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.

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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.

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.”

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

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