Is the world getting more intelligent?



 The tremendous progress that the human race has made is because of our intelligence. And the progress in terms of science and technology seems to be accelerating at a breathtaking pace. Now it would also be interesting to know if human intelligence is also increasing with time. Were people a 100 years back more or less intelligent than what we are today? What can we expect of future generations? In this VERITAS we hope to answer these questions.

 But to answer there questions we need to first find a way to measure intelligence. One universally used method is IQ( Intelligence Quotient) tests. These tests measure the ability of the subject to solve various kinds of mentally challenging problems. There are two kinds of problems in an IQ test:

1) Crystallized Intelligence questions: These are problems related to things that we have learned in school: vocabulary and maths skills.

2) Fluid Intelligence questions: These questions minimize the reliance on specific skills and what we may have learnt in school. So these questions are unrelated to the education system. One example is to ask the tester to imagine what a shape would look like if it  is rotated along a specific axis. Similarly there are questions related to visual patterns.

Now, the IQ tests are always normalized so that the average is 100. It is a sort of bell curve centered around 100. So if someone has an IQ of 130 then it means that only 2% of the population will score more in an IQ test. So a person with an IQ of 130 is among the top 2% of the population in terms of the Intelligence test.

 Of course the IQ test number is just a number. It is not the final measure of your worth and should not be taken more seriously than a rough indicator. But it is definitely a useful number for the scientific analysis of a population’s intelligence. And we will use this number to see if average intelligence has increased over time.

 In 1984 a New Zealand scientist wrote a paper in which he described the changes in the IQ of the American population between 1932 and 1978. In that study Flynn observed that the average IQ of the American population increased by about 3 points per decade or about 10 points in 30 years( a generation). In 1987 Flynn published another paper in which he did a similar study in 14 countries around the world. His observations were similar: IQ definitely increases with time. But different countries showed a different amount of increase. In Holland the IQ of the general population increased by about 8 points between 1972 and 1982! This effect of IQ increase over generations is now known as the Flynn effect.

 Now, one would think that better education has caused this increase in average IQ. If this was true then most of the increase would be in the IQ measured by the “crystallized Intelligence questions”. But that is not the case! The “crystallized intelligence section” of the IQ test has shown a small increase over time. The real increase has been in the Fluid intelligence section of the IQ test. And this part does not depend on education. This part is related to abstract thinking, imagination and pattern recognition! So it seems that we are indeed getting smarter. Or rather, our children will be 10-15 IQ points smarter than us!

 There are varying theories trying to explain the Flynn Effect. Flynn himself has tried to explain this effect. Some scientists think that this increase is because of better child care and nutrition. This may indeed be the case- note that human height is also increasing over generations. Flynn himself has proposed that today’s world is more intellectually demanding, involves greater use of technology and has smaller families- this means that people are more used to manipulating abstract concepts than they were about a century ago. Flynn also gives us an example. If today we ask a question: what do a dog and a rabbit have in common. Most people will say that they are both mammals- and this is an abstract answer. Flynn noted that if you asked this question about a century ago people would have said: you catch rabbits with dogs and that is a less abstract and a more concrete answer. So it seems that the way we are thinking about the world around us has changed. We are thinking in more abstract terms now.

 I wonder what the effect of Internet would be on intelligence. I think this one technology has the power to change how we humans think and gain information. I would love to live a long life and see the smart new generation try to solve the greatest mysteries of science. It really is going to
be an exciting new world- a world in which I would be the guy with learning disorder caused by a lower than average intelligence!




Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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