It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, New York TImes, December 12, 2012

Before I get to the dreary budget debates in Washington, here’s a bright spot of good news: We’re getting smarter.

My readers are all above average. But if I ever had average readers, they would still be brilliant compared with Americans of a century ago.

The average American in the year 1900 had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would measure about 67. Since the traditional definition of mental retardation was an I.Q. of less than 70, that leads to the remarkable conclusion that a majority of Americans a century ago would count today as intellectually disabled.

The trend of rising intelligence is known as the “Flynn Effect,” named for James R. Flynn, the New Zealand scholar who pioneered this area of research. Countless other scholars worldwide have replicated his findings, and it is now accepted science — although there is still disagreement about its causes and significance.

The average American I.Q. has been rising steadily by 3 points a decade. Spaniards gained 19 points over 28 years, and the Dutch 20 points over 30 years. Kenyan children gained nearly 1 point a year.

Those figures come from a new book by Flynn from Cambridge University Press called “Are We Getting Smarter?” It’s an uplifting tale, a reminder that human capacity is on the upswing. The implication is that there are potential Einsteins now working as subsistence farmers in Congo or dropping out of high school in Mississippi who, with help, could become actual Einsteins.

The Flynn Effect should upend some of the smugness among those who have historically done well in global I.Q. standings. For example, while there is still a race gap, black Americans are catching up — and now do significantly better than white Americans of the “greatest generation” did in the 1940s.

Another problem for racists: The country that tops the I.Q. charts isn’t America or in Europe. It’s Singapore, at 108. (The reason may have to do with Singapore’s Confucian respect for learning and its outstanding school system.)

None of this means that people today are born smarter. While I.Q. measures something to do with mental acuity, it’s a rubbery and imperfect metric. It’s heavily shaped by environment — potential is diminished when children suffer from parasites or lead in air pollution. As a result, the removal of lead from gasoline may have added 6 points to the I.Q. of American children, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Flynn argues that I.Q. is rising because in industrialized societies we give our brains a constant mental workout that builds up what we might call our brain sinews.

“The brains of the best and most experienced London taxi drivers,” Flynn writes, citing a 2000 study, have “enlarged hippocampi, which is the brain area used for navigating three-dimensional space.” In a similar way, he argues, modern life gives our brains greater exercise than when we were mostly living on isolated farms.

It’s not that our ancestors were dummies, and I confess to doubts about the Flynn Effect when I contemplate the slide from Shakespeare to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Likewise, politics does not seem to benefit: One academic study found a deterioration in the caliber of discussions of economics in presidential debates from 1960 to 2008.

But Flynn argues that modern TV shows and other entertainment can be cognitively demanding, and video games like those of the Grand Theft Auto series probably require more thought than solitaire. (No, don’t call the police. My teenage kids are not holding me hostage and forcing me to write this paragraph.)

Back to the debates in Washington. To me, the lesson from this research is the vast amount of human potential globally that is available if we can nurture and stimulate kids who now get neglected.

One challenge is to preserve foreign aid. Some 61 million children around the world still don’t attend even primary school, and President Obama in his 2008 campaign was right to propose a global education fund, in part as an alternative to extremist religious schools. I’m hoping the idea doesn’t get dropped forever.

The even greater challenge is nation-building at home at a time when funding for schools is being slashed, about 7,000 high school students drop out every day, and there are long waits to get into early-childhood-enrichment programs like Head Start. Literacy programs can help break cycles of poverty and unleash America’s potential — and a single F-35 fighter could pay for more than four years of the Reading Is Fundamental program in the entire United States.

As we make hard budget choices, let’s remember that the essential fact of the world is that talent is universal and opportunity is not. I hope we’re finally smart enough to try to remedy that.

Human Intelligence Peaked Thousands of Years Ago: Study

Common Dreams staff, November 13, 2012 by Common Dreams

Stupidity trend will continue, says new research, but collective education can save us-

Humankind’s intelligence peaked thousands of years ago and advanced civilization has made life so easy for so many that our trend towards stupidity will continue as the ingenuity and intellect once needed for basic survival erode even further.

This, anyway, is the argument of a new study out in the journal Trends in Genetics, authored by  Stanford University professor Gerald Crabtree.

Crabtree’s study claims that harmful genetic mutations—occurring generation after generation as society advanced—have reduced our “higher thinking” abilities and the accumulated result has led to a gradual dwindling of our intelligence as a species.

The Guardian explains that Crabtree’s thinking is a speculative idea—one he’d be happy to have prove wrong—but also a simple one:

In the past, when our ancestors (and those who failed to become our ancestors) faced the harsh realities of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the punishment for stupidity was more often than not death. And so, Crabtree argues, enormous evolutionary pressure bore down on early humans, selecting out the dimwits, and raising the intellect of the survivors’ descendants. But not so today.

“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” Professor Crabtree says in the paper.

“Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2,000 to 6,000 years ago,” he continues. “The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile.”

Speaking with the Telegraph, Prof Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, pushes back against Crabtree’s hypothesis, saying:

[Prof Crabtree] takes the line that our intelligence is designed to allow us to build houses and throw spears straighter at pigs in the bush, but that is not the real driver of brain size.

