"cold winters" theory proposed to explain them as a product of natural selection.
But, this assumes that these differences are long-standing and date to the time that modern humans left Africa for more northern (and colder) latitudes. There is good reason to doubt this explanation: ancient writers of the Mediterranean classical world predictably identified themselves as the optimum, but remarked on the spiritedness and dullness of northerners in contrast to the lack of spirit but intelligence of southerners, which seemingly contradicts present-day cognitive ability distributions. But, it may very well be that cognitive ability has changed dramatically over this time period; certainly the fact that one of its correlates (educational attainment) can change in a small isolated population (Icelanders) over a century does not add to one's confidence that this is a trait that has been stable for millennia (let alone since the time of harsh Ice Age winters). As more markers are discovered to predict cognitive ability in human populations and it becomes easier to study ancient ones, it might be possible to track this trait convincingly.
On the positive side, the pliability of the genetic influences on cognition undercuts arguments that possible differences in this trait among human races and ethnic groups are solidly entrenched and unalterable,. Rather they may be accidents of recent evolution which could, in principle, be reversed.
PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1612113114
Selection against variants in the genome associated with educational attainment
Augustine Kong et al.
Epidemiological and genetic association studies show that genetics play an important role in the attainment of education. Here, we investigate the effect of this genetic component on the reproductive history of 109,120 Icelanders and the consequent impact on the gene pool over time. We show that an educational attainment polygenic score, POLYEDU, constructed from results of a recent study is associated with delayed reproduction (P less than 10−100) and fewer children overall. The effect is stronger for women and remains highly significant after adjusting for educational attainment. Based on 129,808 Icelanders born between 1910 and 1990, we find that the average POLYEDU has been declining at a rate of ∼0.010 standard units per decade, which is substantial on an evolutionary timescale. Most importantly, because POLYEDU only captures a fraction of the overall underlying genetic component the latter could be declining at a rate that is two to three times faster.