The evolutionary advantages of a cold climate

It’s freezing in Edmonton—all the more reason to move there


Giang Vu Hoang Pham / CP

I have a running joke about Edmonton—my chilly, difficult, somewhat blighted native city—being the “Cradle of Leadership.” For a little while I was able to tease people about three pillars of Canadian government all being led by people who were significantly soul-struck by Edmonton’s man-killing cold at formative periods in their lives. We had a prime minister whose first political awakening took place here, a central banker who grew up here, and a Supreme Court chief justice who practised law in my neighbourhood. Mark Carney is now at the Bank of England, and Cardinal Ouellet, who ran Edmonton’s Roman Catholic seminary at an adverse moment in his otherwise thrilling rise, came damn close to becoming pope. And, after all, he still might. The world-conquest conspiracy marches on!

I say all this in a spirit of zany autumnal silliness, but the influence of latitude on human populations isn’t a totally silly subject, as any Canadian who has multiple sclerosis—a disease more common almost everywhere as you get further from the equator—will tell you.

A new study in the biometric journal Intelligence presents surprising data from Japan that reveal that IQ, imputed from standardized tests given to a large random sample of Japanese 14-year-olds, varies strongly and persistently with latitude. The Japanese are usually thought of—even by themselves—as being quite homogenous ethnically; the myth of the sturdy, super-cohesive “Yamato race” has not yet been entirely obtruded out of existence. But it turns out that the mean IQs of students in Japanese prefectures apparently vary from north to south by two-thirds of a standard deviation—a spread almost as large as the “race gaps” in cognitive performance which trouble education scholars in multicultural countries like ours. Sun-drenched Okinawans, as a group, do not test as well as the snowbound citizens of Akita.

It is an article of liberal faith that IQ is a bogus tool cooked up by white supremacists to justify imperialism and slavery. I am happy to nod along, but the monsters who developed IQ tests certainly never planned on creating strife between the two ends of Honshu Island. Kenya Kura’s study demonstrates the usual statistical connections between IQ and social outcomes, including physical height, income, and divorce and homicide rates. IQ may be a phony racist artifact, but if shoe size predicted life success as well as those stupid little logic puzzles do, every middle-class parent you know would have one of those Brannock foot-measuring thingies mounted proudly on the wall. That is why IQ persists in the top drawer of the psychometrics toolbox.

There is a funny thing about the Kura study. Thanks to archaeology and DNA, we know that there is actually a hidden ethnic divide in “homogenous” Japan, a bit like what population geneticists find in Britain; on one side of the country people still have some of the characteristic genes of the indigenous Jomon, while on the other you can find hallmarks of more recent invaders from the Asian mainland. This is, however, an east-west split, not a north-south one. The descendants of colonists from China and Korea are still grouped on the Asia-facing side of the Japanese archipelago.

In other words, the IQ gradient seen today is at right angles from the one you would expect given a purely “racial” theory of intelligence founded in known historical migration. The most natural explanation is that natural-selection pressures imposed by latitude—i.e., by diet, sunshine and temperature—have been powerful and fast-acting, enough to blot out any cognitive differences between the “founding peoples” of Japan within about 60 generations.

We tend to think of human nature as permanent—ask anybody gulping a “paleo diet” because it’s “natural” (to “us”). And we generally regard human evolution as something that halted a hundred thousand years or so ago, something not happening now. There is in fact much evidence that evolution has accelerated in the historical timeframe, that evolutionary influences have grown more unequal, and thus more intense, in a world of agriculture, literacy, cities and travel.

We know that in those oddball fringe populations that domesticated milk-giving animals—northern Europeans being only one such group of cheese-chomping weirdos—the genes for adult lactose tolerance took over completely in a shockingly short time, a matter of perhaps two or three thousand years. One implication is that Confucius and Christ and Caesar may be relatively far from us, further than we ordinarily imagine, in purely evolutionary terms. And another is that our descendants may be unrecognizable sooner than we assume.

For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog.


The evolutionary advantages of a cold climate

  1. our descendants may be unrecognizable sooner than we assume…

    I think many parents have experienced this phenomena

    • As have many grand parents.[ so i’m told]

  2. Do you have a theory as to where this cold = intelligent stops or are Inuit geniuses and rest of us just unaware?

    I think evolution is very different indeed for cold and warm weather people – southern italian cavemen could be much more languid than those in scotland could be.

