Are the Pygmies Retarded?

While researching the previous post, I came across a claim that the Pygmies are retarded due to having IQs around 55.

No, the Pygmies are not retarded.

If you’ve already read Two Kinds of Dumb, you already know why, and don’t need to continue on. But if you’ve just wandered in, here’s the quick and dirty version:

An actual diagnosis of mental retardation requires not only a low IQ score (I think the bar is 75 but could be 70, I forget,) but also major life impairments. That is, the person must be unable to do, unsupervised, the normal things people do to function, like hold down a job, get dressed, or feed themselves.

While I don’t know the exact IQs of the pygmies, all of the evidence I’ve seen suggest that the average is probably pretty low. For starters, books are heavy, so hunter-gatherers tend not to carry them around, which has a real impact on the average hunter-gather’s ability to read. Second, hunter-gatherers tend not to conduct much trade, so they tend not to need much in the way of mathematics. Some groups don’t even have words for numbers over three. Such groups tend to score lousily on math tests.

I’ve searched high and low for whether or not Pygmy languages contain words for numbers over 3, and come up with nada. But I think Pymies tend to use a lot of words from other languages/be multi-lingual, so if the Pygmies are speaking some other language they picked up from an agricultural tribe, the language could easily have a full suite of number words whether the Pygmies had any interest in numbers or not.

Third, given neither books nor maths in Pygmy history, it’s unlikely that there’s been any selective pressure on the Pygmies to adapt to readin’ and ‘rithmetic.

Fourth, there is a pretty strong correlation between IQ scores and technological complexity. You don’t have to think of IQ as “intelligence” if you don’t want to, but whatever it is, it is necessary for building technologically complex societies. If the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is your thing, then you don’t need much in the way of IQ.

And fifth, their heads are kind of small. Unfortunately, brains have to go somewhere, and this poses a limit on grey matter.

That said, Pygmies are perfectly functional in their environment. They can hunt and gather their own food, carry on some trade with their neighbors, build their own houses, make their own clothes, get dressed, cook, take care of their children (one Wikipedia article claims that one Pygmy group has some of the highest level of fatherly involvement in child-rearing in the world,) are bi- and tri-lingual, and otherwise conduct their lives.

If you and I got dropped in the rainforest, we’d probably die within three or four days.

To over-simplify, mental retardation is generally caused by some form of traumatic brain injury, say, by getting dropped on your head as a child, eating lead, or being born with an extra chromosome. These injuries change your IQ from what it should have been, and cause a general loss of brain functioning.

If you live in a society where the average IQ is 100, then the average person you meet with a 50 IQ is most likely someone who suffered a traumatic injury.

However, if you live in a society where the average IQ is 50, this is the normal, um-injured IQ of people in your society. It just means that people in your society are bad at reading and math, not that they were all dropped on their heads as infants and cannot care for themselves.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “what if Pygmy low IQ is caused by malnutrition? After all, they ARE pretty short.”

Doubtful. There’s no reason to think that Pygmies would have been more malnourished than all of their neighbors for thousands of years (we have records going back that far.) Also, their height is genetic (see studies on Pygmy genetics,) not due to malnutrition. According to Westhunter, an average-heighted person would have to starve to death twice before mere malnourishment would make them as short as a pygmy.


Are Pygmies human?

I’ve also come across this question during my research, so I think it bears addressing.

Look, the term “human” is a social construct. So is the whole concept of “species.” You can come up with a personal definition of “human,” if you feel like it, that doesn’t include the Pygmies. Certainly their neighbors, who rape, murder, eat, and enslave the Pygmies (and sometimes evict them to make more room for gorillas,) do not regard the Pygmies as human. Personally, I look down on the Pygmies’ neighbors for their despicable behavior toward the Pygmies, rather than look down on the Pygmies for their stature and lifestyle.

Practically speaking, people only declare other groups of people “not humans” in order to justify killing them. I have no desire to kill the Pygmies; it seems more pleasant to me to live in a world where Pygmies exist, while still recognizing them as one of the most genetically distinct groups on Earth.


36 thoughts on “Are the Pygmies Retarded?

    • I suspect that reaction times among the pygmies are generally fine–certainly they’ve spent more of their lives doing activities that require good reaction times, like hunting game, than I have, and their lifestyle selects strongly for such skills. People who have small, (or large,) health-reducing mutations also end up with brains that don’t function as well, so the lower end of any specific group’s IQ distribution has a lot of people with bad reaction times. But as far as I know, there’s nothing physically wrong with the pygmies–if anything, aside from the effects of warfare and habitat destruction, I wouldn’t be surprised if their reaction times were better than ours. Of course, I could be totally wrong.

      When we talk about IQ, people generally want to know things like “Are they good at math?” or “Can they plan for the future?” Math is not culture-independent; it doesn’t really exist in some cultures, and the pygmies are likely to be among those. But I don’t discount math as a proxy for intelligence just because not everyone is good at it, if math ability is actually what I want to measure.

      Now, if the Pygmies were making up the test, it’d probably involve sniffing out key parts of the environment and tracking game and identifying plants or something like that, and I’d fail miserably, and they’d point and say, “see, that’s why you haven’t been able to construct a proper hunter-gatherer society.”


