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?

2 thoughts on “Flynn periods?

  1. There are no telling how many zillions of people with the intellect to be “geniuses” that were never developed due to the fact that they were never exposed to teaching, much less teaching in the area that they might have been most brilliant. (This is still true today . . . I am amazed how many brilliant kids who simply haven’t had a chance to develop their intellects – at least properly – have been left behind in the lower socio-economic class from which they come. And this is just in my experience.)

    I suspect that the Flynn effect really jumps forward during times of societal changes, specifically in the distribution of information. Society after the development of the printing press was much more able to familiarize themselves with the thinking of their predecessors and build on such foundations. Generations post-internet are quite literally steeped in data at their fingertips, no matter what they wish to learn about. That may not help those without either the curiosity, intelligence (surely there is some correlation there), or means to secure hardware that allows them to connect to the internet, but just within the last couple of decades (or possibly the last three decades) the stream of information created by libraries, etc., has turned into a raging torrent of electronic data.

    Those with the ability and desire to learn can do so at rates unimaginable even when we were young. Even those without the desire can be prodded and steered toward the flood of data and immersed until they are at least drenched. (Whether they actually absorb any or not . . . that’s a different story.)

    Between print, radio, television and now the internet . . . it would almost take an act of will NOT to be “smarter” than the generation(s) before you. Or at least to have whatever “smartness” you possess developed to a much higher degree.

    Wouldn’t it?

    • That is a very good point, Kristi! Any form of communication, even if it is only a bicycle, is an opportunity to develop the mind. (For instance with a bike, we kids could actually make it to the library in the next village before closing time, back in 1970…) So it may not be an accident that the various inventions that have dominated the past century have been ones of communication mainly. And of course the electric light, which made it much more convenient to read after sunset.
      These days, I see some universities have started distributing whole courses over the Internet. Mostly computer science, but the scope is broadening. We haven’t even seen the first fruits of that yet.

      The strange thing about the Flynn Effect is that it is so steady. It does not move in jumps or steps as new technologies appear, but proceeds at the same pace for generations. That makes me think it is not so much the actual technologies but the way they shape the Zeitgeist, the way people gradually begin to value thinking more. (And about time, one might say…)

      By sheer coincidence I read an article in a Norwegian online newspaper today, declaring that “nerd” is now a badge of honor among young Norwegians. People associate it with Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs, with employment at Google and teens making a small fortune on iPhone apps. It has evidently become a verb too: “I am going home to nerd”. This amuses me, for back when I grew up, being brighter than average was cause enough for punishment. Perhaps the Zeitgeist really is changing.

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