In the MARS series of National Geographic, an organisation is steadily colonizing Mars by sending a handful of people every few months. However, these aren't ordinary people, of course; they are top-notch scientists of all kinds that have a mission to build up a civilization on Mars.

However, I wondered, if we steadily send the best people we have from Earth to Mars to develop a colony, will we slowly create a smarter civilisation on Mars relative to Earth? What would the consequences be of this 'intelligence gap'?

  • $\begingroup$ Do you believe in evolution? $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ This question reminds me of aldnoah zero :P . $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ Why would an intelligent person go to a (non-terraformed) Mars and have children? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 5, 2016 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I don't exactly understand what you mean. But we are going to send our smartest people there; and it is way more economic to let them breed (breeding = more people with less rockets). If you want to sustain a colony, you must have people breeding. You aren't going to send people there with the specific task to breed, why would you? You have people over there that have the ability to breed, and they happen to be very smart. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Consider also that the environment--Mars having a lower gravity than Earth--would lead to Martian humans being physically weaker than those on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – Devsman
    Dec 5, 2016 at 20:15

9 Answers 9


Note: This answer assumes that those going to Mars have a high IQ (which I believe the OP intended), and that IQ is indeed a fairly good measure of intelligence.


I think the question of the most important factor, though, boils down to nature versus nurture: Will these individuals be smarter because of genetics, or because they're in an environment encouraging learning?

Points in favor of intelligence through nature:

  • IQ heritability - the amount attributable to genetics - can be 0.45 in children in 0.75 and in older humans. That's reasonably high, and will be important in this population (see e.g. Bouchard (2013).
  • IQ heritability increase roughly linearly as a person gets older, until roughly 20 years (see the Wilson effect). In other words, genetics gets more important later on, when people are starting to take on jobs (and possibly procreating, in future years).
  • There will be a relatively small population at first, leading to a sort of inbreeding. This should concentrate the genes, given that the average IQ will be higher.

Points in favor of intelligence through nurture:

  • IQ is not always the best measure of intelligence. I don't want to get into that debate, though.
  • Children in each generation will likely have access to a good education. They will be raised by parents who expect them to learn to be scientists, engineers, and members of other STEM fields, as well as colonial leaders.

As far as I'm aware, though, intelligence is passed mainly through genes. However, it's one thing to have potential, and another to be able to develop it. The environment will play another important role, and the combination should make for a smarter population.

The consequences

This is another matter entirely. I don't know how quickly a change like this can propagate through the population. I assume that the first generation of colonists won't be too worried with procreating in the beginning, just staying alive. However, once things are suitable and safe, they can consider raising children. The delay, though, is not insignificant.

Another important factor is what's happening on Earth. If all of the "smart" people are leaving for Mars, will that somehow reduce the mean IQ on Earth? I'm not sure; you'd have to send an awful lot of high-intelligence people away for there to be major changes through the planet.

If this is the case, you might see some resentment towards remaining intellectuals. There will be something of a class divide: Those who are allowed to go out and explore and those who are forced to stay on Earth. People will not be happy if it's implied that they are "too dumb" to go to Mars.

I recall reading Brave New World. At one point, it is revealed that

There was once a colony only of Alphas - the smartest, fittest humans - that was a complete flop.

Nobody wanted to do the dirty work, so to speak. Everyone theoretically had good leadership traits, and they could do high-level jobs, but they couldn't do grunt labor. Consider this when thinking about your story.

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    $\begingroup$ This also relates to Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (HHGTTG), though in reverse. In that case, the Golgafrinchams had bundled all of the "useless" people into a spaceship, leaving all of the leaders and workers behind. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think one possible solution to the alpha only colony is to distribute the grunt work among everybody. For example, in a school, there is no janitor; every professor is responsible for cleaning their own classroom. This may work better with small ammounts of people though, once you get a high enough population you might have to divide into cells. $\endgroup$
    – Ovi
    Dec 5, 2016 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Ovi That's an interesting suggestion, and I agree that it would work better on a smaller scale. I feel that there are going to be some jobs that can never be done part-time, though, and people won't like doing those. Maybe automation could eliminate these few jobs, as others have suggested. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Dec 5, 2016 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ If all of the "smart" people are leaving for Mars, will that somehow reduce the mean IQ on Earth? I think you can add the IQ Exodus (Smart people going to Mars) to Idiocracy and get a magnified difference... Earth gets dumber and Mars gets smarter. $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Dec 6, 2016 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ The exodus from Earth is unlikely to be a significant portion of the population, barely denting our best-and-brightest count. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Dec 6, 2016 at 19:15

Depends on:

  • the level of automation the colony is capable of (do you need sewage-recycling and potato peeling crews, or is it all done by cunningly crafted machines with properly implemented AI). If more mundane functions are required, it's likely that lower-skilled (and indirectly, lower IQ) folks would be required to conduct them, or the colony would not be viable.

