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Is General Intelligence Domain-Specific?

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JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson


1600 words

Is the human brain ‘special’? Not according to Herculano-Houzel; our brains are just linearly scaled-up primate brains. We have the number of neurons predicted for a primate of our body size. But what does this have to do with general intelligence? Evolutionary psychologists also contend that the human brain is not ‘special’; that it is an evolved organ just like the rest of our body. Satoshi Kanazawa (2003) proposed the ‘Savanna Hypothesis‘ which states that more intelligent people are better able to deal with ‘evolutionary novel’ situations (situations that we didn’t have to deal with in our ancestral African environment, for example) whereas he purports that general intelligence does not affect an individuals’ ability to deal with evolutionarily familiar entities and situations. I don’t really have a stance on it yet, though I do find it extremely interesting, with it making (intuitive) sense.

Kanazawa (2010) suggests that general intelligence may both be an evolved adaptation and an ‘individual-difference variable’. Evolutionary psychologists contend that evolved psychological adaptations are for the ancestral environment which was evolved in, not in any modern-day environment. Kanazawa (2010) writes:

The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. Burnham and Johnson (2005, pp. 130–131) referred to the same observation as the evolutionary legacy hypothesis, whereas Hagen and Hammerstein (2006, pp. 341–343) called it the mismatch hypothesis.

From an evolutionary perspective, this does make sense. A perfect example is Eurasian societies vs. African ones. you can see the evolutionary novelty in Eurasian civilizations, while African societies are much closer (though obviously not fully) to our ancestral environment. Thusly, since the situations found in Africa are not evolutionarily novel, it does not take high levels of to survive in, while Eurasian societies (which are evolutionarily novel) take much higher levels of to live and survive in.

Kanazawa rightly states that most evolutionary psychologists and biologists contend that there have been no changes to the human brain in the last 10,000 years, in line with his Savanna Hypothesis. However, as I’m sure all readers of my blog know, there were sweeping changes in the last 10,000 years in the human genome due to the advent of agriculture, and, obviously, new alleles have appeared in our genome, however “it is not clear whether these new alleles have led to the emergence of new evolved psychological mechanisms in the last 10,000 years.”

General intelligence poses a problem for evo psych since evolutionary psychologists contend that “the human brain consists of domain-specific evolved psychological mechanisms” which evolved specifically to solve adaptive problems such as survival and fitness. Thusly, Kanazawa proposes in contrast to other evolutionary psychologists that general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to deal with evolutionary novel problems. So, Kanazawa says, our ancestors didn’t really need to think inorder to solve recurring problems. However, he talks about three major evolutionarily novel situations that needed reasoning and higher intelligence to solve:

1. Lightning has struck a tree near the camp and set it on fire. The fire is now spreading to the dry underbrush. What should I do? How can I stop the spread of the fire? How can I and my family escape it? (Since lightning never strikes the same place twice, this is guaranteed to be a nonrecurrent problem.)

2. We are in the middle of the severest drought in a hundred years. Nuts and berries at our normal places of gathering, which are usually plentiful, are not growing at all, and animals are scarce as well. We are running out of food because none of our normal sources of food are working. What else can we eat? What else is safe to eat? How else can we procure food?

3. A flash flood has caused the river to swell to several times its normal width, and I am trapped on one side of it while my entire band is on the other side. It is imperative that I rejoin them soon. How can I cross the rapid river? Should I walk across it? Or should I construct some sort of buoyant vehicle to use to get across it? If so, what kind of material should I use? Wood? Stones?

These are great examples of ‘novel’ situations that may have arisen, in which our ancestors needed to ‘think outside of the box’ in order to survive. Situations such as this may be why general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific adaptation for ‘evolutionarily novel’ situations. Clearly, when such situations arose, our ancestors who could reason better at the time these unfamiliar events happened would survive and pass on their genes while the ones who could not die and got selected out of the gene pool. So general intelligence may have evolved to solve these new and unfamiliar problems that plagued out ancestors. What this suggests is that intelligent people are better than less intelligent people at solving problems only if they are evolutionarily novel. On the other hand, situations that are evolutionarily familiar to us do not take higher levels of to solve.

