People who live in countries where disease is rife may have lower IQs because they have to divert energy away from brain development to fight infections, scientists in the US claim.
The controversial idea might help explain why national IQ scores differ around the world, and are lower in some warmer countries where debilitating parasites such as malaria are widespread, they say.
Researchers behind the theory claim the impact of disease on IQ scores has been under-appreciated, and believe it ranks alongside education and wealth as a major factor that influences cognitive ability.
Attempts to measure intelligence around the world are fraught with difficulty and many researchers doubt that IQ tests are a suitable tool for the job. The average intelligence of a nation is likely to be governed by a complex web of interwoven factors.
The latest theory, put forward by Randy Thornhill and others at the University of New Mexico, adds disease to a long list of environmental and other issues that may all play a role in determining intelligence. Thornhill made the news in 2000, when he coauthored a provocative book called A Natural History of Rape in which he argues that sexual coercion emerged as an evolutionary adaptation.
Writing in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Thornhill and his colleagues explain that children under five devote much of their energy to brain development. When the body has to fight infections, it may have to sacrifice brain development, they say.
"The effect of infectious disease on IQ is bigger than any other single factor we looked at," said Chris Eppig, lead author on the paper. "Disease is a major sap on the body's energy, and the brain takes a lot of energy to build. If you don't have enough, you can't do it properly."