On the Flynn Effect
Here’s grounds for optimism; the Flynn effect. Apparently the IQ test-makers have been forced to toughen their tests, by about 3 IQ points every decade, for as long as they’ve been giving these tests. That’s 30 IQ points over the last century; two standard deviations.
Say what?! Is this proof that IQ is a myth? Or a cultural-assimilation shibboleth? (Pass this test to prove you’re One Of Us.) Or is it genuine, but a proof of improved health, nutrition and education? Or are we seeing super-fast evolution at work? Could it be that we are all genetic geniuses, but we haven’t been properly motivated until lately?
What are we to make of a society-wide, top-to-bottom-of-the-bell-curve continuous increase in IQ scores? That IQ tests are bogus? Or that we’re living through a species transformation? Or something inbetween? Maybe sanitation and nutrition; maybe modern life is challenging? We must be doing something right.
3 IQ points per decade is too fast for it to be a genetic effect, but also too slow for it to be a cultural effect. So neither conservatives nor liberals can explain this. We may be doing something right, but I’m not sure what it is. I’m deeply grateful, but for what?
My speculation is: it’s epigenetic. For the past century our DNA has been re-methylating, in response to the industrial environment. No new genes are being created, but some genes are being brought down from the attic, others are being put there. Genetic talents are being re-expressed; in particular, the IQ rise. It seems that industrial society wants back some of the hunter’s-mind that agricultural society had no use for.
The Flynn effect reminds me of two SF stories; “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth, and “Brain Wave” by Poul Anderson. The former story imagines a future with 5,000,000,000 morons and a few million geniuses desperately trying to keep civilization running. The latter imagines that the solar system leaves a galactic force-field that had been suppressing neural activity; with the result that the intelligence of every single vertebrate on Earth increases by a factor of 10 in a matter of weeks.
Kornbluth’s short story is nominally ‘realistic’; his rationale for the marching morons is that they outbreed the smart. Anderson’s novel is nominally a romantic fantasy. But it turns out that they were both right, and both wrong. Kornbluth was right that the process takes generations; Anderson was right about the direction of the change. I am grateful twice.
It’s worth noting that both predicted disruption. In Kornbluth’s story, the geniuses fooled the morons into killing themselves; in Anderson’s novel, the first thing that happened was the collapse of civilization, and the story ends with IQ-1000 mankind flying off to the stars, leaving Earth to morons (now IQ-100) plus talking chimps. I prefer Anderson’s romanticism.
I predict that the Flynn Effect has awhile yet to go, if only because there remain brain-damaging chemicals in the environment to clean up. And romanticism aside, there is a harder reason to expect continued evolution towards higher IQs; natural selection.
The good news is that the people of the far future will have extremely high intelligence from early youth. The bad news is that they will need that high intelligence in order to survive long enough to reproduce.