What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

Apropos Friday’s conversation about the transition from hunting to pastoralism and the different strategies hunters employ in different environments, I got to thinking about how these different food-production systems could influence the development of different “intelligences,” or at least mental processes that underlie intelligence.

Ingold explains that in warm climes, hunter-gatherers have many food resources they can exploit, and if one resource starts running low, they can fairly easily switch to another. If there aren’t enough yams around, you can eat melons; if not enough melons, squirrels; if no squirrels, eggs. I recall a study of Australian Aborigines who agreed to go back to hunter-gatherering for a while after living in town for several decades. Among other things (like increased health,) scientists noted that the Aborigines increased the number of different kinds of foods they consumed from, IIRC, about 40 per week to 100.

By contrast, hunters in the arctic are highly dependent on exploiting only a few resources–fish, seals, reindeer, and perhaps a few polar bears and foxes. Ingold claims that there are (were) tribes that depended largely on only a few major hunts of migrating animals (netting hundreds of kills) to supply themselves for the whole year.

If those migrating change their course by even a few miles, it’s easy to see how the hunters could miss the herds entirely and, with no other major species around to exploit, starve over the winter.

Let’s consider temperate agriculture as well: the agriculturalist can store food better than the arctic hunter (seal meat does not do good things in the summer,) but lacks the tropical hunter-gatherer’s flexibility; he must stick to his fields and keep working, day in and day out, for a good nine months in a row. Agricultural work is more flexible than assembly line work, where your every minute is dictated by the needs of the factory, but a farmer can’t just wander away from his crops to go hunt for a months just because he feels like it, nor can he hope to make up for a bad wheat harvest by wandering into his neighbor’s fields and picking their potatoes.

Which got me thinking: clearly different people are going to do better at different systems.

But first, what is intelligence? Obviously we could define it in a variety of ways, but let’s stick to reasonable definitions, eg, the ability to use your brain to achieve success, or the ability to get good grades on your report card.

A variety of mental traits contribute to “intelligence,” such as:

  1. The ability to learn lots of information. Information is really useful, both in life and on tests, and smarter brains tend to be better at storing lots and lots of data.
  2. Flexible thinking. This is the ability to draw connections between different things you’ve learned, to be creative, to think up new ideas, etc.
  3. Some form of Drive, Self Will, or long-term planning–that is, the ability to plan for your future and then push yourself to accomplish your goals. (These might more properly be two different traits, but we’ll keep them together for now.)

Your stereotypical autistic, capable of memorizing large quantities of data but not doing much with them, has trait #1 but not 2 or 3.

Artists and musicians tend to have a lot of trait #2, but not necessarily 1 or 3 (though successful artists obviously have a ton of #3)

And an average kid who’s not that bright but works really hard, puts in extra hours of effort on their homework, does extra credit assignments, etc., has a surfeit of #3 but not much 2 or 1.

Anyway, it seems to me like the tropical hunting/gathering environment, with many different species to exploit, would select for flexible thinking–if one food isn’t working out, look for a different one. This may also apply to people from tropical farming/horticulturalist societies.

By contrast, temperate farming seems more likely to select for planning–you can’t just wander off or try to grow something new in time for winter if your first crop doesn’t work out.

Many people have noted that America’s traditionally tropical population (African Americans) seems to be particularly good at flexible thinking, leading to much innovation in arts and music. They are not as talented, though, at Drive, leading to particularly high highschool dropout rates.

America’s traditionally rice-farming population (Asians,) by contrast, has been noted for over a century for its particularly high drive and ability to plan for the future, but not so much for contributions to the arts. East Asian people are noted for their particularly high IQ/SAT/PISA scores, despite the fact that China lags behind the West in GDP and quality of life terms. (Japan, of course, is a fully developed country.) One potential explanation for this is that the Chinese, while very good at working extremely hard, aren’t as good at flexible thinking that would help spur innovation. (I note that the Japanese seem to do just fine at flexible thinking, but you know, the Japanese aren’t Chinese and Japan isn’t China.)

(I know I’m not really stating anything novel.) But the real question is:

What kind of mental traits might pastoralism, arctic pastoralism, or arctic hunting select for?


21 thoughts on “What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

  1. I would figure the hunters are selected for bursts of intense focus and exertion while resting in leisure much of the rest of the time. Kind of like other large animal predators.
    I remember reading T.E. Lawrence’s 7 Pillars of Wisdom where he lives among Bedouin pastoralists during WW1. They obviously didn’t have packed daily schedules, but when they went on raids, they would eat or sleep very little for several days at a time to maximize their operational radius on camelback.
    I would not be surprised if arctic hunters maintained a similar overriding focus at moments that make the difference between abundance and starvation.

