We're all getting smarter (except for Scandinavians)

One of the most unchallenged and unexamined narratives in our culture is that the culture is dumbing down. High culture is disappearing beneath the toxic sludge of reality TV. The dark ages are around the corner. We are in the End Times, culturally speaking. It’s right up there with another popular narrative: our society is broken, we have lost any sense of basic morality, and our streets are turning into violent wastelands.

The degeneration hypothesis was particular popular among the Modernist generation, whose elitist poets warned that 'the centre cannot hold', that civilisation was doomed, mainly because poor people were less intelligent and genetically fit, and they were breeding more, so homo sapiens was rapidly becoming less sapiens. That's why so many Modernists believed in eugenics - to stop the tide of degeneration and create a master-race capable of enjoying their poetry.

Well, guess what? We’re getting smarter, and the world is getting less violent.



The less violent thesis you’re probably familiar with already. Steven Pinker’s book,The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, made the argument that fewer people die violent deaths today than at any previous time in human history. More wars are happening, but they’re smaller and claim far fewer casualties than in the past. And crime is falling globally: the murder rate in Europe has fallen from 1 in 1000 in the 15th century to 1 in 100,000 today. Rape in the US has fallen 80% since 1973. Violent crime in the states has fallen by 38% since 1992. In the UK, domestic crime has fallen 40% since 1995.

Experts aren’t quite sure why crime has declined in the last 20-30 years - it rose in the UK in the 1980s. It could be because of better birth control (and abortions). But it could also be because our societies have become better off, more educated, and less tolerant of violence. The shock and moral outrage we feel at violent incidents in the media isn’t proof the world is going to hell in a hand-basket - it’s proof that violence has become more unusual and unacceptable to us.

And apparently we’re getting smarter too.



That’s the contention of IQ researcher James Flynn, who pointed out the so-called ‘Flynn Effect’ in 1984: humans have performed progressively better on IQ tests like the Raven Progressive Matrix and the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale since records began. Flynn suggests that Americans have got three IQ points smarter every decade since the 19o0s according to the Weschler scale, and five points per decade according to the Raven scale.

Flynn writes: "In 1910, scored against today's norms, our ancestors would have had an average IQ of 70 (or 50 if we tested with Raven's). By comparison, our mean IQ today is 130 to 150, depending on the test."

In some parts of the world, IQ scores are still rising, including in the UK and US. Apparently in Scandinavia it’s stopped growing, for some reason. So that’s why they’re so happy! Some countries in the developing world have fast-growing mean IQ scores, such as China, other parts don’t, like the poorest African countries, so there’s something of a ‘cognitive race’ going on globally, according to Flynn.

Why the rise in IQ? In a new book called Are We Getting Smarter, Flynn examines the argument that it’s correlated with improvements in nutrition, and rejects it: IQ continued to rise in countries like Ireland, Holland and the US even during famines and economic depressions. Perhaps we’re simply getting better at taking IQ tests. But if so, why? Flynn’s tentative hypothesis is that we’ve acquired, or rather, been forced to acquire, the ability to see the world through ‘scientific spectacles’:

Modern people do so well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities. We have evolved to deal with a world that would have been alien to previous generations. A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call "utilitarian spectacles." Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call "scientific spectacles." Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.

He shows the difference between the utilitarian and scientific mind-set through some interviews done by the Russian anthropologist Alexander Luria of Russian peasants in the 1920s. Luria asked them a logical question:

Luria: There are no camels in Germany; the city of B is in Germany; are there camels there or not?

Reply: I don't know, I have never seen German villages. If B is a large city, there should be camels there.

Luria: But what if there aren't any in all of Germany?

Reply: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.

The Russian peasant had much less capacity to think hypothetically or logically - less capacity for meta-thinking or conceptual thinking. That’s not because they were less intelligent. Their intelligence was simply different, much more practical and concrete, in response to the demands of their environment. Our environment demands more from us. The knowledge economy demands that we think more conceptually. We are all philosophers now.

I wish the Modernist generation could read his book, just to see how wrong their narrative of cultural and genetic degeneration was. It’s true that lower IQ women have more children, but nonetheless, the mean IQ for our cultures kept on rising through the 20th century, and today the complex culture that was once confined to an elite has become a mass phenomenon.The deep cultural pessimism of the Modernists proved to be unfounded.



