The Flynn Effect: Kenya’s Rising IQ Scores

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Heritability and Rising IQ scores

There are two misconceptions that tend to get in the way of any discussion on IQ. The first is the genetic basis of IQ and the second revolves around intervention measures to raise IQ. The heritability of IQ in the developed world has been placed at 0.80 for adults meaning a significant variance in intelligence in those countries is a result of genes. In the developing world, heritability is much lower meaning the resulting differences in IQ scores are less mediated genetically and thus mostly environmental. Since intelligence tends to have a high heritability, many people falsely conclude that intelligence is genetic and thus immutable.

Kenya’s Average IQ and the Flynn Effect

Kenya was the first country in the developing world where the Flynn effect was observed. Tamara Daley in a paper titled “IQ on the Rise: The Flynn Effect in Rural Kenyan Children,” gave results of a fourteen year intelligence project that started in 1984 and concluded in 1998 in Embu. The results indicated a 13.85 increase in IQ points on the Ravens Progressive Matrices over the 14-year period, and which Flynn observes is a “rate of gain of almost 1 point per year.” The resulting IQ rise in the children studied indicated a substantial increase from an average IQ of 69.89 in 1984 to an average IQ of 79.62 in 1998. Lynn uses the latter alongside average IQ scores measured in Kilifi, Nakuru, Nairobi, and Nyanza to come up with an average IQ of 75.20 for Kenya.

Image showing the five most recent estimates of IQ gains from the developed world. Reference: Flynn, J. R. (2012). Are we getting smarter?: Rising IQ in the twenty-first century. Cambridge University Press.
Flynn (2012; Pg. 37)
Flynn (2012; Pg. 57)

Interventions to Raise IQ Scores

Countries can have low average IQs for many reasons most of them environmental. But a second myth persists regarding the Flynn effect and the rising of IQ scores. The fact that IQ has been observed to rise in nations such as Kenya is not evidence that individuals too can raise their IQs. Intelligence is determined by genes and as Russel Warne writes in “In the Know:”

Lead Poisoning

Reducing lead poisoning is one way in which governments can intervene to raise IQ scores. Warne notes that in the 1970s, scientists noticed that “children with high levels of lead had lower IQ scores (4–5 points) than children with low lead levels.” In Kenya, various human settlements have been observed to have higher lead levels that pose severe health risks to residents. A research study in Owino Uhuru settlement had the following results as viewed from the abstract:

Etiang, N. A., Arvelo, W., Galgalo, T., Amwayi, S., Gura, Z., Kioko, J., … & Brown, M. J. (2018). Environmental assessment and blood lead levels of children in Owino Uhuru and Bangladesh settlements in Kenya. Journal of Health and Pollution, 8(18).
Etiang et al. (2018)
Were, F. H., Kamau, G. N., Shiundu, P. M., Wafula, G. A., & Moturi, C. M. (2012). Air and blood lead levels in lead acid battery recycling and manufacturing plants in Kenya. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 9(5), 340–344.
Were et al. (2012)
Were, F. H., Kamau, G. N., Shiundu, P. M., Wafula, G. A., & Moturi, C. M. (2012). Air and blood lead levels in lead acid battery recycling and manufacturing plants in Kenya. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 9(5), 340–344.
Were et al. (2012)

Iodine deficiency

Another area of intervention for countries that want to raise IQ is iodine deficiency which Russel Warne believes could raise the IQ of children by around 8 points. He argues that:

Raising IQs the Flynn Way: Positive Environments

Raising IQ scores does not stop at eradicating negative environments that affect intelligence by hindering brain development. As countries become wealthier, it is possible that negative environmental externalities will be eradicated and more positive environments created. Despite the optimism this far, it’s worth noting that it is not entirely clear what can be done from an environmental perspective to raise IQ scores. One suggestion has been to improve nutrition.

Education and Modernity

Flynn places more trust on education and modernity as the real drivers of IQ gains in both the developed and developing countries. He observes that in the last century, increased modernization as countries became wealthier and advanced might have led to the rise of IQ scores.

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Zinah Issa

Zinah Issa

Reflecting on the cognitive and sociocultural nature of our societies.