Humans in all times and places have recognized that some people are smarter than others. Though they lacked a quantitative measure for it, our ancestors did comment in general and holistic terms on the superior intelligence of some individuals. But it was just one of a wide array of human attributes that might be recognized and celebrated. In our modern industrial society, in contrast, intelligence is constantly singled out, tested, and quantified, and high-IQ individuals occupy the upper echelons of the socio-economic structure. This leads many to believe that these individuals are merely reaping the rewards of their audacity and innovativeness.

For the most part, the opposite is true. IQ is, in fact, a measure of individual conformity to the imperatives of industrial society.

Observations on intelligence differences between people used to be fairly uncontroversial. Today, in contrast, the discussion on IQ is full of landmines. This has partly to do with the historical use of this and related metrics to justify racial hierarchies and eugenic policies. Elite liberals often treat talk of IQ as taboo on this basis, even as they continue to endorse a system that elevates those with higher IQ. This taboo has prompted some on the right—and a handful on the left and center—to push back, arguing that social policy can’t afford to ignore IQ as a factor in individual outcomes. But both positions also tacitly treat IQ as a proxy for moral worth, implying that to acknowledge someone’s low IQ demeans them, or else that_ not_ to reward the superior intellectual endowments of some is to deny them their birthright.

The conflation of IQ with moral worth is no accident: It has become the only human virtue treated as worthy of cultivation. In historical terms, this is a new development. A more standardized measure for intelligence was never devised until well after the Industrial Revolution because, for much of human history, IQ didn’t count for very much. Indeed, for the mass of people engaged in manual labor, IQ counted for nothing. Nor did those born into the nobility have to worry too much if their IQ scores were on the wrong side of the bell curve.