In reality what has driven human and primate brain evolution is the complexity of our social world [and] that complex world is not going to go away. Doing things like deciding who to have as a mate or how best to rear your children will be with us forever.

Personally I am not sure that in the foreseeable future there is any reason to be panicking at all, the rate of evolution with things like this takes tens of thousands of years…no doubt the ingenuity of science will find solutions to these things if we do not blow ourselves up first.

Other scientists were also skeptical. “At first sight this is a classic case of Arts Faculty science. Never mind the hypothesis, give me the data, and there aren’t any,” said Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London.

“I could just as well argue that mutations have reduced our aggression, our depression and our penis length but no journal would publish that. Why do they publish this?” Professor Jones said.

“I am an advocate of Gradgrind science – facts, facts and more facts; but we need ideas too, and this is an ideas paper although I have no idea how the idea could be tested,” he said.

“You don’t get Stephen Hawking 200,000 years ago, he just doesn’t exist,” University of Warwick psychologist Thomas Hills told website LiveScience.

“But now we have people of his intellectual capacity doing things and making insights that we would never have achieved in our environment of evolutionary adaptation.”

Despite his own research, Crabtree does not predict a future of diminishing returns for civilization and says that the species’ ability to thrive is inherent in advanced civilization, and specifically in our ability to share information with one another. “Remarkably it seems that although our genomes are fragile,” Crabtree says, “our society is robust almost entirely by virtue of education, which allow strengths to be rapidly distributed to all members.”

The Independent offers this quick survey of man’s descent into stupidity:

Hunter-gatherer man
The human brain and its immense capacity for knowledge evolved during this long period of prehistory when we battled against the elements

Athenian man
The invention of agriculture less than 10,000 years ago and the subsequent rise of cities such as Athens relaxed the intensive natural selection of our “intelligence genes”.

Couch-potato man
As genetic mutations increase over future generations, are we doomed to watching soap-opera repeats without knowing how to use the TV remote control?

iPad man
The fruits of science and technology enabled humans to rise above the constraints of nature and cushioned our fragile intellect from genetic mutations.

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Democracy’s keeper By James Carroll

Boston Globe, January 18, 2005

Excerpt -

John Kenneth Galbraith’s creed — the intelligence, compassion, and commitment of every person are what define democracy, and what keep justice at the center its work…As an economist, Galbraith defined the structures of humane social and financial organization with more brilliance and influence than anyone else of his era. His savage critiques of greed, and government’s capitulations to its captains, informed the nation again and again…The legacy of authentic American liberalism has been sullied by the reluctance of its heirs, especially in the Democratic Party, to proclaim its ongoing relevance to such crucial debates….[Galbraith’s] life as an image of how intelligence, compassion, and commitment remain the essence of social hope. 

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JOHN KENNETH Galbraith coined the phrase “conventional wisdom,” and again and again, across a lifetime, he has shown how to transcend it. I have just read an early copy of “John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics” by Richard Parker, and the story of this man’s life and work, wonderfully rendered in this magnum opus, offers an antidote to the public ennui, economic cruelty, and government malfeasance that poison life in America today.

I have known Parker for years and have discussed his work with him often. Like many writers, I have had the benefit of professor Galbraith’s encouragement and remain amazed to realize that we are friends. But in reading Richard’s book, those intimate relationships fell away as I saw with a first full clarity the scope of Galbraith’s significance.

As a member of the US Strategic Bombing Survey immediately after World War II, for example, the young economist was one of those charged with evaluating the effect of the Allied air campaigns against Germany and Japan. Against claims made for air power at the time (and against Pentagon assumptions that still privilege strategic bombing), Galbraith’s team showed that neither enemy manufacturing capacity nor morale were significantly hampered by bombing.

Most unconventionally, the agency’s report on the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki concluded that “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” In 1945, Galbraith was left with a lifelong skepticism about bombing, which, alas, his country would not share.

Galbraith was John Kennedy’s ambassador to India, and at a crucial point in 1962, to take another example, he drafted a blistering memo about incipient American involvement in Vietnam. The best argument that Kennedy might have pursued a different course in Vietnam is that, in Galbraith, he had a trusted adviser who argued against the folly of military intervention.

Galbraith’s 1962 memo, in particular, remains a prophetic affirmation of the primacy of war prevention (aka diplomacy) over unfettered war preparation. If Galbraith’s vision in the early 1960s had been enshrined in US foreign policy, America would not have been lost in the trek through the wilderness from which, despite the passage of a mythic 40 years, the nation has yet to emerge.

As an economist, Galbraith defined the structures of humane social and financial organization with more brilliance and influence than anyone else of his era. His savage critiques of greed, and government’s capitulations to its captains, informed the nation again and again, both through his Democratic Party activism and through hugely popular books like “The Affluent Society” and “The New Industrial State.”

