James Flynn, an American emeritus professor at Otago University in New Zealand, is an expert on intelligence. Thirty years ago, he propounded the theory that IQ levels have been getting steadily higher right across the world since the 1930s. This increase is about three points per decade and is known as the Flynn Effect.
The rise may not sound large but according to Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, and reported in the Daily Telegraph, the effect has been noted in 30 developed and developing countries, going as far back as the First World War.
IQ tests are designed to ensure that the average result is 100. Pinker told the Telegraph:
“An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have an IQ of 130, besting 98 per cent of his or her contemporaries.”
Conversely, if the average person in 1910 stepped forward to today, he or she would have an IQ measurement of 70. That is, to quote Pinker in the Telegraph again, “at the border of mental retardation”.
Subsequent studies have confirmed Flynn’s findings and built on them. Aberdeen University and King’s College, London, have both carried out recent research into the phenomenon and the reasons for the rise.
Flynn and his successors cite improvements in education, medical care, health and nutrition, as being the most likely influences on IQ levels. Improved living standards and the smaller size of families have also been implicated. In addition, people are reading more and new technology has encouraged people to think more abstractly.
However, there are also recent studies from universities in Sweden, Holland and Ireland, which seem to suggest we are not as bright as our Victorian ancestors. Researchers in Holland claim Victorians were “substantially cleverer” and that it could be our fleetness of mind which has diminished, possibly by as much as 14 IQ points.
Michael Woodley, lead researcher at Umea University in Sweden, says that the amount of time it takes to respond to a stimulus is correlated with IQ.
“It’s not simply that intelligence is going down or going up,” suggests Woodley. “Different parts of intelligence could be changing in lots of different ways.”
If humanity’s capacity to get smarter is shrinking, it could be because the Flynn effect is hiding an underlying decline, a “psychometric dark matter” not visible on pen-and-paper intelligence tests, he told Live Science.
“An analogy to use would be lower-quality seeds, but higher-quality fertilizers,” he added, referring to the idea that a high-quality environment may be masking the decline in “smart” genes.
It’s likely that any perceived decline in IQ could be a blip which will self-regulate in time, but Flynn has been unpicking his original findings, and although his basic theory is still accepted and he has revealed other possible causes for IQ increases since the 1930s, the conclusion in his new book, Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century, suggests that humans may not, after all, be getting more clever any more.
“What is important is how our minds differ from those of people 100 years ago, not whether we label it “smarter” or “more intelligent.” I prefer to say our brains are more modern,” he told Smithsonian Magazine.
Whether the Flynn Effect is still evident in the developed world is a question for conjecture, but what about developing countries?
“If they industrialize, in theory, they should have the explosive IQ gains in the coming century that we had in the last century,” says Flynn.
In his book, he studies six developing nations and sees significant IQ increases in Kenya, Brazil and Turkey but not in Saudi Arabia and the Sudan, the latter because of civil war, the former because while oil revenue exists, no real industrialisation is happening. Dominica is the sixth case.
“There, they are making IQ gains, but their infrastructure is wiped out about every 10 years by hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. I predict that Brazil, Turkey and Kenya will industrialize over the next century and begin to rival the Western world for IQ,” says Flynn.