I enjoy a habit of contrarian-poking at overused assumptions. Especially the hoary nostrum that humanity is not improving. Elsewhere I take on one aspect of this cynical calumny, where folks sadly shake their heads over how “our ethics haven’t kept pace with technology.” What malarkey. What stunning ability to ignore all we have done in the last 60 years.
Oh, I’ll avow we may not be getting better fast enough to save ourselves or the planet. That tense race is central to my novels EARTH and EXISTENCE. I’m no complacent polyanna. Rather, the fact that we’ve improved a bit demands we redouble our efforts! It is cynics who are at best lazy and unhelpful.
Putting ethics aside, what other areas of improvement might do the most good? How about making everybody smarter? Better able to grasp complex situations and knowledge. Better equipped to understand diverse views and negotiate pragmatic solutions. Yes, there are forces in today’s society, especially America, that seem bent on pushing in the opposite direction – lobotomizing large swathes of the public The worst of these at present is run by Roger Ailes on behalf of foreign trillionaires, but there are noxious forces pushing moronic oversimplification on the far-left, as well. So it has always been.
Decades ago, science fiction author Poul Anderson wrote a terrific novel — Brain Wave — that asked: what if every creature on Earth started getting smarter at a steady pace, beginning the same day? In that story, it happens because our solar system moves out a galactic zone that repressed electrical activity slightly. A magical story device but one that may have some relevance after all, as I’ll assert below.
Today, much talk revolves around expanding human intelligence the way that it has increased for thousands of years — through prosthetics. By using external devices to expand what we can know and see and pay attention to. This revolution began with cave paintings and then writing, but really took off with the invention of printing presses and glass lenses… then newspapers and steamships, radio, television, libraries, the Internet. Each generation, grouches greeted these advances with: “normal people cannot cope!” Countered by transcendentalists proclaiming “this will make us all as wise and mighty as gods!”
The irony, of course, is that both the cynics and fervid technophiles always turned out each to be about half right. (For more on this, see Third Millennium Problem Solving. A 90 minute Google Tech Talk spanning the entire range of human “discourse” and how it is evolving.)
But today let’s veer away from obsessing on our toys and prostheses and external cyborg enhancements and instead focus on the central, “meatiest” aspect of all this. Are we – on average – getting smarter within our squishy human brains? To explore this briefly for us, I invited fellow member of the Lifeboat Foundation Francis Heylighen, of the Free University of Brussels, who will offer some background about the “Flynn Effect.”
== Guest post: “Why it appears that we are getting smarter” ==
… by Francis Heylighen
James Flynn, a political scientist working in New Zealand, observed in the 1980’s that the score-results of different groups of people on standard intelligence tests had consistently increased over the past decades. Earlier researchers had failed to pay attention to that trend, because IQ scores are always calculated with respect to the average score for the present group. By definition, the average is set to 100, and the standard deviation to 15. Someone who scores one standard deviation better than the average would therefore get an IQ of 115. But if that person’s score would be compared with the average for the corresponding group, but tested one generation earlier, then the final score would be about 125! Flynn was the first to systematically make such cross-generational comparisons.
Since then, the so-called “Flynn effect” has been confirmed by numerous studies. The same pattern, an average increase of some three IQ points per decade, was found for virtually every type of intelligence test, delivered to virtually every type of group. This means that people nowadays are on average some 20 IQ points smarter than people in 1940. People with a perfectly normal IQ of 90 then would according to present norms merely score 70, i.e. as having a mild form of mental retardation. For one type of test, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, Flynn found data that spanned a whole century. He concluded that someone who scored among the best 10% a hundred years ago, would nowadays be categorized among the 5% weakest.
One might expect that the Flynn effect would be most pronounced for tests that measure the results of education. The opposite is true, however: the increase is most striking for tests measuring the ability to recognize abstract, non-verbal patterns. Tests emphasizing traditional school knowledge show much less progress. This means that something more profound than mere accumulation of data is happening inside people’s heads.