  • whether the population would both be full-time colonists and actually produce a sufficiently large number of children to maintain a viable population -- a Mars posting might be considered a temporary hardship posting -- kinda like working on an oil rig or at a Polar research center -not a lot of kids born in Antarctica.

  • whether eugenic policies are enacted -- i.e steps taken (or not) to control for the effect of mean-reversion -- the tendency for children of high-IQ parents IQs to revert towards the population mean.

This requires some explanation. Think of (the heritable component of) IQ as a result of the interaction of a few thousand genes (or un-methylated genes manifested in protein cascade complexes) mostly recessive, or dependent on many parts that effectively act as if recessive if any step is missing. If the parents don't have enough pieces in common to maintain the cascades (F depends on E, E depends on D and C, D depends on B, C depends on A), the child loses IQ points. Mean reversion is a statistical truth, not a universal one: very rarely, very smart (160 IQ) parents will have even smarter children (new or highly effective IQ-boosting gene cascades activated) but that's a far-off tail-end distribution (maybe 1 in 50 children of very high IQ parents will exceed their parents). This can be in part alleviated by, from most to least effective

  1. Scientifically selecting germ cells and ensuring desired characteristics are in. (Keep in mind that identifying IQ boosting traits is hard and moreover some IQ boosting traits might have deleterious effects on phenotype functionality say via a predisposition towards neuroticism, so a high level understanding of the complexities of gene expression is required, currently outside our reach)
  2. Breeding in a small pool (i.e. Parsis or Ashkenazi Jews where many of the cascade components are ~100% prevalence); or
  3. Ensuring that the high-IQ parents also have high-IQ siblings, parents and grandparents.

Given the politically left-leaning proclivities of most scientists and the bad reputation eugenics got in the 20th century, unless a colony is founded specifically on these principles and self-selects for individuals with these values, such an outcome is unlikely.

  • the capability to optimize the environment and control toxin levels -- there are many substances on Mars such as perchlorates that are plainly toxic to humans, this one in particular by confusing signals from/to the thyroid gland. The silicates form a fine powder that will electrostatically stick to all EVA suits that can combine with water vapor to effectively form a type of cement in one's lungs. Moreover, without a radiation cover, the habitats would have to be underground or otherwise well-shielded to prevent harmful cosmic rays from affecting cell functioning.

  • the capability to provide effective education -- a non-trivial challenge in the context of a resource-limited colony without the full technological might of a >$100 trillion 2016 USD world economy to back them up.

  • the unknown variable of whether human embryos/children have the capability to develop optimally within Mars' reduced gravitational field. As Earth-evolved mammals, there are many evolutionary shortcuts that may take a 1g gravitational field for granted, and could result in severe impairment. To date, we have a sample size of 0 humans raised in less than 1g.



Intelligence is hereditary to a certain extent. However, here are some things to consider.

  • Is life on a frontier colony where a lot of effort needs to be expended to survive the best for passing on the math, science, and medical knowledge that the parents have?
  • Is the set of people who are excellent at research and problem solving, the same as the set of people who are good parents? Is there even significant overlap?
  • Are the 'best people' more genetically pre-disposed to intelligence or to hard work?
  • Are the 'best people' the best because they have the best genetic material, or because they were born into the upper-class of the wealthiest countries? Remember, the reason there are a lot more physicists in the Germany than Ethiopia isn't because Germans are necessarily smarter.

You can answer those question as you will, since they can be a bit touchy, but my conclusion is that the genetic intelligence gap between the 'best people' sent to Mars and the plebians left on earth will not be significant.

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    $\begingroup$ You say "No" but then admit that there will be an intelligence gap eventually. $\endgroup$
    – LukeN
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Your first point is not really relevant imo. Life on Mars is unlikely to be similar to life in the US midwest of early 19th century, or those "smart people" simply won't go. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Dec 5, 2016 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl Everyone on the space station has to work. If everyone on Mars has to work to survive, then who has time to do the studies to get a PhD, and who has time to teach them? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 5, 2016 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think so. A Mars colony will be much further automated than our present earth life, where manual labour is already rather scarce. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Dec 5, 2016 at 23:24

Not Necessarily

There's a strong chance that this would indeed be the case in the short term, but not necessarily in the long term.


Studies all point to intelligence being a genetic factor. In other words, our potential has some built in limits. The people being sent to Mars are probably above average in many ways. However, not all those ways are necessarily genetic.

You see, your genetic potential also needs an opportunity to be reached. You need a society which opens the doors to you getting a good education, and discovering those area you shine in. Some people are great athletes, as well as intelligent, but only pursue a career in sports. Others have a potential to be quite strong, but enter academia, and never develop a habit of working out. There's many possible combinations.