    Paleo diet people are almost as irritating as vegetarians with their fussy and idiotic diets.

    • The Inuit got to the Canadian Arctic and wiped out the actual aboriginals not long before Columbus, really.

      • Actual aboriginals??? lol there were 3 mass migrations and yes the Inuit we now have up north helped push the previous migrants south…. but they hardly wiped them out…. What history books have you been reading?!?!?

        • Ones in which sentences begin with capital letters. The Dorset culture wasn’t “pushed south”: it is extinct. The history books are quite candid about this if you read them carefully.

  3. I don’t think the cold climate is doing Albertans any good. They vote for two parties: conservative and more conservative. According to Psychology Today: “researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala than liberals. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety. Liberals had more gray matter at least in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that helps people cope with complexity.”

    It’s not the environment that tends to produce dim-witted hicks in the province. If anything it’s the primitive rural culture. So if it’s a case of nurture forging nature, that would imply conservative ideology causes brain damage…

    Thankfully, it’s only our corrupt and antiquated voting system that makes it appear Canadians are turning more conservative. (A voting system 91% of developed countries got rid of, most a century ago.) A united conservative party wins more seats than center-left parties dividing the vote three ways.

    • ” A united conservative party wins more seats than center-left parties dividing the vote three ways. (Not that a conservative has any chance of figuring that one out…)”

      It pains me to point this out Ron… but isn’t it precisely the Conservatives (and more specifically Stephen Harper) that figured that one out?

      • Actually the Reformers tore Mulroney’s PC party apart. And it was Mulroney who brokered the deal that allowed the Reformers to swallow up Canada’s historic right-leaning party. Now moderate conservatives are forced to vote Liberal…

        Hard-right cons like John Ibbitison and Tom Flanagan try to claim Canada has become more conservative. You won’t find many conservatives who believe there’s anything wrong with the voting system.

        • John Ibbitson – the consummate Red Tory, a hard right Con? You make a bigger fool of yourself every time you post something. For your own good, stay off the Internet for a few days. Let your head clear.

          • Clearly con cranks have a different impression of what a red Tory is than normal people. Ibbitson is a Harper sycophant. But then again you probably believe Harper is a moderate conservative too…

          • Yes, John Ibbitson is right up there with Reverend Fred Phelps. A veritable right-wing loon.

      • Ya, the conservative parties merged to be able to fight as one. Meanwhile the 2 left-wing parties are getting their a$$es handed to them because they haven’t merged.

        But ya, it’s the conservative’s who are too stupid to figure it out. Oohhhh the sweet sweet irony!

        • Hard right Cons haven’t figured out moderate conservatives have abandoned the party and are now voting Liberal — which is why they are below 30% in the polls. If the Cons get a moderate leader, the Wildrose party will go federal…

          BTW, Jack Layton managed to do what Harper never could himself: unite the right behind a Con majority. It will be a long time before that happens again…

    • Not fair. I’ve often wondered what PR might throw up in AB. I suspect it would be just about as diverse as anywhere else.But the economic realities on the ground wouldn’t much change; just the emphasis.

      The interesting question for me[ having lived there a dozen years or more] is it because, as Lougheed used to say, people were generally pretty happy with the govt they got and don’t much like radical changes. Besides the other parties simply never have anything really different or better to offer?.

      Or, is it because the powers that be[ let’ face it basically oil] have somehow managed to encode the message in the heads of many ABs, that they, and only they and their political friends have the keys to the bank…nod nod, wink wink.
      I’m mostly inclined to split differences, so i think it’s a bit of both, There aren’t many sensible alternatives open to other parties – oil and or agriculture in AB pays the bills and puts food on the table, not to mention jobs. How do you run against that really if the other side is already more then 100% there already?
      The PCs simply give no one else oxygen under the current rules…and they get to hand out all the goodies. But they don’t simply govern as hicks, not at all. Otherwise they would long ago have gotten the door a time or two before now.
      That said there’s almost certainly room for complaint about the system being too tilted toward the rural vote, and it is no coincidence those folks grow things and send their kids out to work the oil fields.But so do lots of other people.

