.

    This is the crux of my argument. If East Asian societies undergo the sort of social atomization that we accept as normal, the results will be much more catastrophic for them than for us.

    • Replies: @Myra Esoteric
  22. Harold says:

    Max Payne tries to prey on the white man‘s guilt by bringing up all those horrible things he knows the white man feels guilty about.

  23. Harold says:

    Peter Frost,
    Here is a hypothesis on why emotion identification is poorly correlated with g.
    Consider reading. Reading is a learned task but is somewhat correlated with g. Why? Because higher g individuals read more (aswell as improving more quickly for every hour of reading). Maybe emotion identification is likewise learned, or at least substantially so. Who, then, would learn to do it better than whom? My hypothesis is that it would be the shy. For shy people social interactions induce more stress and anxiety; the brains way of saying “pay attention! This is important.” Unlike whether one reads a lot, whether one is shy is probably not itself correlated with g.

  24. @Peter Frost

    Hence why I stated, one should look at the body of research about Korean adoptees, raised by white families in the US and Europe.

  25. IBC says:

    If shame (observed wrongdoing) is really more important in regulating crime rates in East Asian societies, I wonder if security cameras are more effective there than in the UK for example. Also, does the public accept them more there than they seem to do in many places in the USA and Canada?

    I think their prevalence in the UK was originally justified on the basis of public safety from terrorism (initially the IRA) rather than as a general crime deterrent. I know that in South Korea there are cities that are under extensive video surveillance but I don’t know about in other East Asian countries. Are the justifications the same? Of course, comparing and contrasting crime statistics between South and North Korea would be especially interesting if such data were available.

  26. Liam says:

    I notice a current effort to create new definitions of intelligence, based on factors that make one successful in the 21st centuary western economy, rather than what were considered desirable in spearman’s day. Even in the space of artificial intelligence, generalized intelligence is not really a thing. A processing engine designed to solve one kind of problem suffers significant disadvantage when unleashed on another class of problems.

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