… why is it so hard to keep up? New Zealand professor James Flynn believes human IQs are rising every generation, meaning you’re smarter than your parents and your kids will out-think you, and he has data proving that the average IQ around 1900 would equal a 70 on the chart today. Paradoxically, this means the average smarts of three generations ago would equal someone with borderline mental retardation by current standards. How did those idiots build civilization if they were so stupid?
The answer must be that these IQ gains are a new phenomena. We can’t possibly follow the trend line back, or Shakespeare would have been drawing on cave walls and Rome never would have been built. (Geez, and those guys in togas created Rome while drinking lead in their wine.) So something recent must be spurring people to score higher on standardized IQ tests.
We think it’s the Tufte effect — the visual display of quantitative information. Books, film, radio, TV, and now the internet are a very recent development, and today’s children grow up in a world awash with far more sights and sounds translating data than their ancestors a few generations removed. As we are barraged with information as babes, we learn to draw connections more quickly. Somehow all this hyperstimuli must be shocking our neurons into new activity.
Flynn says other things may be at work — better diets, smaller families, or perhaps we’re only just as smart as our great-grandparents but have become better at thinking abstractly. Ask a kid today how a dog and rabbit are similar, and she’ll blurt out “they’re both mammals” for a point on the IQ test. Ask a farm boy of 100 years ago, and he might puzzle, thinking realistically dogs are for hunting and rabbits are for eatin’.
Maybe we’re not so smart. Tell someone in the U.S. today to tie a knot, bait a trap, skin a deer, dig a well, or navigate by the stars, and the majority would look lost. If the outdoorsmen and -women of the 1700s gave us intelligence tests tied to their standards, we’d fail. If pandemic flu shuts down the world next winter, we’ll wish we knew more. Quick — any of you know how to build a fire?
Those with IQ envy should check out Seed’s crib sheets for the new century. You can carry around pocket facts on global warming, hybrid cars, and nuclear physics. (And thanks to More Intelligent Life for a fascinating profile on Flynn.)