      I lived in Edmonton for over a decade. Yes it is a city[ one i don’t like much these days] but even the lowliest office worker knows who the man is and why.
      I imagine It’s not that different from living in BC during the high times for fishing and logging and saying you thought it ought to stop or change, or even they ought to do it better…you just put a huge political hill to climb in front of yourself.
      edit: And Alberta doesn’t live in a vacuum. Fairly or not they got to see what liberal and dippers were up to elsewhere and chose to believe their guys that trusting people like that would soon put AB on the breadline. I never agreed with that but stuff like the NEP didn’t help my case, nor did Cons preaching the be very scared of the OTHER line. to be fair AB is far from being alone in that regard, nor the worst offender. Their hearts are in the right place if not always their heads[ from my pov] Until the LPC or the ndp realizes that winning seat there in this system will be tougher then getting a straight answer out of one SH.

      • Prong 1: We’re rich on oil. Don’t rock the boat is a big factor. We do what we do because that’s what we’ve always done and it seems to be working so far. Personally, I view this as if we jumped off the top of a 30 story building and some 10 stories down things seem fine and you know, you can’t beat the view..

        Prong 2: Lock-in has taken full effect. Nobody’s interested in talking to the opposition parties because they can’t get anything done. They can’t get anything done because they can’t funding. They can’t get funding because nobody’s interested in talking to them. And that’s without even considering corruption where public institutions pay to attend conservative party fund-raisers because that’s the only way you get business done around here with the government. If you’re not at a fundraiser, they don’t pay attention to you.. and don’t have to.

        Prong 3: Demonizing. One of the most significant reasons Alberta votes as it does is because of the demonizing of the NEP. That was masterfully played into an “Us vs Them” thing, which was then bungled to the same level of excellence by Trudeau, right as oil prices around the world collapsed. A lot of folks lost their jobs and their homes, and there was really nothing in place to help them out. Putting the blame on a definable “them”.. in this case, the Liberals and the NDP who supported it, is a lot easier than taking the blame on ourselves and realizing we probably should have been working to diversify our economy during the boom preceding it. That hardship has never been forgotten by those who suffered through it, and probably won’t be until that generation literally dies off.

        • Prong…lol

          Thought my LT had picked up an asian virus for a sec there.

          “One of the most significant reasons Alberta votes as it does is because of the demonizing of the NEP. That was masterfully played into an “Us vs Them” thing, which was then bungled to the same level of excellence by Trudeau, right as oil prices around the world collapsed”

          And the double whammy for non cons in AB was that Trudeau just didn’t need them…lights out for a generation or more…thx dad! is something that even JT probably mutters under his breath on bad days on the road. Probably wouldn’t have happened under a PR electoral regime? Or an elected senate…but then neither would a lot of other good things…no charter, Bilingualism, therefore QC long gone etc.,
          I forgot to mention corruption. But we all know it doesn’t live west of ON or QC, don’t we?
          New immigrants are likely to change AB eventually, but when and how? Some say AB just changes them instead.
          Still i’m curious to know how AB could have gotten away from developing its most basic resource. I don’t think any other party would’ve done it much differently given AB is still fairly sparely populated and far from big markets.

          • I don’t think we want to get away from it. We just needed to do it responsibly.

            Which means doing things like not give fire-sale rates to private enterprises for the non-renewable assets they’re extracting. Or not giving the oil industry preferential tax treatment over every other industry in Alberta.

            Or not doing things like twinning a highway up to Fort Mac so that the industry can move the materials they need to the area more easily but don’t want to pay for the required infrastructure to do that themselves.

            Basically, we needed to do at a slower pace — which, while it wouldn’t have done as much for the people here in the short term, it would have allowed more resources to be available to make sure that we don’t suffer as much when things go bad. We, and consequently our governments, took the easy way, the lazy way out. We’ve got a goose that lays golden eggs, but it’s too much work to spread those around into other baskets.. and then we get upset when the one we have tips.

          • Sure, we can always do things better, and should do things better. Again no traction for opposition parties; at least partly because the PC s have been masters at splitting the difference.
            We have to give them some credit. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between Redfords govt and a right leaning Liberal one. Not that I’m really happy with that either.

