May 7, 2005

Explaining the Flynn Effect?

One of the more dubious sounding implications of the mysterious Flynn Effect -- i.e., rising raw IQ scores -- is that if you go far enough back into the past, the average person would have been a complete idiot, and the greatest genius of the age would have been no smarter than George W. Bush or John Kerry.

That's not very plausible. Maybe the reality works more like this:

As Flynn & Dickens say, people mold their own environments based on their genetic predilections, so genetically smart people choose more mentally stimulating environments, which makes them even smarter. But as Steven Johnson points out, mental stimulation, even if it's just watching television or figuring out what the buttons on your new gadget do, is a lot cheaper today than in the past.

So, consider two individuals in, say, 1665 in England. One is a farm laborer, who spends much of his time in the fields not talking to anyone and goes to bed not long after it gets dark. He gets little mental stimulation. He'd like more -- he went to a play once about a prince and a ghost who was his dad who wants him to kill his uncle, and he liked it, especially the fighting part at the end where everybody dies -- but players seldom come through his village and they are expensive when they do. He would score, say, a 60 on a modern IQ test, although he did his duties better than a 60 IQ person would today. He just wasn't practiced at solving novel problems. in 2005, with the telly on six hours a day, he might score 90.

Living near him in 1665 is a young man who has been sent down to his country home from Cambridge University because an outbreak of the black plague has made urban centers dangerous.

Unlike the local yokel, this student brings his own incredibly stimulating environment with him inside his head. Like the farm laborer, he occasionally sees an apple fall from a tree, but when he does, that gets him thinking about the mathematics of gravity. Indeed, what the student needs to bring his smartness to superhuman levels is not more mental stimulation, but the peace and quiet that 18 months at home will afford him. Talking to himself makes him smarter than talking to other people does, because, compared to himself, they just don't have much worth saying.

How would Isaac Newton have done back then on a modern IQ test? I suspect that with a bit of practice to familiarize himself with the novelty of it, he'd max out any IQ test.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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