Are Some Cultures “Smarter” Than Others?


Google any variation of the following question and you get a storm of different reactions:  “Are some cultures smarter than others?”   It is obviously an extremely touch area.  Unless you are talking to some kind of supremacist you are unlikely to hear anyone give you a hierarchy of cultures with respect to average intelligence.  At least not explicitly.


What I have heard quite a lot of, all over the world, is social commentary either praising industrious immigrants and other high-achieving populations or critiquing other groups that seem to be mired in crime and paralyzed in terms of even the most basic social mobility.

From time to time I hear people criticize poor populations in a “they-should-just-pull-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps” kind of way.  It starts to sound prejudiced pretty quickly.  The criticism starts as a gripe about welfare abusers and quickly escalates to “Why can’t members of x population just go to school and get a job like everyone else?  Oh, I forgot, they can’t even speak English…”  The conversation gets worse quickly and nobody is the better for it.

A Small Town Thing?

Some people think that this sort of prejudice only surfaces in communities that are culturally homogenous and are “scared” of diversity.  In my experience this is not the case.  You hear the same sort of thing in big cities where you are forever rubbing shoulders with people not like you.  Sometimes urban settings are even worse.

Hard Facts and Stereotypes

If you are talking about raw academics there are some hard stats to fend with if you want to swear off culture as a factor influencing academic achievement.  Take this one:  Four percent of the US population is Asian-American but they make up 20% of the Ivy League.

The more you dig around the more you find all manner of scientific attempts to look at the role of culture and race in academic achievement.  You get lists of scientific studies looking at average cranial size, IQ points and other shaky attempts at quantifying intelligence and correlating it to groups of people.  Then you get others that claim that conventional standardized testing and IQ points are measures of intelligence that are faulty at best and are designed to favor certain subcultures.

Why Ask the Question?

Should the question of whether a smartness hierarchy exists in cultures be asked in the first place?  The slippery slope into thinly-veiled eugenics seems inevitable when you start trying to linking culture to genetics.  And we’ve seen where that sort of nonsense leads.

It is not defeatist to simply say that trying to order cultures in terms of demonstrated intelligence is a ridiculous exercise. Not only are attempts at this kind of ordering controversial and flawed, they are also pointless, narrow and doomed to failure.




Bjorn Karlman

8 thoughts on “Are Some Cultures “Smarter” Than Others?”

  1. We all come from one family. We are all related. She smart but others not. Yes different cultures may be ‘different’ but that only gives richness. These differences are not ‘intelligence’ but strengths – having a musical mind or good with building or whatever. These things do come through in culture but to link intelligence with say Mathematically ability is just wrong. I believe that different cultures are good at different things and this is very good!

  2. The Asian culture is not really smarter than others. Their parents have simply linked ‘life’ to education and ‘death’ to not getting educated. Through basic corporal punishment, the Asian culture has been able to ‘inspire’ their children to get educated! Definitely you answer in this thinly-veiled eugenic post is how narrow-minded the question is. Not sure what that last line just meant.

    I don’t think the question is which culture is ‘smarter’ as much as which culture values education more.

    You should ban commenters like that guy Tony from your blog! lol

  3. This is an interesting question, though asking it often causes more harm than good. The way you discuss it makes me realize that the answer to the question would always depend on what is considered to be smart by whoever is asking the question. There are almost infinite criteria by which a culture could be judged as smart. Is the smartest culture the one with the highest math and science scores? Is it the most efficient one? or the one with the most complex language and customs? Is it the one with the lowest poverty rates? or the one with most individual liberty? Is it the one that has managed to dominate the world the most?

    Each culture has their own ideas about what is smart, so the way we answer this question really reveals more about what our culture’s values than anything else, and whoever is asking the question would probably conclude whatever culture shares their values is the smartest. Of course our own culture usually is the best at whatever we happen to value, and that is how the answers to this question become ethnocentric pretty fast.

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