Flynn himself admitted being baffled by his initial results, and finding it hard to believe that his generation was significantly more intelligent than the one of his parents. Indeed, compared to the previous generation, the number of people who score high enough to be classified as “genius” has increased more than 20 times. This means that we should now be witnessing, in Flynn’s own words, “a cultural renaissance too great to be overlooked”. Because he found this conclusion implausible, he suggested that what has risen is not intelligence itself, but some kind of “abstract problem solving ability” that may have more to do with skill at test-taking than with creative intelligence.
But if we look at the ever-accelerating production of scientific discoveries, technological innovations and cultural developments in general, the “cultural renaissance” does not seem such an absurd idea anymore. Perhaps we cannot pinpoint a dozen contemporary Einsteins simply because there are so many of them that their contributions have not had the time yet to diffuse to the level that everybody would know them. If there would be hundreds or thousands of Einstein-level geniuses in the scientific community nowadays, then it seems likely that none of them would stand out enough to get the kind of worldwide recognition we associate with exceptional figures like Darwin, da Vinci, or Newton. Moreover, our society and the problems it investigates have become much more complex than in the days of these historical geniuses. (We have already pickjed the “low-hanging fruit” -db) It should not surprise us that present-day geniuses may be working on subjects too complex or abstract to be appreciated outside a relatively small circle of specialists. But that does not diminish the superior intellectual level of their contributions.
Nowadays, most authors tend to consider the Flynn effect as a real cognitive improvement, not a mere artefact of testing methods (although the fact that people are more used to taking tests may have helped somewhat in getting better scores). There is less agreement about the origin of the effect, though. Most likely, it is due to the interaction between a variety of factors that tend to accompany the tremendous economic and social advances of the past century:
o better health care (less serious illnesses that can delay or damage brain development, less exposure to toxins such as lead, smog, food poisoning, etc.)
o better nutrition (better availability of fresh foods, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals such as iron and iodine, etc. that are necessary to build and support the brain)
o higher levels of education (although this is not the whole story — as Flynn found that the IQs of children have been rising even during periods when the time spent in school remained the same).
o higher cognitive stimulation by an increasingly complex environment
This last factor may be particularly important. Indeed, our everyday world offers ever more abstract information to be processed ever more quickly-in the form of computer games, books, high-tech gadgets, television, advertisements, news items, magazine articles, blog entries, movies, etc. This requires ever more activity from the brain, thus “training” it to become more intelligent.
Some people like to complain that our society is “dumbing down”, noting that very few read Shakespeare or listen to Bach nowadays. However, these people typically fail to notice that hardly anybody read Shakespeare a century ago (if they could read at all), and that probably more are reading him now than ever before. Moreover, an objective observer cannot fail to notice that a typical TV series or even an ad nowadays is much more complex and fast-paced than it used to be half a century ago. Thus, even the “non-intellectual” stimuli we are bombarded with demand ever more intense cognitive processing. In the workplace too, we see that what used to be repetitive industrial and agricultural jobs tend to be replaced by knowledge work, caring for people, or controlling complex machinery. As a result, people with a low intellectual level find it increasingly difficult to find a decently paying job, thus being stimulated to develop themselves.
A final plausible factor contributing to intelligence increases is that families have become smaller: with fewer children, parents have simply much more attention and resources to invest in each child. The effect on intelligence is confirmed by the observation that first-born or single-born children are on average some 2 to 3 IQ points smarter than second or third-born children, who had to compete with their siblings for parental attention.
In sum, while there are of course always methodological and other question marks about something as difficult to measure as intelligence, it seems well established now that we are indeed getting smarter. While the causes are not fully clear yet, those we do understand leave plenty of room for further improvement: we can definitely eat and live more healthily than we do now, while there does not seem to be a limit to the quantity and quality of education and cognitive stimulation achievable via the Internet. There is certainly cause for optimism in these observations. However, we should note that our rise in intelligence might simply be paralleling the rise in complexity of the problems we have to deal with, so that subjectively we may not really feel more competent to do what we need to do.
