Were the Victorians cleverer than us? Research indicates a decline in brainpower and reflex speed thanks to 'REVERSE' natural selection
Study claims we have 14 IQ points LESS than our 19th Century ancestors
Findings contradict the Flynn effect, which claims IQ has risen three points every decade since the Second World War
By NICK MCDERMOTT
It was an era of glorious scientific discovery.
And the reason for the Victorians unprecedented success is simple – they were ‘substantially cleverer’ than us.
Researchers compared reaction times - a reliable indicator of general intelligence – since the late 1800s to the present day and found our fleetness of mind is diminishing.
They claim our slowing reflexes suggest we are less smart than our ancestors, with a loss of 1.23 IQ points per decade or 14 IQ points since Victorian times.
While an average man in 1889 had a reaction time of 183 milliseconds, this has slowed to 253ms in 2004.
They found the same case with women, whose speed deteriorated from 188 to 261ms in the same period.
Some of this data comes from Sir Francis Galton's famous public laboratory at a London museum where visitors could have themselves measured on all sorts of dimensions. The IQ tests hadn't been invented yet, so Galton used reaction times as a proxy for intelligence.
The research team from Umea University, Sweden, the University of Amsterdam and University College Cork said IQ scores are excellent predictors of job performance and those with higher intelligence are both more productive and creative.
But the scientists were unable to directly compare IQ from different eras as earlier generations had limited access to education, improved nutrition and hygiene, which would have boosted modern results.
Instead, they compared reaction times, which they claim ‘can be used to meaningfully compare historical and contemporary populations in terms of levels of general intelligence’.
The figures indicate a decline in brainpower since the Victorian era, which contradicts the so-called Flynn effect, which has found a worldwide increase in measured IQ scores of three points a decade since the Second World War.
Researcher Dr Michael Woodley said: ‘They actually indicate a pronounced decline in IQ since the Victorian era, three times bigger than previous theoretical estimates would have us believe.’
The report in the journal Intelligence found: ‘The Victorian era was characterized by great accomplishments. As great accomplishment is generally a product of high intelligence, we tested the hypothesis that the Victorians were actually cleverer than modern populations.
‘We used a robust elementary cognitive indicator of general intelligence, namely measures of simple reaction times.’
And with the research looking at historical reaction time data, the scientists claim the drop in modern IQ could be even more dramatic than predicted.
‘It should also be emphasized that whilst our value of a −14.1 IQ point decline is an estimate based on the best meta-analytical data available, a simple inspection of our figure shows there is a non-negligible amount of scatter around the regression line.
‘The real magnitude of the effect might therefore be several IQ points lower or even higher,’ they wrote.
HBD Chick offers skeptical commentaries.
Back in the 1990s, I read up on Arthur Jensen's research on his reaction time experiments, and ... I don't know. It seemed very, very complicated, even more complicated than reading Jensen on IQ.
How about me? I'm a reasonably intelligent person. Do I have good reaction times? In general, I'd say no. I'm one of the few people with a good record of avoiding traffic accidents who will tell you I'm not an above average driver. (A funny professorial joke is to have all students close their eyes, then ask all the ones who are above average drivers to raise their hands. When they open their eyes, usually the vast majority have their hands up.)
Personally, I can recall an embarrassingly long list of flubs I made where the quick reactions of other drivers kept me out of trouble. (This is not to say I'm a bad driver, just that I'm average driver who has a less biased memory than most.)
Athletically, I seem to have mediocre reflexes. As a baseball hitter, I could get the bat on the ball but I couldn't pull it to left field. Most of my hits came to right field because I was just a little slow in starting to swing.
There are two intellectual areas where I have very fast reflexes. At movie comedies, I often start laughing a split second before the rest of the audience. And I was an outstanding College Bowl (now Quiz Bowl) player in the toss-up questions where speed matters. (My one appearance on Jeopardy, I only came in second because my buzzer was malfunctioning.)
So, I don't really get the topic of reaction times.