For example, more intelligent individuals are no better than less intelligent individuals in finding and keeping mates, but they may be better at using computer dating services. Three recent studies, employing widely varied methods, have all shown that the average intelligence of a population appears to be a strong function of the evolutionary novelty of its environment (Ash & Gallup, 2007; D. H. Bailey & Geary, 2009; Kanazawa, 2008).

Who is more successful, on average, over another in modern society? I don’t even need to say it, the more intelligent person. However, if there was an evolutionarily familiar problem there would be no difference in figuring out how to solve the problem, because evolution has already ‘outfitted’ a way to deal with them, without logical reasoning.

Kanazawa then talks about evolutionary adaptations such as bipedalism (we all walk, but some of us are better runners than others); vision (we can all see, but some have better vision than others); and language (we all speak, but some people are more proficient in their language and learn it earlier than others). These are all adaptations, but there is extensive individual variation between them. Furthermore, the first evolved psychological mechanism to be discovered was cheater detection, to know if you got cheated while in a ‘social contract’ with another individual. Another evolved adaptation is theory of mind. People with Asperger’s syndrome, for instance, differ in the capacity of their theory of mind. Kanazawa asks:

If so, can such individual differences in the evolved psychological mechanism of theory of mind be heritable, since we already know that autism and Asperger’s syndrome may be heritable (A. Bailey et al., 1995; Folstein & Rutter, 1988)?

A very interesting question. Of course, since it’s #2017, we have made great strides in these fields and we know these two conditions to be highly heritable. Can the same be said for theory of mind? That is a question that I will return to in the future.

Kanazawa’s hypothesis does make a lot of sense, and there is empirical evidence to back his assertions. His hypothesis proposes that evolutionarily familair situations do noot take any higher levels of general intelligence to solve, whereas novel situations do. Think about that. Society is the ultimate evolutionary novelty. Who succeeds the most, on average, in society? The more intelligent.

Go outside. Look around you. Can you tell me which things were in our ancestral environment? Trees? Grass? Not really, as they aren’t the same exact kinds as we know from the savanna. The only thing that is constant is: men, women, boys and girls.

This can, however, be said in another way. Our current environment is an evolutionary mismatch. We are evolved for our past environments, and as we all know, evolution is non-teleological—meaning there is no direction. So we are not selected for possible future environments, as there is no knowledge for what the future holds due to contingencies of ‘just history’. Anything can happen in the future, we don’t have any knowledge of any future occurences. These can be said to be mismatches, or novelties, and those who are more intelligent reason more logically due to the fact that they are more adept at surviving evolutionary novel situations. Kanazawa’s theory provides a wealth of information and evidence to back his assertion that general intelligence is domain-specific.

This is yet another piece of evidence that our brain is not special. Why continue believing that our brain is special, even when there is evidence mounting against it? Our brains evolved and were selected for just like any other organ in our body, just like it was for every single organism on earth. Race-realists like to say “How can egalitarians believe that we stopped evolving at the neck for 50,000 years?” Well to those race-realists who contend that our brains are ‘special’, I say to them: “How can our brain be ‘special’ when it’s an evolved organ just like any other in our body and was subject to the same (or similar) evolutionary selective pressures?”

In sum, the brain has problems dealing with things that were not in its ancestral environment. However, those who are more intelligent will have an easier time dealing with evolutionarily novel situations in comparison to people with lower intelligence. Look at places in Africa where development is still low. They clearly don’t need high levels of to survive, as it’s pretty close to the ancestral environment. Conversely, Eurasian societies are much more complex and thus, evolutionarily novel. This may be one reason that explains societal differences between these populations. It is an interesting question to consider, which I will return to in the future.



  1. Salmed says:

    Another interesting article.

    Question. Are you taking on more examples of We Wuzery? Like Ancient Egyptian or Persia.


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