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From Zero to Genius: The History of Measured Intelligence

The Evolution of IQ Tests

IQ tests have a long and complex history. The concept of intelligence quotient (IQ) and the measurement of intelligence emerged in the late 19th century, inspired by the work of Charles Darwin and the theories of Sir Frances Galton, Darwin’s cousin. While Galton’s tests focused on physical attributes, it wasn’t until 1904 that IQ tests as we know them today began to take shape. French psychologist Alfred Binet developed a test using the concept of mental age to predict academic achievement. The test was later brought to the United States and refined by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman to create the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. The original Stanford-Binet test assessed reasoning, vocabulary, and problem-solving skills, and determined a final score by dividing the test taker’s mental age by their actual age and multiplying the result by 100. Today, the Stanford-Binet test has been updated for use with adults, with scores above 140 considered “genius” and scores below 70 classified as “feeble-mindedness.” Other tests, such as the Wechsler Scale and the Mega Test, have also entered the mainstream, along with a variety of specialized assessments.

The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

The debate between nature and nurture has been a longstanding one, even being addressed by Shakespeare in his 17th century play “The Tempest.” Is intelligence and success predetermined by genetics or shaped by one’s environment and experiences? While research suggests that intellectual potential is largely determined by genetics, intellectual development and success can be influenced by the environment and effort invested in improving one’s skills. For example, parents with high IQs tend to have children with high IQs, but it is also possible to increase a child’s IQ by providing a stimulating environment and to decrease it by depriving them. Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian chess teacher, believed in the idea that “geniuses are made, not born.” He set out to create champion chess players through deliberate upbringing, even going so far as to advertise for a wife who would agree to bear children for this specific purpose. He ultimately had three daughters who became skilled chess players, one of whom won the Budapest Chess Championship for girls under 11 at the age of 4.To learn more about the impact of the environment on IQ, you can read about the Glenwood Slate School and Milwaukee Project studies at

Child Prodigies: Rare but Impressive

Child prodigies are individuals under the age of 12 who have skills and abilities comparable to those of highly competent adults. These exceptional individuals often excel in subjects such as mathematics (like Blaise Pascal), music (like Mozart), and strategic thinking games (such as chess or video games). However, creative fields like writing and dance have produced fewer child prodigies, as they require a level of abstract thinking and experience that children have not yet had the opportunity to develop. There are, however, exceptions to this trend, such as child prodigies in the fine arts. This may be due to the fact that many art forms involve the use of mathematical equations and established proportions found in nature. Akiane Kremarik, for example, is a 13-year-old internationally renowned realist painter. Dhanat Plewtianyingthawee, at just 4 and a half years old, already sells his abstract watercolor paintings throughout Thailand and online.Overall, child prodigies are rare but impressive individuals who showcase extraordinary talent and potential at a young age.

The Sperm and the Egghead

Discussions, discourse, disputes, and straight-up screaming matches vying to prove Man or Woman as the smarter sex are in constant circulation.

In 2006 a study published in Intelligence claimed to put an end to the debate using SAT test scores from a pool of 100,000 17- and 18-year-olds: by adulthood, it concluded, men generally have IQs that are 4 to 5 points higher than women’s. The study maintains that this difference is not apparent in children because girls mature faster than boys, so their IQs parallel until late adolescence/early adulthood when men pull ahead.

But despite statistics and averages, the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the world’s highest IQ is a woman.

Marilyn Vos Savant first took the Stanford-Binet intelligence test in 1956 at age 10. Her scores came back somewhere between 167 and 228 (information and scoring methods are conflicting; not surprisingly, Vos Savant gives the 228 number when asked) which, regardless of which side of the 40+ point gap you take, makes her an inarguable genius. The Guinness committee officially awarded her the prize of “Highest IQ” in 1986; she retained the crown until 1989 when the publication stopped including her category.

Vos Savant has gained popularity over the years not only from her stint with Guinness but also with her “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade magazine. In it, Vos Savant takes readers’ questions about everything from physics to politics and solves logic and math puzzles. One of her most famous and controversial columns appeared in September 1990. The puzzle, coined the “Monty Hall Problem” after the Let’s Make a Deal game show host, reads as follows:

“Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, the others, goats. You pick a door, say #1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say #3, which has a goat. He says to you: ‘Do you want to pick door #2?’ Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?” —Craig F. Whitaker, Columbia, Maryland

The common assumption is that by removing a goatless door, the host is giving you a 50/50 chance of success regardless of which of the two remaining doors you pick. But Vos Savant reasoned that by switching your choice of doors, your probability of winning a car increases to 2/3, while sticking with door #1 sticks you with a 1/3 chance. Her solution makes much more sense when you look at a visual representation of this type of problem.

The Monty Hall Problem

(It is also important to note that Vos Savant’s logic presumes that the host knows what is behind the doors and always opens a losing door, rather than opening a door at random, or only offering contestants the switch if their initial guess is correct.)

High Societies

The social climbers amongst us go to the country club. The cowboys go to the NRA. The lazy go to the couch. And the intellectually elite go to Mensa or the Prometheus Society.

Mensa membership is open to anyone in the world with an IQ in the top 2% of the population. Today there are over 100,000 members who have gained access to the organization either by taking a Mensa-administered IQ test or submitting results from another approved written test. If you’d like to gauge how you would fare on Mensa’s own evaluation you can take a 30-minute “warm-up” online that will give you instant feedback.

For those looking for further separation from the savages, The Prometheus Society offers membership to anyone who scores in the top 1/30,000 (yes, that’s one thirty-thousandth) of the population. As of now, that is no more than 100 people, though, honestly, the low number may be due more to the cross-section of the club’s membership than to a shortage of people who can meet their qualifications. The Prometheus Society also accepts minimum scores on a host of IQ tests, including certain versions of the SAT (if taken before 1995) and GRE (if taken before 1981) university admissions tests. Anyone with an SAT score of 1560 or higher or a GRE score of at least 1610 is eligible.

IQ Facts and Figures

  • International IQ charts place Hong Kong at the top of the IQ world with citizens averaging 107. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and Singapore follow. The US ranks 18th.
  • The average IQ in America is 98. New Hampshire residents have the highest IQs, averaging 104, followed by Oregon and Massachusetts at 103. The lower figures reside in Mississippi and South Carolina, where the average IQ is 94.
  • After the last Presidential election, a study was done that indicated states with lower average IQs voted for George Bush and those with higher IQs for John Kerry.
  • 0.1% of the world’s population has an IQ of 145 or above, the level required to be deemed profoundly gifted.
  • Experts have been able to compile a list of causes of mental retardation (from “mild” at IQs between 50 and 70 to “profound” at 20 or below) but are still largely uncertain about specific causes of genius.
  • According to a 2007 study, orangutans are the most intelligent non-human primate, followed by chimpanzees, spider monkeys, langurs, and macaques.
  • Chimpanzees, parrots, and dolphins typically have IQs between 35 and 49. In a human, these numbers would suggest moderate retardation.
  • Some studies show that children who are breastfed have IQs of up to 10 points higher by age 3 than children restricted to bottles.
  • According to a Danish study, people with lower IQs are at greater risk of sustaining a concussion.
  • Research has shown that US children gain about 3.5 IQ points during each year they are in school.
  • A New York City study of 1 million students discovered that removing preservatives, dyes, and artificial flavors from school lunches increased IQ test scores by 14%.