The bunch being sent to Mars are interesting because they no doubt meet quite high intelligence standards, but they must also meet certain physical standards as well.

And so, a very important question is just what balance was struck between intelligence and physical fitness. Some compromises might have been in made in order to mitigate a lack of fitness in very intelligent individuals, or a relatively lower intelligence in the strong individuals who have certain key skills the future colony will need.


Once the colony is established and the first colonists land, they will soon discover that their lives will now be a lot more difficult than they were back on Earth. Children born there will (arguably) have access to fewer resources than our children will. Will they really be smarter?

They may have a genetic predisposition to be more intelligent than your average Earthling. However, they will also live in a much more dangerous and stressful environment, where they might have a lot less opportunity to innovate, and generally reach their full potential compared to a child of similar intelligence here on Earth. This is because their existence will be a lot more focused on survival than on simply developing their own potential.

Future Colonists

Also important to keep in mind is that eventually it will become economically viable, or even necessary to build up the Martian colony. By far the fastest way to do that is to send specialists from Earth over there to help them expand (rather than wait for several generations to grow up).

And so, when this new workforce is sent over there (some of them perhaps only temporarily), will the intelligence standards for them be quite as stringent as the ones for the initial colonists? Will all the future settlers and colonists?

Most likely not, as there will be a pressure to colonize, and if everyone is super intelligent, then who will want to perform the menial labor type of jobs? Not the professor level educated engineer.


In the short term the colonies will be populated with very intelligent individuals, however over time this gap will most likely narrow significantly.


Intelligence does not equal wisdom. Just because someone knows a lot about physics doesn't mean he/she knows a lot about other aspects of life. They're experts in their fields, sure, but not superhuman.

Further, you won't build up a civilization if you only send your top scientists to a remote colony. The population is a key component in creating a civilization, and you will need people performing other basic activities. While it sounds nice that by sending the best people there, you're sending your best to create a new world for humans to inhabit, in order for them to not entirely depending on export from earth, they'll eventually need people who are doing things like making bread, cleaning streets, teaching kindergartners, etc. Hardly things that top scientific minds would excel at.

Over the years, we appeared to be smarter not because we keep breeding the smartest people we have. While that might be partially the cause, the main pusher is the improvement and availability of education to the masses. The peasants of middle ages appear to be dumb compared to today's children because the people back then didn't have readily available schools and universities for all children. There is a thing called Flynn effect, you can look up the details on how various aspects affect an apparent steady rise in IQ in our children across the world.

So, what's most likely going to happen is that once a society is built up and we're pushing it to make it self-sustaining, we will need to send more people who cover the spectrum of intelligence to the new colony. The intelligence gap will possibly be there, but it'd be similar than intelligence gap between the United States and, let's say, England. There will be a lot of prestigious schools on both sides, but with possibly different focus. And overall, the intelligence gap will not be too great to the point that they'll look down on us and call us filthy earthlings. We simply cannot only send our top intelligence to a remote planet and hope they'll build a society of smart humans.

  • $\begingroup$ I do like your answer. However, about the 'making bread, cleaning streets, teaching kindergarteners' - those are of course simple jobs, but even simple jobs have people who are the BEST at it (and those tend to be smarter than the people who are less good at it). Furthermore liked you answer :) $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ I find it a bit arrogant to think that smart people won't do simple tasks. I'll surely sweep the street or bake bread halftime, if i get to do it on Mars and have the rest of the day free to do something a bit more "brainy". $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Dec 5, 2016 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Karl It's not that smart people won't do simple tasks, but that it would not be enough. We're talking about a civilization here, and the population of the planet, logistic wise, probably cannot be feed by smart people spending half their day baking bread and spend their rest of the day doing science stuff. Assuming this planet is earth-like, each minute we consumed millions of pounds of food. If a civilization is to be self-sustaining, we need full-time farmers, bakers, etc. And those jobs required different kinds of teaching than your usual top scientific minds. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 22:26
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasW I understand what you're saying, and I agreed that those people do tend to be smarter. It's difficult to imagine how they would find the people who are best at cleaning streets to send up there, but that's beside the point. I still hold on to my belief that the main factor behind people's intelligence is going to be education, and as long as there is still communication and traveling between the planets, as well as the exchange of ideas between the two people, the intelligence gap will not be that significant. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2016 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ A huge amount of work is still done manually today on earth just because we have so much cheap labour. And the number of actual farmers is well below one percent in modern western demographics. Even a single self-sustenance farmer can easily feed a dozen people, if he has refridgeration, and knows what we know today about biology. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Dec 5, 2016 at 22:36

There are tons of studies on this question, but imo -- if a woman is well fed, the man providing the sperm was healthy, she is , happy (stress kept to a minimum) and healthy and her child is born without a defect or medical issue, and if the child is nurtured, fed and educated to the best possible level -- they have a better chance to use whatever IQ they came with. I think IQ is inherent to a degree, but that environment makes a tremendous difference. My own IQ is high, but I was not taught maths or sciences, so what difference does having a high number make? Not much.

