Flynn periods?

It is a hamster, and it is highly unlikely to have built the Great Pyramid.

Hopefully you know of the Flynn Effect. It is one of the more amazing facts in modern history, but not everyone is aware of it yet. And I can see how it may be hard to believe. But it is documented beyond reasonable doubt, or even unreasonable doubt. Unless there is a worldwide conspiracy that somehow overtakes even those who set out to disprove it, humans are getting rapidly more intelligent. Not just educated: The effect is greatest in forms of intelligence that are not specifically trained in school, and starts before school age. The speed of the increase varies from one part of the world to another, but they are all rising, and fast. The global average is about 3 IQ points per decade or 10 points per generation. That means that each generation is genius compared to their grandparents, basically. (Your grandparents may vary.)

The Flynn Effect has been going on for as long as there have been IQ tests, about a century in the first places that started. Now you may think the obvious answer is that people have become more adept at taking IQ tests, but it works equally well on children the first time they take such a test. And while there is an improvement in each individual with repeated tests, this is a fairly small improvement that is long since overrun and left in the dust by the collective progress of the Flynn Effect.

Yet if we try to prolong this effect into the deep past, madness ensues. We would then have to assume that the great cathedrals of Europe were built by people who could not tie their own shoelaces if their lives depended on it, and that Plato spoke to people with the mental capacity of chimpanzees at best. The Pyramids were presumably built by the intellectual equivalents of hamsters, and the Stonehenge perhaps by guppies. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

Perhaps the progress began early in the 19th century? The period from 1850 to 1910 saw the invention of the pedal bicycle, the motorcar, the airplane, the telephone, the electric light and radio. While far more inventions have been made since then, most of the 20th century can be said to have been shaped by the inventions of the previous two generations, which were gradually deployed around the world and made more and more affordable. But if we go back to 1850, we find a world that is just plain alien, little more than the Middle Ages with added steam engine and telegraph. Not that these are small things, but still. Some kind of mental quickening seems to have happened around 1850 and accelerated to this day.

But the IQ scores of people in that age remain speculation. Perhaps the geniuses came first, and their example somehow triggered the great masses to begin ambling toward the heights. We shall probably never know for sure. Although it would help if we knew the cause of the Flynn Effect. We don’t. There are hypotheses, but none is an obvious winner.


But what if this is not the first time? Well, it probably is the first time we have a global Flynn Effect that is sustained for a century. Actually, this is the first era that we know of that has a global anything – globalization did not exist in the era of the longboat, not for lack of trying. But there is no reason why a sufficiently large local population could not experience its own Flynn Effect in the past, if some of the hypotheses are correct such as better food supply, or hybrid vigor from people breeding outside their local community, or a Zeitgeist – spirit of the times – that rewarded intellectual prowess. Several such possible triggers may have come together numerous times in human history.

Most people today tend to think that the ancients were stupid. Certainly people in the distant past did not have telescopes and computers, and the ordinary worker was not even literate. But there were pockets of intellect in many cultures at various times. China had several such, with an intellectual class poring over great libraries. Even ancient Sumer, one of the earliest civilizations, had large libraries ranging from myths to tax records. But harder to quantify are the oral traditions. Masterpieces such as the Iliad were composed and handed down entirely by mouth and ear before eventually being written down. The same holds for the great epics of India, or for that matter my Norse ancestors. Most of this tradition was probably never written down but faded away due to harsh times or competition from literature.

So what I mean is that there may have been pockets in time where people grew more and more intelligent for each generation for a hundred years, as has now happened here. Or for two hundred or even three hundred years. But if their Zeitgeist did not run toward technology, architecture or sculpture, we would be hard pressed to find any sign of it.  Some ancient religious texts are amazing in their clarity and depth, but were they the product of a single author or editor, or were they simply the crowning glory of a temporary religious or spiritual civilization that may have been far ahead of our times?

Some remnants from these times have made their way to our own. The benefits of proper meditation to the health of the individual and society, for instance, is something we have only recently begun to rediscover. And while the theory of acupuncture seems to be off in the far left field, the practice is surprisingly effective. Who knows how many other great inventions have existed, only to be swallowed in the mists of time?

We should not assume that our modern global civilization is possible because we are biologically more advanced, that our brains have evolved over the last centuries or millennia. There may be some traces of such evolution, according to some scientists, but by and large every tribe of humanity has enough brains for the modern world, no matter whether they have a long and distinguished history of civilization or just came out of the rain forest buck naked. So there is no reason to think that we have superior brains to those who lived 2000, 3000, or even 4000 years ago. All we have is the benefit of learning from their example. But there may be many things that once were known that have become unknown again in the meantime, as Dark Ages swallowed each civilization in turn.

I wonder, if our own civilization must fall, whether we can convey its splendor to those who may follow. Or will they simply see us as madmen, destroying our world, ruining nature’s beauty, building vast prisons of iron and concrete, and leaving behind twisted sculptures of metal and silicon of no conceivable use?