          • That’s a vital point I missed entirely. Don’t automatically ascribe to malice that which is subject to basic human nature. People are lazy; they like to do things the way they’ve always done them. Change is hard, tradition can be such a crutch. Story of Canada in many ways. The resources are there, get them out of the ground and into the hands of other people, other markets that are already established. That was a pretty valid excuse for much of the last 200 years or so – not so much now.

    • “the environment that tends to produce dim-witted hicks in the province.”
      I see Ron has had his five minutes’ hate for the day. Stay tolerant and progressive, Ron.

      • It is funny that Ron Waller dislikes Alberta, the prov with female premier and muslim mayor of largest city. Ron Waller is also keen to go back 40 or 50 yrs when men were able to raise a family on a single paycheque and women and minorities were mostly excluded from workforce and knew their place.

        • It really is amazing, isn’t it? People who consider themselves to be “tolerant” and “progressive”, who in the next breath refer to the entire citizenry of a Canadian province as being “dim-witted hicks”. And to add to the hypocrisy and irony, many of the oh-so-tolerant, oh-so-progressive types who make these comments come from the city that elected Rob Ford as mayor, and/or from the province that elected the largest number of Conservative Party MPs in our current federal Parliament. Meanwhile, Alberta has Nenshi as Mayor of Calgary, Ivison as Mayor of Edmonton, and Redford as Premier. The mind boggles.

          • Couple of points here for the wingers among us……

            There is no reason for progressives to be tolerant of ‘dim-witted hicks’. It’s not sexist or racist…and education usually cures it.

            There is no reason to like or dislike a premier just because she’s female or a mayor just because he’s Muslim. We’ve had both women and Muslims since day one in the country. It’s the hick part that’s the problem.

          • Emily, it’s the insinuation that the province consists by and large of “dim-witted hicks” that’s the problem. And the insinuation that somehow, Alberta has some oddly disproportionate amount of “dim-witted hicks”, despite zero empirical evidence to back that up. In fact — if you care to look at facts — Alberta has one of the most highly educated populations in Canada. But I don’t expect my pointing that out to stop the ignorant, hate-filled bigotry that constantly comes out from the likes of you and Ron. As someone pointed out in another thread, you are classic flame bait.

          • It’s not an insinuation…’s the standard image of Alberta….promoted and boasted about by Albertans themselves!

            Alberta is a primary resource economy….oil, cattle, wheat. Not only has the Calgary Stampede….or as others call it The Annual Horse Massacre….but people wear cowboy hats and boots with suits.

            The kind of economy you have determines how you think, how you see things, your POV….and that’s what we get from Albertans all the time.

            A diverse mixed economy, or a high tech one sees things quite differently….but Albertans constantly insist we should do everything their way….when their economic views are totally unsuited to other places. Being anti-union for example doesn’t work in an industrial economy.

            And before you start tossing idiotic words like ‘hate-filled’ and ‘bigot’ around….consider Albertans and their remarks. Ontarians were quite shocked at the ‘eastern bastards freezing in the dark’….up until then we’d considered ourselves Canadians and we’d share and share alike. Since then we’ve had a ton of phrases like ‘latte-sipping liberals’ and ‘effete easterners’ and anti-Toronto sentiment. Plus empty boasting about how you’ll separate, or refuse to ‘support’ us financially when you’re not doing so, or nonsense about how all of Canada is built on oil.

            So don’t get your knickers in a knot now….you should have expected blow-back.

            If you want people to be nice to you….be nice to them.

          • So you’re calling everybody in an entire province stupid in order to exact righteous retribution for something a dead guy — Ralph Klein — said over 30 years ago. You’re awesome.
            Anyway, I can’t help but notice that, using your impeccable, razor-sharp logic, everybody in Canada is stupid — after all, under a first-past-the-post electoral system, Canadians elected a majority Conservative government.

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          • “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” isn’t a Ralph Klein quote, as any Albertan ought to know.

          • The “Eastern Bums and Creeps” comment was a Klein comment. The “let them freeze in the dark” thing was a bumper sticker from the 1970s, i.e., 40 years ago.
            So to sum up Emily’s position: because of what a dead guy said 30 years ago, and because of a 40-year old bumper sticker, the progressive, tolerant liberal Canadian thing to do is to hate all Albertans and to accuse them of being stupid. Or something like that.