  • $\begingroup$ Your answered could use a bit of refining. Studies show that intelligence is genetic, not nurture related. And so, smarter people have a much higher potential than those restricted by their genetics. However, as you point out, intelligence requires the circumstances to assert itself. However, what leads you to believe that smart people on Mars will have less of a chance to reach the potential of their intelligence? $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Dec 5, 2016 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ LINK: genetics AND environment I don't think it would be more or less, I think it would depend on all the factors I mentioned. I think that my IQ sounds like I should be ultra smart -- but when it comes to my training -- maths and sciences were not taught in my fancy school beyond the basics -- I fall short of many people with a much lower IQ. $\endgroup$
    – WRX
    Dec 5, 2016 at 16:03

Studies, at least decent studies, do not show that intelligence is inherited. They show a significant correlation between measured IQ's in identical twins. This does not, in itself, show that inheritance is a big part of the overall mix. It is fairly clear now that brain development depends on both a large number of genes, and the development of the brain in the womb.

The best summary is that you cannot meaningfully separate genetic effects and environmental effects, and it is a conceptual nonsense to try. There is a big literature on this topic.

See for example :-

  1. Dickens WT, Flynn JR. Heritability estimates versus large environmental effects: The IQ paradox resolved. Psychological Review. 2001;108(2):346–69.
  2. Zuk O, Hechter E, Sunyaev SR, Lander ES. The mystery of missing heritability: Genetic interactions create phantom heritability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012 Jan 24;109(4):1193–8.
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    $\begingroup$ I taught one triplet (not identical, obviously) and she had Down Syndrome while her siblings were fine. One was a 'gifted' student and the other in the regular stream. Parents were both professional -- one a doctor and the other a CPA. I think environment and genetics are all tied into it -- but that there is no guarantee. $\endgroup$
    – WRX
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:20

Definitely YES, for two reasons:

Firstly because all their genetic parents will be rather on the clever side, as was already noted in the other answers. Not clear if the effect will be large.

Secondly because those kids will grow up in a world without war, hunger, and poverty, much less drugs, and well educated parents, good own education, and proper health care. All kids have a good chance to live up to their potentials.

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    $\begingroup$ those kids will grow up in a world without war, hunger, and poverty What makes you think humanity won't take... humanity... with it? Socialism is perfect in theory... reality involves humans and human nature. And, you think The Corporation won't have rebels? Or you think there won't be a Christian Colony and a Muslim Colony? ... I do like the hope and faith you have in humanity... human history shows otherwise... $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Dec 6, 2016 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ How do you plan to "leave it behind"? Not to start an argument, but seriously... what's to stop multiple colonies? American, Chinese, Russian, etc? When different countries put up different colonies, with different standards and different rules... Not to mention what defines "proper education"? You act like a colony/colonies on Mars would be exempt from the Church or The Corporation... Multiple colonies each with their own view on what is right... i.imgur.com/rNnBi.jpg $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Dec 6, 2016 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think the question goes for longer than "many years". The question centers around generations. Basically "Will Mars people be smarter" goes beyond the first few ship loads of people. Once you move beyond the first wave - especially when it becomes economically feasible for "normal" people to travel... $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Dec 6, 2016 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ At some point, I think a few things will happen: A "race" to Mars will happen amoungst multiple countries. Those countries will bring the same baggage (Cold War, Religious war, etc). That baggage will lead to borders being made. Those borders will get argued over. Arguments, ultimately, lead to war. Shrug I think the idea that people will reinvent humanity on mars is utopian and unrealistic - especially given the entirety of human history we have at our disposal. $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Dec 6, 2016 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ You're extrapolating from events that happened under different circumstances. An endless number of people have tried that, there is even a Noble price for it (Economic "Sciences"), but it has never worked. I mean I understand your pessimism, but it's just another POV. Cheers! $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Dec 6, 2016 at 16:34


The population of Mars will, at least initially, be selective. The skills and abilities will be selected for the Mars environment and, yes, we would expect highly educated people with a correspondingly high average IQ (but their range of skills and experience outside those specifically used for selection might be very limited).

However, these skills will be specialized and the environment a restrictive one for the raising of children, with many types of experience simply unavailable to them and the natural world of Earth effectively alien. The narrowing of the range of learning experience in formative years will have a generally damaging effect on the full range of IQ, although some specific IQ abilities may score significantly higher relative to Earth.

To put it another way, the 'best' people for Mars are not necessarily the 'best' people to produce the next generation.


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