      • So? Friend-or-foe recognition is as culture-independent as you can get. :) Short-term memory capacity is another simple metric, but it depends on the kind of symbols stored. And I have no idea how to design a test of short-term memory that would be as intuitive for city-dwellers as for hunter-gatherers.


      • Haha. I just have noticed that detecting sex of relatives is not exactly the same as FoF recognition.


      • There is a question why you would like to test mathematical capabilities instead of g. There isn’t a simple skill of ‘being good at math’. Arithmetic, propositional logic, differential algebra and higher-order topology have little in common.


      • By the same token, why measure how quickly they can sort relatives? What is the point of any IQ test?

        IQ, as generally tested, correlates highly with a society’s ability to maintain economic complexity; the Pygmies maintain some of the least complicated societies in the world. From what I’ve read, conventional IQ tests have been done, and the Pygmies score around 55. This is a reasonable finding, given the necessities of life in a Pygmy village.

        Americans with 55 IQs have had major accidents, like genetic abnormalities or brain injuries. Pygmies haven’t been dropped on their heads, and I doubt they all have severe genetic abnormalities. Natural selection, which is a pretty powerful force in the rainforest, tends to kill off such people.

        In other words, while it is possible that they have bad reaction times, indicating deleterious mutations (or environmental conditions) that would cause low-IQ, I have no particular reason to think so; their reaction times are probably fine, because their lifestyle probably selects strongly against slow reaction times. People who actually have severe brain impairments would not be able to function at the same level as the Pygmies, building houses, hunting for food, and getting dressed all by themselves in the morning.

        Even with perfectly normal reaction times, it does not necessarily follow that they have the cognitive abilities people care about when they talk about IQ. They probably don’t. We’re not talking about “maybe they’re better at topology than differential algebra.” In many hunter-gatherer societies, people literally cannot count past three; people have tried to teach them math, and they still have trouble mastering things like counting to 10 and adding 5 + 2. Likewise, people who do not store food and supplies for the winter (or seasonal dry periods) do not generally have very good long-term planning skills; the future is just not something they’ve had to plan for.

        I remember a quote, from the Bushmen rather than the Pygmies, but the Bushmen have similar IQs and lifestyle and are probably some of the Pygmies’ closest relatives. An anthropologist noticed that the Bushmen had to walk a long way each day between the watering hole, where the only water was, and the nut trees, where the food was. “Why don’t you just plant a nut tree near the watering hole?” asked the anthropologist. “Why bother?” replied a Bushman. “By the time the tree was grown, I’d be dead.”

        Of course, the tree would probably only take a decade to start producing, which is within even a Bushman’s lifetime, but even if it didn’t, plenty of people build up wealth, businesses, or otherwise make provisions to provide for their children–or grandchildren–after their deaths. I’ve personally planted a dozen trees that I do not expect to benefit me, personally, but may benefit my kid or community a decade or two from now.

        But the Bushmen are perfectly good at hunting; I have no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with their reaction times.


  1. Now I’m wondering what accounts for your ability to ask these hard questions and still come across as a compassionate person :) I too have wondered “are they human” and concluded similarly. Of course, the definition of “species” varies from scientist to scientist, and microbiologists would have a totally different paradigm. As all terms are socially constructed, I don’t tend to base ethical considerations on “are they human” but rather on “are these beings sentient” which of course is also a semantics game, but there you go. Incidentally, “are these beings sentient” absolutely informs my opinion on abortion, thus I think it’s entirely obvious that unborn babies are human, yet I don’t feel any special tug on my heartstrings for a first trimester human.


  2. Interesting perspective. By your definition, pygmies are normal living in the jungle. However, the moment we rescue them from Pygmy wars and bring them to America for resettlement, they are instantly transmuted into “retarded”. Cannot count, cannot read, cannot speak English, cannot pay bills, fill out a job application for, read a map, read a bus schedule, read a watch, etc. Major “life impairments” and almost certainly for the rest of their lives.


    • They’d learn English; many pygmies are bi- or tri-lingual. Humans are really good at learning languages, because we’ve been doing it for so long. Otherwise, yes, the Pygmies would probably have trouble with life in an industrialized society, or even just an agricultural one.


  3. Over centuries before Europeans came into Central Africa, the social judgment of neighboring indigenous peoples in Central Africa was that the Batwa pygmies were starkly less mentally able than other evolved African kinship units (‘races’). What we measures as IQ is also crudely but usefully observable in task
    efficiency and communication levels. By Central African standards, the Batwa were a people on average
    quite discernibly “retarded” in rate and scope of mental development. The notion that they have evolved
    as a clearly “low abiity” group is not misunderstanding, racism, but simply a raw fact of life. This is not to
    suggest that perception of them, based on group selection factors, can provide accessible Batwa who seem to belie the whole notion of overall low IQ.