Flynn, unlike the Modernists, is a cultural optimist. He thinks our culture is becoming more sophisticated. TV shows, for example, are far more complex today than they were 50 years ago. He points to the appearance since the 1980s of sophisticated dramas like Hill Street Blues, Thirty Something, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, 24 and Breaking Bad, and compares them to older shows like I Love Lucy or Dragnet, which were far more simplistic. Our minds are now capable of digesting shows with multiple characters, multiple plot-lines (think of Games of Thrones), multiple narrative levels (dream sequences! dancing dwarves!), and even the sort of sociological systems analysis you get in The Wire and Deadwood, where you start to look beyond the individual and see the system in which they’re enmeshed. Complex shit, in other words.

He also thinks moral and political debate should have improved, though it’s harder to prove that...and maybe harder to agree. Particularly in the US, where political debate seems just as irrational and emotive as ever (just this week, a congressman who sits on the House Science Committee declared that evolution and the big bang are ‘lies straight from the pit of hell’).  I wonder, though, if political discourse is becoming slowly more evidence-based. I really liked Bill Clinton’s Democratic Conference speech for just that reason. I think we’re becoming more aware of the scientific, mathematical and statistical illiteracy of our political class, and demanding more from them.

His book has interesting ramifications for parent-child relationships. Initially I thought it would mean that children are getting smarter than their parents, a point I was going to raise at the next family dinner. But actually it’s more complicated than that. There’s actually a widening IQ gap between adults and children, with youngsters only acquiring the ability to think conceptually and scientifically after they leave university, in the work-place. Flynn suggests that parents and children inhabit different worlds - and warns that teenagers often hinder themselves from joining the world of adult intelligence by cocooning themselves in their own teen world, their own rather limited teen vocabulary. They’re talking to themselves more (or texting, should I say) and to adults less, which is bad news for them, because it prevents them closing the cognitive gap. OMG.

It also has interesting ramifications for gender relations. Women’s IQ has been catching up with men’s for the last 50 years, as more women get freed up from a life predominantly spent child-rearing, and get to go to university and enter the work-place. The very complexity of modern women’s lives, juggling multiple roles, may be making them smarter. Women’s IQ has now overtaken men’s in many developed countries, leading a recent book to declare ‘the end of men’ (hey, give us a break, lady!). I’d suggest women are one of the driving forces of the rise of the mass intelligentsia: most of the 50,000 book clubs counted in a survey by Hartley and Turvey in 2001 were run by and for women, and both the London Philosophy Club and the School of Life attract an audience that is mainly female, in my experience. Smart women once acted as a civilising force in 18th century salons, perhaps they’re performing a similar role for society in general today.

Anyway, the book is a great argument for introducing more critical reasoning and philosophy classes into schools, to ramp up our cognitive powers. And it raises many questions, about the relationship between IQ and self-control, and between IQ and emotional stability. Is there a connection, for example, between our acquisition of ‘scientific spectacles’ and the rise in male autism? What does it cost us to acquire a scientific mind-set, cognitively and emotionally? Does that emotional cost sometimes make us reject our scientific spectacles and revert to a magical way of thinking?


In other news:

There's a mental health crisis among the elderly in China.

Apparently therapy over the phone is just as good as face-to-face therapy, and about 40% cheaper, according to a new study from Cambridge University.

Filosofie Magazine in Holland is celebrating its 20th birthday. This article (in English) chronicles the magazine's achievements in helping to create a popular philosophy culture there.

Meet Google's in-house philosopher.



Sony launched an augmented reality  'book of spells' with JK Rowling.

Here's a good blog, on a paper by Tiberius and Haybron called 'normative foundations of well-being policy'. Must read if you work in that area.

Here's Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel being interviewed at the Labour party conference in the UK.

Here (in the last five minutes) is me doing a piece on self-help for BBC 2's Culture Show (only accessible to people in UK alas).

I was down in Exeter this weekend, at an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT with Donald Robertson, Tim LeBon, John Sellars, Ed Skidelsky, Christopher Gill and others. I think some very exciting stuff is going to come from it (if you're a fan of Stoicism). In the meantime, here's Richard Sorabji being interviewed about his new book, on why Gandhi was kind of a Stoic.

See you next week (or see you this weekend if you're going to Dartington's Happiness festival).