More to read
Bernheim, J. (1999). The Cognitive Revolution and 21st Century Enlightenment: towards a progressive world view. Science, Technology and Social Change, Einstein meets Magritte (p. 63). Kluwer.
Flynn, J. R. (1987). Massive IQ gains in 14 nations: What IQ tests really measure. Psychological bulletin, 101(2), 171.
Flynn, J. R. (2012). Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press.
Heylighen, F., & Bernheim, J. (2000). Global Progress I: Empirical Evidence for ongoing Increase in Quality-of-life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1(3), 323-349.
Neisser U. (1997). Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests, American Scientist, September – October 1997
Neisser, U. (Ed.). (1998). The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and related measures (Vol. xv). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
— Francis Heylighen; Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group, Free University of Brussels.
== Afterword by Brin ==
Thank you, Francis, for that excellent summary of a fascinating phenomenon. Which makes us wonder — is humanity “uplifting itself?”
There are so many aspects to this that we have no time to explore thoroughly here.
1. Can this phenomenon be partly genetic? It is a truism, widely held, that civilization must have slowed human evolution because it gave the weak opportunities to survive and to breed. But in fact there is every reason to believe that human evolution sped up with the arrival of civilization, and especially after we discovered beer! See Christopher Wills’s book CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS. For example, clothing and shelter technologies empowered some groups to settle the Tibetan Plateau, an environment so harsh that selective pressures have turned Tibetans into almost a sub-species of their own. This may really take off if segments of humanity start adapting to space and other worlds.
2. I would add a few recent factors, such as changes in the toxic loads supported by most human populations. Francis mentioned the gradual elimination of toxins like lead from paint and gasoline – (though resisted strenuously by the same dopes who claimed Tobacco was harmless and cars don’t cause smog and that human industry cannot change a planet’s climate). Removal of lead has now been shown to have dramatically reduced levels of violence in the U.S. and other populations since 1970. (See my own role in getting the lead out of gas, as a 19 year old Caltech student in 1970!)
The same can also be said regarding our burdens of living parasites. In Korea after 1960, a vast de-worming effort eliminated endemic intestinal parasites which helped improved diets to increase the height of children by many centimeters and no doubt affected brains. Likewise, the parasitic paramecium Toxoplasma gondii is endemic in much of the human population and now is known to dramatically alter personality and behavior.
I am hoping we’ll find dozens of such things that have long nibbled away at humanity’s potential! Why? Because no simpler way can be imagined to boost human mental and moral performance than just by eradicating factors holding it down. It would mean that we can improve in the easiest and best way… by eliminating that which had been crippling us.
3) Then there is selection. Elsewhere I discuss the question of whether humanity performed its spectacular mental “overshoot” beyond what was necessary to become the top predator, for the same reason that many other species acquire exaggerated traits — sexual selection. Only in my theory, it was two-way with both males and females choosing each other based in part on savvy and smarts. In which case, might that sort of thing resume? It could do so… if tastes changed just a little.
Alas, none of these things can possibly act fast enough to turn the tide and help us in time. The real solution will be harder. It will involve looking in the mirror – each of us, one at a time – overcoming the allure of self-righteous dogmatism and rage, pondering little steps of self-improvement, adding grace to our thought processes, calm consideration, subtlety, curiosity and contingent wisdom… plus finding subtle ways to convince our neighbors to do the same. Learning to accomplish the latter, without getting killed… that’s a sure intelligence test, if there ever was one!
Oh, even if we optimists are right, and a road to gradual and eclectic, free, voluntary, individualistic and diverse improvements in human nature and intelligence can be found, rest assured there will be many ructions and difficulties before we finally adapt at last to a mature and relaxedly sane state. To a world without brutish evil, rage, violence, illogic, dogmatism or Fox News.