  4. No, pygmies are not perfectly functional in their environment anymore. For the last centuries, they are continuously losing to bantu expansion. Diseases, rapes, and a threatening, complex society around them is threatening their existence. The same applies to Asian and Australasian pygmies, who get replaced by more advanced human groups. It seems than whenever pygmies come in contact with other human groups, the former always lose. The ideal would be for african countries to make large reserves for pygmies with the help of western powers, where they would live their traditional lives uninterrupted by other humans, just like with endangered animals, but this is impossible noadays due to the post ww2 western mindset of all of us are equal etc. A grand population replacement is occuring before our eyes and we don’t and cannot do something meaningful to halt it.
    And yes, I consider pygmies fully human. They aren’t so different from us. Even Neanderthals and older human species are human. Great apes have a tiny bit of human as well.


    • We could say this about almost any group that loses a war–Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, the Japanese in WWII. Certainly losing a war is not very functional–that is just not quite the point I was making.

      IQ gives us a good metric for understanding “why development here and not there?” or “why does this group lose to that group?” but it doesn’t imply that Pygmies require group homes and can’t be trusted with scissors, which is what people normally think when they hear “55 IQ.”

      I think Westerners are understandably reluctant to interfere in the security situation in central Africa.


      • Ok, but we cannot compare disparate cases. Indians lost mainly due to diseases, and if not struck by diseases now they could be a much larger percentage of their countries. Australian Aboriginals are not so successful in Australia, while the Japanese never have been really conquered, they have not been genetically infiltrated with foreign material, and have rebounded successfully after the war, so now they have the power to easily form a military again if they want to. Pygmies don’t just lost a war. In fact, I was not talking about lost wars. But generally seem to not fair well in the presence of other human groups and they are gotten advantage of all of the time.
        Regarding if low iq people with no brain injury seem normal, I cannot be so sure. There are many funny stories told about Aboriginals in Australia struggling to function in modern society, e.g. throwing cell phones away because the battery has gone out or tossing the card away because the bank machine run out of money. These stories are too funny though to believe. Also I know some Gypsy kids who broke a part of cell phones, believin that they have broken the pin number, though later they grew up and learnt that it is not true.


      • I’m not trying to argue that Pygmies are (or aren’t) adapted to the modern world of cellphones and people chasing Pokemon off cliffs. But when left to their own devices in their own pygmy villages, without other humans interfering, Pygmies manage not to stab themselves with their own tools. But of course they will get conquered by any group with better tech than theirs, which is pretty much everyone.


  5. Finally you might be wrong. Sometimes those people hurt themselves in modern situations. If you go to reality documenting websites like Best Gore and search about climbing electrical poles you will find perplexing results. I don’t link directly to that site because the content might upset some people, nevertheless it is reality. In the one instance, a Saudi Arabian boy climbed an electrical pole and got electrocuted, dismissing the advice to get down. It wasn’t so young. We don’t know if he survived or not. In the other case, a poor Brazilian beggar climbed again an electrical pole disregarding advice to the contrary, probably to see or shout better in a demonstration, and got electrocuted and died some time later. Also in my country and neighbouring ones Gypsies commonly try to steel the copper eletrical lines from the streets, with a few of them electrocuted each year. At least most of them try to be safe. Imagine how many Pygmies would mistake the poles for trees and pop on their tops.


  6. Thank you for your article and for your time and thoughtful preparation.
    IQ generally measures the ability to learn, retain information, and make logical decisions and conclusions. It is not about mathematics nor reading, at least in modern testing (since about 1980).
    Modern IQ tests typically do not have any math or even reading. Many have no verbiage at all, and there is no knowledge of math required in the least.
    For example, a non-verbal, non-math IQ test may have a question that shows arrows pointing in different directions. The test taker must identify which direction would make the most sense for the next arrow to go.
    I’m very sorry to disappoint, but I’ve done considerable research into IQ testing over the past decade. The tests have had cultural biases removed (including the assumption that one can read) in order to assess a persons ability to learn, to retain information, and to use common logic.
    The pygmies are a wonderful people. God has created them, and they are here on Earth for a reason.
    But not all people are gifted in the same way.
    The intellect of the pygmies is extremely low. They may excel in other areas, I’m fairly confident of that, but not in intellectual capacity.
    If brought to a Western culture, they would be considered mentally retarded. This is not because they cannot care for themselves, but because they are not able to draw logical conclusions and use basic reasoning to solve problems.


    • Thanks for the contribution; how much have you studied the Pygmies themselves? I reviewed Isaac Bacirongo’s memoir Still a Pygmy some time ago:
      “Basic plot: Isaac Bacironogo, a Pygmy, was born in the Congolese rainforest where he learned to hunt and gather in the traditional Pygmy style. When he was a kid, his family went to work on a local plantation (Pygmies regularly work as hired agricultural laborers,) and noticed that all of the other kids on the plantation were going to school. So after much pestering of his parents, Isaac started going to school. He attended, IIRC, 10 or 11 years of school, learned French fluently, and eventually became a successful businessman who owned three pharmacies and traveled internationally.”

      Isaac is probably an outlier within Pygmies, but I still question the received wisdom around these parts that Pygmies are super-dumb, because a group with an average IQ down around 55 and a population as small as the Pygmies really shouldn’t produce any Isaacs, yet here he is.

      It’s an interesting question. :)


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