James Flynn on Why Our IQ levels Are Higher Than Our Grandparents (Transcript)

James Flynn challenges our fundamental assumptions about intelligence.

James Flynn – Moral philosopher

We are going to take a quick voyage over the cognitive history of the 20th century, because during that century, our minds have altered dramatically. As you all know, the cars that people drove in 1900 have altered because the roads are better and because of technology. And our minds have altered, too.

We’ve gone from people who confronted a concrete world and analyzed that world primarily in terms of how much it would benefit them to people who confront a very complex world, and it’s a world where we’ve had to develop new mental habits, new habits of mind. And these include things like clothing that concrete world with classification, introducing abstractions that we try to make logically consistent, and also taking the hypothetical seriously, that is, wondering about what might have been rather than what is.

Massive I.Q. gains

Now, this dramatic change was drawn to my attention through massive I.Q. gains over time, and these have been truly massive. That is, we don’t just get a few more questions right on I.Q. tests. We get far more questions right on I.Q. tests than each succeeding generation back to the time that they were invented. Indeed, if you score the people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an average I.Q. of 70. If you score us against their norms, we would have an average I.Q. of 130.

Now this has raised all sorts of questions. Were our immediate ancestors on the verge of mental retardation? Because 70 is normally the score for mental retardation. Or are we on the verge of all being gifted? Because 130 is the cutting line for giftedness.

Now I’m going to try and argue for a third alternative that’s much more illuminating than either of those, and to put this into perspective, let’s imagine that a Martian came down to Earth and found a ruined civilization. And this Martian was an archaeologist, and they found scores, target scores, that people had used for shooting.

And first they looked at 1865, and they found that in a minute, people had only put one bullet in the bullseye. And then they found, in 1898, that they’d put about five bullets in the bullseye in a minute. And then about 1918 they put a hundred bullets in the bullseye. And initially, that archaeologist would be baffled. They would say, look, these tests were designed to find out how much people were steady of hand, how keen their eyesight was, whether they had control of their weapon.

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How could these performances have escalated to this enormous degree? Well we now know, of course, the answer. If that Martian looked at battlefields, they would find that people had only muskets at the time of the Civil War and that they had repeating rifles at the time of the Spanish-American War, and then they had machine guns by the time of World War I. And, in other words, it was the equipment that was in the hands of the average soldier that was responsible, not greater keenness of eye or steadiness of hand.

Now what we have to imagine is the mental artillery that we have picked up over those hundred years, and I think again that another thinker will help us here, and that’s Luria.

Luria looked at people just before they entered the scientific age, and he found that these people were resistant to classifying the concrete world. They wanted to break it up into little bits that they could use. He found that they were resistant to deducing the hypothetical, to speculating about what might be, and he found finally that they didn’t deal well with abstractions or using logic on those abstractions.

Now let me give you a sample of some of his interviews. He talked to the head man of a person in rural Russia. They’d only had, as people had in 1900, about four years of schooling. And he asked that particular person, what do crows and fish have in common? And the fellow said, “Absolutely nothing. You know, I can eat a fish. I can’t eat a crow. A crow can peck at a fish. A fish can’t do anything to a crow.”

And Luria said, “But aren’t they both animals?”

And he [the fellow] said, “Of course not. One’s a fish. The other is a bird.” And he was interested, effectively, in what he could do with those concrete objects.

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And then Luria went to another person, and he said to them, “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany. Are there camels in Hamburg?”

And the fellow said, “Well, if it’s large enough, there ought to be camels there.”

And Luria said, “But what do my words imply?”

And he [the fellow] said, “Well, maybe it’s a small village, and there’s no room for camels.”

In other words, he was unwilling to treat this as anything but a concrete problem, and he was used to camels being in villages, and he was quite unable to use the hypothetical, to ask himself what if there were no camels in Germany.

A third interview was conducted with someone about the North Pole.

And Luria said, “At the North Pole, there is always snow. Wherever there is always snow, the bears are white. What color are the bears at the North Pole?”

And the response was, “Such a thing is to be settled by testimony. If a wise person came from the North Pole and told me the bears were white, I might believe him, but every bear that I have seen is a brown bear.”

Now you see again, this person has rejected going beyond the concrete world and analyzing it through everyday experience, and it was important to that person what color bears were — that is, they had to hunt bears. They weren’t willing to engage in this.

One of them said to Luria, “How can we solve things that aren’t real problems? None of these problems are real. How can we address them?”

Now, these three categories — classification, using logic on abstractions, taking the hypothetical seriously — how much difference do they make in the real world beyond the testing room? And let me give you a few illustrations.

First, almost all of us today get a high school diploma. That is, we’ve gone from four to eight years of education to 12 years of formal education, and 52% of Americans have actually experienced some type of tertiary education.

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Now, not only do we have much more education, and much of that education is scientific, and you can’t do science without classifying the world. You can’t do science without proposing hypotheses. You can’t do science without making it logically consistent.

And even down in grade school, things have changed. In 1910, they looked at the examinations that the state of Ohio gave to 14-year-olds, and they found that they were all for socially valued concrete information. They were things like, what are the capitals of the 44 or 45 states that existed at that time?

When they looked at the exams that the state of Ohio gave in 1990, they were all about abstractions. They were things like, why is the largest city of a state rarely the capital? And you were supposed to think, well, the state legislature was rural-controlled, and they hated the big city, so rather than putting the capital in a big city, they put it in a county seat. They put it in Albany rather than New York. They put it in Harrisburg rather than Philadelphia. And so forth.

So the tenor of education has changed. We are educating people to take the hypothetical seriously, to use abstractions, and to link them logically.

What about employment?

Well, in 1900, 3% of Americans practiced professions that were cognitively demanding. Only 3% were lawyers or doctors or teachers. Today, 35% of Americans practice cognitively demanding professions, not only to the professions proper like lawyer or doctor or scientist or lecturer, but many, many sub-professions having to do with being a technician, a computer programmer.

A whole range of professions now make cognitive demands. And we can only meet the terms of employment in the modern world by being cognitively far more flexible. And it’s not just that we have many more people in cognitively demanding professions. The professions have been upgraded. Compare the doctor in 1900, who really had only a few tricks up his sleeve, with the modern general practitioner or specialist, with years of scientific training.

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