          • To be fair, Alberta still treats the 1970s as if it was yesterday.

          • If you’re going to go down that road, one could say the same thing about Quebec and 1759. Except that Quebec is progressive, and doesn’t vote for right-of-centre parties and is thus exempt from progressive criticism of this sort, right Andrew? Alberta is apparently singularly sinful.

          • Well, you sure did read a lot more into that comment than what was written.

          • I don’t think so: it’s Quebecers who have “Je me souviens” emblazoned on their license plates. Albertans have “Wild Rose Country”. So pop quiz: who, if anyone, is obsessed with with the past here? And Emily’s the one who insisted on dredging up stuff from the 70s and 80s, so perhaps your criticism should be aimed at her, not Albertans.

          • So Albertans never bring up NEP?

          • Some Albertans do. News flash, Einstein: there’s a difference between some people in a province occasionally bringing up a significant piece of legislation which greatly affected that province, versus “treating the 1970s as if it was yesterday.” But as I said, if you’re going to go down that road, then for starters, Quebecers are clearly much more obsessed with past “injustices” than Albertans are. And while you’re at it, why don’t you go ask a Newfoundlander about the Churchill Falls Agreement? Again, why the anti-Alberta obsession in this regard, when there are clearly other provinces that you could bash on the same grounds? What is it about Alberta that gets the progressive hate-o-meter so amped up, over behaviour that is hardly unique to Alberta? Double standard, anyone?

          • About the shocked Ontarians who considered themselves Canadians willing to share and share alike… Would it be considered bad breeding or lacking manners and a good education to point out that Central Canada’s approach to nation building, since day one, was based on protecting or as they would say encouraging the manufacturing sector in Ontario and Québec by making everyone pay import duties, in having the agricultural sector finance the inefficiencies of the Canadian manufacturers. And wasn’t it nice of all of us to put up with a very localized “free-trade” agreement with the USA for the establishment of an automobile manufacturing sector in Ontario (and a few crumbs in Québec) by paying a lot more for cars and trucks, so as to support well-paying jobs in southern Ontario. And you want cheap gas to boot? Its deathly cold in Winnipeg, therefore we’re not that stupid!

          • More of your western mythology? Part of your victim syndrome?

            Poor little abused babies…..yet you happily joined the confederation, and you’ve prospered every since…..whined constantly, but prospered anyway………..

          • Actually, if truth be known, it wasn’t quite the happy feel good type of reception that they might have taught at school back when in Ontario: Canada-of-the-four-eastern-provinces literally bought us from a colonial company called the HBC. Had it not been for Louis Riel and the Métis who opposed what was for Canada a simple real-estate transaction (local inhabitants be damned!), Manitoba would not have entered the blessed Dominion as a province, or at all for that matter. But, then you know that. And you’re right, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good rant. But I still think it was nice of us to give up a part of our prosperity to ensure your automobile-based prosperity. And for not having seen these tariffs as a way for Ontario to save our troubled souls from commerce with those damned Americans, mea culpa. Share and share alike.

          • You can leave anytime….always could. Feel free.

            But stop whining….nobody’s interested

          • Leave? But what would you do without us!

          • I’ve advocated Ontario separatism for years.

          • Probably since the Canada USA free trade agreement made it less profitable for Ontario to be part of the union as it were. But I share your pain: its that damn Clarity Act isn’t it, what are we going to do about it?

          • LOL Ontario and Quebec should leave together….go back to the original Canada. Then we’d have a real country without all the hangers-on and their endless complaints. Shouldn’t have taken them in to begin with, but we were being nice.

            However the 8 other provinces have remained primary resource economies….probably always will be. So…time to move on.

          • Ha! Made you laugh! But on a more serious note: Canada, the Dominion of, included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The original Ontario-Québec Canada was a British colony not a country. The original “original Canada” of the Nouvelle France days did not have an Ontario. Has it been particularly warm in your part of the country?

          • Upper and Lower Canada, not the Dominion of….Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI.

            Weather here on the South Coast has been warm for years now. When I was a kid Halloween was cold and snowy, and costumes had to fit over parkas.

