Are we getting dumber? That seems: there is increasing evidence to indicate that there is a downward trend in many developed countries. In the latest study on the subject, a group of Norwegian researchers has analyzed more than 730,000 intelligence tests. Their conclusions are that, as of 1975, the thing began to go downhill. And without brakes.
But the subject is complex. The history of intelligence of the twentieth century has been the history of an underground battle between the Flynn effect (sustained growth in recent decades) and a genetic tendency against academic performance and intelligence (whose effects begin to be seen again). A story that begins to gain genetics, but the really relevant question is whether that is bad news.
Intelligence? Let’s start with the fundamentals: Psychologists call “general intelligence” a “very general mental capability that, among other things, implies the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, understand complex ideas, learn quickly and learn of the experience”.
Exists? Flatly yes. Not only is it one of the most studied psychological constructs, but one of those backed by more scientific evidence. They are a set of cognitive skills that are presented together and that we can measure with really surprising reliability, validity, and temporary stability. And so far they predicted social, professional and economic success very well (even a longer life).
The good news is that we have become smarter during. It is the Flynn effect: a significant and long-term increase in intelligence (fluid and crystallized) that has been observed for decades in test scores worldwide. For decades each generation was smarter than the previous one and that forced to continually update (and recalibrate) the tests during the twentieth century.
The explanation seemed to be in the improvement of living conditions, better education and social development.
And less. The bad news is that we are also becoming less intelligent. There is a worrying trend in several first world countries such as the US, Ireland or the United Kingdom: having a higher academic performance is related to having children later and, therefore, having less. Behavioral genetics has arguments to affirm that the same factors that relate intelligence, fertility, and survival end up giving a genetic selection against academic performance.
And we don’t know what it means. Until now, it seemed that both trends were counteracted. The problem is that Flynn does not affect all intelligence components equally and that, at a development point, it does not seem reasonable that intelligence continues to grow. Not at the same rate.
The Kingdom of Idiots. A fall in intelligence is undoubtedly a worrying fact. For decades we have seen how people who scored better on intelligence tests progressed more and better throughout their lives. It was an empirical fact. However, it is not clear that this was due to intelligence per SE: many theorists believe that the success of intelligence was due to its fit in a very determined socio-economic context.
Elected. A somewhat eccentric example: the Ashkenazis. The Jews of Central Europe are ten points above the average for Europeans. According to Richard Lynn in The chosen people. A study of Jewish intelligence and achievement, this is explained by its history: institutionalized discrimination that prevented them from doing manual labor and pushed them to intellectual tasks. This socio-cultural pressure (coupled with strongly eugenic and inbred practices) produced a selection in favor of intelligence.
If we pay attention to experts, what has happened is that, in the industrial world, general intelligence was The Great Cognitive Resource. That caused a social prestige of intelligence that (along with economic progress) caused people with greater “general intelligence” to be promoted. Being an inheritable trait, the Flynn effect was jack, horse and king.
That is something that did not happen in the pre-industrial world, where intellectual work was very small. And it doesn’t have to happen in the future either. In a post-industrial world, with broad states of well-being and systems that guarantee social justice, “general intelligence” does not have to be the great cognitive resource and without selective pressure. The logical thing is that the “cognitive diversity” of the world increases. Are we less intelligent? It may be, but that is what the world is asking of us.