The NYT reports:
The really interesting thing here is not the perfectly plausible 8 point gap between the poor kids stuck in Romanian orphanages (73) and the ones raised by carefully screened foster parents (81) (and the gap was larger if they had been in foster care longer than average), but the gigantic 28 point gap between the foster care group and the control group of children raised by their biological parents (109). There is probably a selection effect going on with the 28 point gap as well as an environmental effect: smarter people probably are less likely to let their kids wind up in Romanian orphanages.
The authors of the new paper, led by Dr. Charles H. Zeanah Jr. of Tulane and Charles A. Nelson III of Harvard and Children’s Hospital in Boston, approached Romanian officials in the late 1990s about conducting the study. The country had been working to improve conditions at its orphanages, which became infamous in the early 1990s as Dickensian warehouses for abandoned children.
After gaining clearance from the government, the researchers began to track 136 children who had been abandoned at birth. They administered developmental tests to the children, and then randomly assigned them to continue at one of Bucharest’s six large orphanages, or join an adoptive family. The foster families were carefully screened and provided “very high-quality care,” Dr. Nelson said.
On I.Q. tests taken at 54 months, the foster children scored an average of 81, compared to 73 among the children who continued in an institution. The children who moved into foster care at the youngest ages tended to show the most improvement, the researchers found.
The comparison group of youngsters who grew up in their biological families had an average I.Q. of 109 at the same age, found the researchers, who announced their preliminary findings as soon in Romania as they were known.
Update: Mystery solved! In the comments, Bill points to this 2001 article in The Economist:
"The rise in the number of children given up to orphanages also reflects worsening conditions: 75% of children in Romanian orphanages are given up by Gypsy mothers."Gypsies (or "Roma," which is confusingly similar to "Romanian") have notoriously low average IQs, with very large proportions of their children in special ed programs due to low test scores. The average IQ of Eastern European Gypsies is said to be "below 80." Similarly, The Guardian reported:
"In the Czech Republic, 75% of Roma children are educated in schools for people with learning difficulties ... In Hungary, 44% of Roma children are in special schools... In Slovakia, Roma children are 28 times as likely to be sent to a special school than non-Roma..."I found an earlier study that one of the co-authors of this study, Charles A. Nelson, did of a sample of institutionalized children in Bucharest, which appears to be the same group:
"Of the 136 institutionalized children included in the study, 78 are of Romanian ethnicity (57.4%), 36 are Rroma Gypsy (26.5%), 1 is Turkish (0.7%), 1 is of subcontinent Indian extraction (0.7%), and the remaining 20 (14.7%) could not be classified. ...
The control group with the 109 average IQ is much different in ethnicity:
"Of the 72 who consented to participate, 66 children (91.7%) were Romanian, 4 children (5.6%) were Rroma, 1 child was Spanish, and 1 child was Turkish."In summary, major selection effects seem to be driving part of the almost two-standard deviation IQ gap between the foster care and biological family groups.
There are roughly as many Gypsies as Jews in the world today, but the two groups differ by several orders of magnitude in their number of scientists and intellectuals. It will be interesting to track how the adopted Gypsy children turn out.
The good news is that moderate early damage to children sometimes ameliorates with age. There is a lot of evidence that environment can impact early childhood IQs, but the effects of the environmental disparities decline with age as people come to choose their own environments more and more. That is one theory for why identical twins become more similar in IQ as adults (although perhaps the greater reliability and accuracy of adult IQ tests is another reason).
But this doesn't mean that Romanian orphanage-style treatment of kids is okay, even if, as is unlikely, they fully grew out of it and their IQs caught up as adults. First, being a kid is a big part of anybody's lifespan. Second, I suspect that having an IQ of 81 instead of 73 as a kid can make a difference in things like whether or not you learn to read.
The NYT reports:
That certainly makes sense, since women certainly evolved to be responsive care givers to small children. As I wrote in my 1998 review of Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption:
Any number of factors common to institutions could work to delay or blunt intellectual development, experts say: the regimentation, the indifference to individual differences in children’s habits and needs; and most of all, the limited access to caregivers, who in some institutions can be responsible for more than 20 children at a time.
“The evidence seems to say,” said Dr. Pollak, of Wisconsin, “that for humans, we need a lot of responsive care giving, an adult who recognizes our distinct cry, knows when we’re hungry or in pain, and gives us the opportunity to crawl around and handle different things, safely, when we’re ready.”
Finally, why do mothers care so much? Disappointingly for a Darwinian, Mrs. Harris blames it on The Media. She hopes her book will encourage parents to fret less, but it will likely have little impact on mothers, since natural selection has crafted them so that "'Worry' is a mother's middle name."