            Today it’s 10C

          • 10 C eh? Must reread article. My understanding was that the difference occurred over many generations. But to have observable effects in less than one lifespan, and a decrease to boot… Cold and snowy when you were a kid, are you sure?

          • Yeah….also Nov 11 ceremonies were knee high in snow….now people are usually squelching in rain.

          • Glad to hear. Its good news for the umbrella manufacturing sector in Ontario then. ‘Cus rain in November ain’t good for bringing in the crops don’t you know.

          • Mmm not many crops in Nov….Royal Winter Fair though if you’re through clowning around. LOL

          • “Ontario and Quebec should leave together….go back to the original Canada. Then we’d have a real country without all the hangers-on and their endless complaints.”
            Yeah, Quebec never ever complains about anything. Especially regarding Confderation or anything like that.

          • Well it’s not Ont they’re complaining about.

          • You know, I must have missed that wording in the two Quebec separatism referenda, where it said “do you want to separate from Canada . . . except for Ontario, cuz we have no problem with them, they’re cool.” I also remember, now that you’ve pointed it out, that Quebecers were totally cool with those people from Brockville stomping all over the Quebec flag . . . cuz they were from Ontario.

          • Yes, thanks to eastern Canada, first nation’s in the west were subjected to the awful Residential Schools program that you eastern elites thought was such a wonderful idea. Again, thanks for that, you geniuses really brought the nation together as one with that piece of work.

          • No, it was thanks to the RC and Anglican churches.

          • Which were based in Eastern Canada and supported the Liberal party for decades. Ie. People like you.

          • Oh….you guys were pagans right?

            And totally helpless.


          • We lived side by side with them. And got along quite well until a bunch of elitist know-it-all’s from out east started trying to manage the “indian problem”, as you enlightened souls liked to call it.

          • LOL you were doing better being a Ferengi the other day Rick

            Now you’re just being silly.


          • If Albertan’s are “dim witted hicks” in your mind, because of some imaginary lack of education…. can you please tell me what you call First Nations, where education levels are drastically reduced, and are far more remote and removed from urban centers?

          • I call ’em First Nations Rick. Unlike the dim-witted hicks who call them ‘indians’ and worse, because hicks are ignorant and racist.

          • Um, I called them First Nations, you’re simply trying to follow suit now. There’s nobody on this board who’s more ignorant and racist than you are Em. You eastern Canada Liberal party supporters thought the Residential Schools program was just great. Probably because you were too busy thinking FN’s are “dim-witted hicks” because they lived off of the land and didn’t go to some trumped up ivy-league school.

            But keep up with the racism, you’re not helping your cause or your Liberal party at all.

          • Hey….I sympathize Rick.

            Your party is a mess, your leader a known liar, your political philosophy in shreds….so your solution is to attack other posters.


          • Your leader is an admitted drug user who takes money from school children and old folks charities.

        • I was going to say, now watch Emily jump in and defend him. But she already did, and went through quite an effort to do so. Neither one of them has any clue how foolish their opinions read. It’s a basic lack of self-awareness, and there is simply nothing that can be done about it.

    • Your ignorance and bigotry really are unmatched.

      • Con cranks are always whining about QC. They can dish it out but they can’t take it. Waaaaaaa!!!!!!

        • Now THERE’s a progressive, tolerant, enlightened post for you.

  4. Interesting article but you made the further/farther mistake.

    • Interesting comment but you need to get better usage guides. Actually, just about any usage guide at all will tell you that “further” is fine there; it’s generally people who believe their Grade 8 teacher was a usage authority that insist on calling it a “mistake”.

      • “a disease more common almost everywhere as you get further from the equator—will tell you.”

        I can see how someone would make a case for further, but it’s a bit of a stretch.

  5. The electrifyingly stimulative effect of minus forty degrees on the human system cannot be underestimated. And during those long dark winters, work and study are the best discretionary uses of one’s time. So, it could well be that northerners don’t actually have higher IQ’s, they were just fully awake and better-prepared for the tests.

    • ………….best discretionary uses of one’s time….hmm…my parents had nine kids so they would disagree with what the best use of one’s time is on those long dark Alberta winters.