At Harvard, he reinvented the role of scholar and teacher and became the beau ideal of the public intellectual. A man obsessed with details of what makes for efficient economic performance and equitable distribution of wealth, he never confused the making or accumulation of “goods” with the Good Society. For Galbraith, as Parker puts it, “what lay beyond the mere production and possession of things was always more important.”

War and peace, economic justice, the future of democracy, global connectedness — even the basic issue of whether human reason itself can stand against irrationality and superstition: All of these questions, on which Americans once seemed to approach consensus, today define unexpected borders of conflict.

The legacy of authentic American liberalism has been sullied by the reluctance of its heirs, especially in the Democratic Party, to proclaim its ongoing relevance to such crucial debates. Galbraith, beginning with his service in the New Deal and continuing through his public, academic, literary, and political life’s work, is a creator of that legacy and remains even now its staunchest defender.

Parker casts one eye back across what he calls “the prodigious career of a single man.” But Parker’s other eye, more implicitly, takes in current transformations of market capitalism, culture-changing innovations of science and technology, and threats of world disorder before which even great democracies tremble.

Against accumulating fears, Parker lifts up a single life as an image of how intelligence, compassion, and commitment remain the essence of social hope. Somehow, we humans regularly undercut ourselves by imagining that such virtues are rare. In contrast, Parker not only finds them amply supplied in John Kenneth Galbraith, but reminds us of Galbraith’s creed — that the intelligence, compassion, and commitment of every person are what define democracy, and what keep justice at the center its work.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

The Meaning of Intelligence by Krista Tippet

On Being, August 30, 2012

When he was in high school, Mike Rose was placed in a vocational track, until it was discovered that a clerical error with test scores meant he should have been in college prep classes. His insights from his own schooling, plus the time he spent watching his mother work — and think — as a waitress, have informed his academic study of the role of education in physical labor, and democracy. As he explains, America’s contradictory opinion of learning rarely addresses the ways education can help people reach their full potential.

“Valuing Intellectual Depth and Its Relationship to Work and Life in All Its Forms”

I was hooked by the opening lines of Mike Rose’s lovely book, The Mind at Work:

“I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This, then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work. Such work put food on our table, gave shape to stories of affliction and ability, framed how I saw the world … I’ve been thinking about this business of intelligence for a long time: the way we decide who’s smart and who isn’t, the way the work someone does feeds into that judgment, and the effect such judgment has on our sense of who we are and what we can do.”
Mike Rose grew up in an immigrant family in the center of Los Angeles; I grew up in a small town in the melting pot of Oklahoma. I did not grow up around much physical work, but I did attend a school where advanced classes in languages, math, and science were axed to sustain a strong football team. His story of his late discovery of the strength of his own mind, and, even later, grasping the forms of intelligence he had known without appreciating, sparked all kinds of longing and recognition in me.

Our stories taken together are disparate but kindred facets of a disconnect in the American story that thrives, largely unexamined, in our public life. Despite our national history of exceptional intellectual achievement, we harbor what the historian Richard Hofstadter classically observed as a “national distaste for intellect.” At the same time, we harbor a learned dismissal of the cognitive accomplishments of “average” people, working people, and “manual” labor.

Mike Rose can demonstrate the error of such dismissiveness with hard research. But his concern goes deeper than that and is relevant to us all. Failing to see and nurture the intellectual and civic substance of all kinds of work, he worries, is profoundly undemocratic. It limits our collective vision and range of action from school reform to social planning. We shape educational policies with economic competitiveness in mind, Mike Rose says; but we need also to ask what kind of education befits a democracy? Here is part of his answer to that question, in our conversation:
“So what kind of a language should we use in a democratic society? Certainly a language that includes the economic motive. Absolutely. Of course. But that braids that motive in with all the other reasons that actually historically in our country we’ve talked about as well. The civic motive. We send kids to school to become civic beings. We sent kids to school to learn how to solve problems with each other. Children go to school because their parents want to help them develop into better people. They want them to find passions. They want them to learn how to learn.

And what about in a democracy learning how to speak up when you think something is not right? Or learning to take a risk. You know, in this kind of test-based world that students grow up in, you’re penalized if you take a risk but yet just about any intellectual breakthrough of any kind that you’ll study has seen that it’s been a path of breakthrough and failure. So where in all of this are children encouraged to take intellectual risks? What kinds of classrooms are created that allow that?

What you see when you travel through all these communities and you talk to parents and you watch these teachers who work so hard and you spend time with these kids, is you get a sense of this immense rich thing that a classroom can be, a place of both learning subject matter but of learning how to exist in a public space and how to have this feeling, this sense, that you matter and that your mind matters and that this is a place that’s safe and respectful and where I can take chances and I can learn something. And that can have an effect on who I’m going to be.”

I Recommend Reading:

 »The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker
by Mike Rose

This refreshing, wonderfully written examination of beliefs about the mind explores blue-collar vocations and offers ample opportunity for the reader to reevaluate one’s assumptions about the complexity of thinking that takes place as a hairdresser snips a lock, a waitress juggles multiple tables and orders, a carpenter problem-solves on site.
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On Being is a spacious conversation — and an evolving media space — about the big questions at the center of human li