I read recently the engaging "Are Humans Getting Smarter or Dumber?" in LiveScience recently, and Stephanie Pappas pushed me to think more deeply. She notes the dramatic rise in IQ over time starting from the point when they began recording the statistics.
Humans growing smarter: Environment
Controversy, I found, surrounds the whole system of examining and comparing intelligence over time, and I was left unsatisfied with the results presented. The reality is that IQ and other measures of intelligence focus simplistically on different mental abilities.
Researchers had groups of people take IQ tests that were designed for past generations. So, participants would take a test from 1930 for example, and researchers compared the results with the historical data. The Flynn effect refers to truth that a person now taking an IQ test designed in the past performs better.The changes are dramatic, with an average improvement of 3 points per decade.
Scholars attribute these changes principally to environmental factors such as schooling quality, opportunity, knowledge of learning, and even nutrition. Modern environments change the way that people respond to questions on IQ tests. So, IQ tests suggest that humans are growing smarter in a richer environment.
Humans growing dumber: Genetics
However, despite the proven growth in IQ, many scholars argue that we are, in fact, growing less intelligent as time passes. A study in 2012 from the Stanford University School of Medicine, published in the journal of Trends in Genetics, argues that human intelligence climaxed about 2,000 to 6,000 years ago.
Crabtree suggests that intelligence was far more important to hunting and gathering humans than to us. Back then, ignorance would lead to injury and death, and we do not face such severe consequences.
So, are the impressive IQ results based solely on our environment, with genetics actually proving that we are less intelligent?
Another theory also points to a decline in human intelligence because of dysgenic mating, which basically means that since the 1800's the smartest humans have had the fewest babies. The greater intelligence provided these people with motivation and ability to regulate their birth rate. So, less intelligent people have been reproducing at a greater rate according to this theory.
IQ versus reaction time: Genetics
Woodley claims to have resolved the conflicts. A certain group of scholars in the 1800's placed more emphasis on reaction time than on IQ. They measured how long it took people to solve a problem or respond to a question. These researchers, and Woodley, believe that reaction time is a more accurate measurement of basic cognitive abilities. If a person reacts quickly, she is smarter than one who responds more slowly.
The reaction times measured since the 1880's show that we are slowing down. Woodley claims the results are clear and the timing accurate, suggesting that our overall capacity to become more intelligent is in decline despite the rising IQ. In other words or current scores are inflated because of our stimulus rich environment, but our capacity to increase basic intelligence is in decline genetically.
However, detractors believe reaction time is not the most significant indicator of intelligence. Also, they claim the standards of measurement in the 1880's could not possibly be comparable with those of today. Other flaws in Woodley's analysis raise questions about his findings.
Reframing the issue: Humans, tools, and society
Comparing IQ and reaction time seems problematic. They seem like two completely different qualities, like comparing how fast someone can run to how far another person can jump. Neither seem definitive in measuring human intelligence.
The scholars are looking at pieces of human intelligence and claiming them to be the whole. In fact, each side is examining only a small fraction of what the human mind can do. Neither side is right, or they are both partially correct.
I place human intelligence in a far more complex context, unlike when I was a child:
- Humans have multiple forms of intelligence, and measuring one against another has little value. I would go further and suggest that humans posses near infinite varieties of intelligence, and attempting to isolate and analyze one form is futile. Solving a geometry problem involves different areas of the brain the writing a novel. And the speed at which one performs the task seems unimportant.
- All measures of intelligence, at this time, have flaws in their design and can be undermined by looking closely at the methods and measures. Since we cannot say definitively what the human mind is nor define its component parts, measuring any aspect is problematic. We don't know what intelligence is because we do not understand the human mind.
- In measuring "human" intelligence one has to rely on the average individual responses, suggesting that the median of a population is an accurate reflection of our species' mental capacity. How can researchers create a large enough sample, diverse enough to account for a species seven billion large? Scientists would need a massive, diverse sample size, with trained researchers, narrowly defined constraints, and highly controlled variables. The project seems ridiculous. And, these researchers are going even further in trying to account for measures and averages from the distant past to compare today.
- These researchers are trying to measure the most complex system we know: the human mind. Intelligence has an infinite number of variables and any attempt to isolate one aspect is problematic. The system is far more complex than the technology used to attempt the measurement. Just dabble in philosophy of the mind or consciousness and you will find that we know almost nothing (or that everybody disagrees). The study of intelligence in this way is similar to making astronomical measurements with the naked eye and a ruler.
- Most importantly, no study performed to this point accounts for human's use of tools or human culture. This is an insurmountable flaw which makes the measures of intelligence nonsensical. One cannot separate the human from her technology or culture.
Let me dramatize this a bit. How smart is a man if you put him in an empty, square room, hungry and thirsty, by himself, with no objects in the room, and with no other person present?
Now give the man some food and water. How smart is he? Put a table and chair in the room. Give him a ruler. Slip a geometry book under the door. Let him use a calculator. Provide him with an iPad and wifi connectivity.
Allow his best friend to enter. His wife. Let a mathematician enter the room with him. Stick in a geek who knows something of computers. And so on.
The intelligence of the man depends on so many variables, and by isolating some of them, you at best get a small glimpse of his mental capacity. True measurement of intelligence involves much more than IQ and speed.
Modern human intelligence lies both inside and outside the mind. This is a powerful idea. Technology and society are extensions of an individual's mind, empowering him or her with "intelligence" surpassing any human from the past. You cannot separate, in a meaningful way, a human being from his tools and culture. Any measure of intelligence must account for multiple intelligences, technology, and society.
Examining reaction time and IQ are interesting, but trivial in the end.
Oh, I forgot, give the poor man some clothes.
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