Notice that this is not an explanation requiring genetic adaptation. Parasite burden inhibits cognitive function development. Indeed, if one were to make an adaptive argument (and I will not!), it would be in the direction of greater brain development genetic potential in parasite-heavy locales to counteract the effects of disease, i.e., the selection of individuals that may withstand the rigors of fighting off infectious disease without compromising cognitive function.
The authors write:
Multiple regression shows that, of infectious disease, temperature, evolutionary novelty and AVED, infectious disease is the best predictor of intelligence by a large margin.
If the general pathway we propose is correct, there are two plausible mechanisms by which a trade-off in allocation of energy to immune function versus brain development and maintenance may occur. First, parasitic infection may intermittently cause the redirection of energy away from brain development. In this case, during periods of infection, the brain receives fewer energetic resources, but this allocation to brain function will return to pre-infection levels during healthy periods. During periods of infection, whatever aspects of the brain that are growing and developing will suffer reduced phenotypic quality. Second, exposure to infectious agents may cause a developmental pathway that permanently invests more energy into immune function at the expense of brain growth. In this scenario, large amounts of energy would be allocated into immune function during periods of health, as opposed to only redirecting energy during periods of infection. This could operate through a variety of mechanisms. A plausible mechanism is that higher investment in immune system is triggered by individual exposure to infectious disease at some point during ontogeny. This may include triggering from exposure to maternal antibodies while in utero.
Our findings suggest that the heritable variation in intelligence may come from two sources: brain structure and immune system quality. Thus, two individuals may possess identical genes for brain structure, but have different IQ owing to differences in immune system quality reflecting their personal allocation of energy into brain development versus immunity.
Our findings are consistent with a number of other findings in the literature. In particular, the Flynn effect (Flynn 1987) demands that any hypothesis regarding the worldwide variation and distribution of intelligence must be able to account for some factor that allows for large IQ gains over time spans seemingly too short to be attributed to evolution by natural selection. The parasite-stress hypothesis allows for such a factor in the form of reduced parasitic infection. As societies become modernized, decreased parasite stress may occur through multiple pathways. As national wealth increases, medicine, vaccinations and potable water can be purchased by both the government and by individuals. Moreover, there is cross-national evidence that, as democratization increases, there are corresponding increases in public health legislation and infrastructure. Democratization also increases levels of education, better allowing individuals to seek out and understand information that reduces parasitic infection (Thornhill et al. 2009). This source of endogeneity is not a flaw, but a prediction of our hypothesis.
Parasite prevalence and the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability
Christopher Eppig et al.
In this study, we hypothesize that the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability is determined in part by variation in the intensity of infectious diseases. From an energetics standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks. Using three measures of average national intelligence quotient (IQ), we found that the zero-order correlation between average IQ and parasite stress ranges from r = −0.76 to r = −0.82 (p less than 0.0001). These correlations are robust worldwide, as well as within five of six world regions. Infectious disease remains the most powerful predictor of average national IQ when temperature, distance from Africa, gross domestic product per capita and several measures of education are controlled for. These findings suggest that the Flynn effect may be caused in part by the decrease in the intensity of infectious diseases as nations develop.