    I’ve noticed that the most successful civilizations, like the most successful people have balanced strength in different mental categories.
    Europeans for example, don’t have the conscientiousness and diligence of Asians but perhaps greater mental flexibility gave them an edge in inventing and/or applying new technologies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Large societies probably benefit from having a variety of mental traits to draw on and balance against each other, though I wouldn’t write off the Chinese just yet–I wouldn’t be surprised if they dominated the next couple centuries.


  2. I was thinking along these lines this morning, but with regards to mimicry. With agriculture, a man needs to be able to learn precise techniques and apply them in variable circumstances. H+G places much greater emphasis on immediate improvisation, but there’s a fair number of ways to stab an antelope with a pointy stick. Do rice fields require plowing by oxen? Wheat farming seems to require a fair amount of animal usage, and since animals are more improvisational than plants, could explain some of the west’s creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I figured it was a stretch as I typed it. My leading candidate for increased Western creativity is pretty terrible, considering my ethnicity. China’s relative stability meant that success in agriculture was less fitness conferring than success on the bureaucratic exams, which (and if my brother reads the comments here, he’ll correct me on) tended to be memorization/regurgitation based. The problem with this explanation is that Ashkenazim tend to be pretty creative folks, and mastery of Talmud (which does require some nimble rationalization capacity and creative thinking, but is still mostly memorization) seems to have played a significant role in selecting for IQ and creativity.


  3. I wonder how fishing cultures might fit in here… More planning needed than tropical hunting and gathering, but more flexibility needed than being a successful agricultural peasant… And more variety available than arctic hunting. If the herring don’t pan out, the women and children can always gather some crabs and oysters at the beach… I think it’s notable here that a common source of exceptions to lack of East Asian creativity is Japan… Of course, there are also the Ainu there.

    (I think coastline to land area ratio might come into play with the overall culture… Japan and Britain vs, say, China and France? Pure speculation on my part, mind you.)


    • Really good point. What % of calories do places like those get from seafood? I read that the Romans were fond of fermented fish sauces, if that’s relevant.


      • Makes sense nutritionally, certainly. Not sure how fish sauces compare in nutrition content to fresh or dried fish, but probably way better than a pure grain-based diet, easily… I know in terms of iodine deficiency, pre-modern-transport and storage, distance from the sea makes a big difference. And probably in a well-ordered place with relatively good transport like the Roman Empire at its height, fish sauce must have been the easiest way to get the benefits to the most people, regardless of distance from the ocean. (I wonder if there would be any way to test iodine deficiency in bodies in the Alps before, during, and after the Roman Empire…)


      • Garum (the fish sauce) was one of Italy’s major exports to the provinces along with wine and olive oil. The also Roman’s loved oysters so much that they figured out how to farm them so at least in some coastal areas they probably ate signicant amounts of seafood.

        Couldn’t find anything about Roman calorie intake, but I found a paper that talks about percent of calories from meat of hunter-gatherers:


  4. Re: ketchup, even in its modern tomato sauce form, it’s a reasonable source of vitamin C, which, given its free availability in packet form at most fast food joints, makes me wonder just how messed up you have to be to get scurvy in modern America… (Granted, the insistence of Cathedral (TM) types these days to talk as if fresh, organic farm fresh vegetables have some magic property, I partly blame them. If someone is messed up enough to get scurvy, don’t complicate things with cooking full meals. Get them to put ketchup on stuff, and maybe drink some nasty Tang or something. If they’re ready for the next step, then they stock up on frozen vegetables… OK, off my soapbox…)


    • My impression was that people w/scurvy in modern US were either poor college students trying to live on ramen or people with eating disorders that result in highly restricted diets, but I haven’t looked into it (nor the nutrition content of ketchup, to be honest!)


      • I heard the anecdotes about the college student diagnosed with scurvy after eating nothing but plain pasta (the version I heard didn’t mention ramen…) and I always wondered why said student couldn’t be bothered to slap some pasta sauce on their pasta (the story made it sound like it was a student living at my dorm, which had full kitchens on each floor.)

        That said, there was recently an article, I want to say in the Boston Globe, about people with scurvy, and they were sort of borderline cases with occasional drug, alcohol, and mental health issues. Now, if it was, say, turning an anorexic into an orthorexic cooking all fresh organic vegetables, that would be a reasonable trade off, but they’re taking people who are lucky to manage rent and bills and trying to turn them into proper cooks.

        Someone trained in nutrition at a top college (but a bit of a contrarian, as in not falling for fads, but going by the data) assures me that ketchup is more nutritious than something like iceberg lettuce. (Maybe if you need some roughage in your system, have the iceberg). Said person was questioning the eggs are bad dogma when only a few cranks were doubting it, so I’m inclined to believe them. Basically, there’s a lot of, if not magical thinking, at least mistaking aesthetics for nutrition in popular understanding of nutrition. (If you read Megan McArdle’s articles on food history, there’s often a similar conclusion wrt not being so snobby about aesthetically unpleasing food)


      • Oh, and the version of the college student story I heard had a strong implication of something like aspergers going on…


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