The Other I

June 26, 2018

Are we getting dumber?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:21 pm

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A very interesting study has just been published suggesting that the generational increases in intelligence which began after World War II  have gone into reverse.

Specifically, children born after 1975 have lost an average of 7 IQ points in each succeeding generation.

It’s an authoritative study including hundreds of thousands of children and young adults compared over generations.  There has been enough data collected for long enough to compare children with their parents at similar ages,  and at comparable ages, the parents score anywhere from 3-7 points higher on scales of intelligence than their children when they reach that age.

But what is really going on?  Are our children really getting dumber than we are?

Well, intelligence is a function of genetics and environmental factors including nutrition, education, and opportunity.

But intelligence is also something else which traditional intelligence tests overlook.  Essentially, intelligence is the ability to survive and adapt to the environment in which we live.  And so, as environments change, different skills often are seen as intelligent.  Jared Diamond, the anthropologist, points out when he was studying Aborigine tribes, that they knew how to survive in the forest.  They knew what wild mushrooms were poisonous and which were safe to eat.  They could recognize tracks of animals that he could not.  They had a sense of direction that colonialists completely lacked without a compass.

Similarly, children of ten might be able to teach their grandparents how to work an i-pad.  But if the cyber-world should crash, or electrical output was out for months, would that ten-year-old be the person you turn to to put food on the table or build a fire to replace the stove?

I strongly suspect that what this study is showing is not that generations are getting dumber or smarter.  What is happening is that environments – physical, political, and technological – are changing so fast that intelligence tests can’t keep up.

And those environments are going to continue to change, in some cases going back to the older ways, in some cases emerging in ways humans have never seen before.

In which case, we are going to need listen to each other more and more.  We are going to need our differences simply to survive.

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5 Comments »

  1. interesting views. wondered about the two conclusions in the last para.

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    Comment by tskraghu — June 26, 2018 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

    • Not sure which 2 conclusions you are wondering about: that changes are going to go in both directions? that we are going to need our differences even more?

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      Comment by theotheri — June 26, 2018 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

      • I was referring to these two statements (may be not conclusions): “In which case, we are going to need listen to each other more and more. We are going to need our differences simply to survive.”

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        Comment by tskraghu — June 26, 2018 @ 5:32 pm | Reply

  2. Absolutely. Thanks, Terry. Walter Lippmann wrote a great essay on intelligence tests shortly after they came into use. I’ll see if I can track it down.

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    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — June 26, 2018 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

    • Tom, thank you for the Lippman article. I am familiar with it, and couldn’t agree more. But I would go further. Lippman wrote his article almost a century ago, when we did not appreciate that there is no living characteristic in any living organism what is not dependent on both genetics and environment. Even skin color. Black genes will not result in black skin if there is an environmental factor that prevents its manifestation, and results instead in “albino Blacks.” The thalidomide scandal showed that with the wrong environment we would not even develop something as “genetic” as five fingers and two arms. This applies equally to almost every aspect of behavior we can name. Would Mozart have been such an musical genius without the exposure given to him from early childhood? Would Einstein been a mathematical genius if he had grown up without an education?

      When I began my graduate study more than 50 years ago, many psychologists still thought intelligence was mainly genetic. One eminent psychologists estimated that it was 63% inherited. Many psychologists were not even appalled by the fact that immigrants to America were given IQ tests in ENGLISH when they landed on Welfare Island. Well, of course they were less intelligent that we English-speaking Americans who had been here for several generations.

      And less that 40 years ago, an eminent Harvard psychologist argued that tests showed that American Blacks (ie former slaves) were genetically less intelligent than us superior white folk.

      Yes, there are different genetically-based characteristics among us. Howard Gardner argues that in the human species there are 9 different and independent intelligences. As we know, it is possible to be a genius in music and retarded in almost every other aspect.

      The really relevant question for past and present research is to identify what environmental factors influence what kinds of intelligence. The question has been the major focus of my own professional research and writing and I find it fascinating. It is so complex because the same answers don’t apply to everybody in the same way.

      But I will stop. I risk trying to give you a summary of my entire professional career!

      Again, thank you for the Lippman article. It brought back a lot of thoughts.

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      Comment by theotheri — July 1, 2018 @ 3:47 pm | Reply


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