Are You Smarter than Aristotle? Part I

Is the least intelligent individual today smarter than Aristotle?

Posted Aug 16, 2008

Intelligence is on the rise. No, not quite right. <dabs whiteout on post>

IQ test performance is on the rise. Darnit! <uses up the last drop of whiteout>

Let's try this again. Abstract reasoning of funky looking patterns is on the rise. There we go. Moving on.

The 20th century witnessed an increase in IQ, as much as 3 points per decade. Some types of tests, such as those requiring finding patterns in funky-looking pictures showed more of an increase; some, such as vocabulary and arithmetic, not so much.

This has been dubbed "The Flynn Effect", after the political philosopher/psychologist James Flynn, who has done a great job spelling out the implications of this rise. Here's one interesting implication of the effect: working backwards, the average IQ of schoolchildren in 1900 (that's right, your grandparents) would be just under 70 - 30 points lower than the average today!

If one were to look at the average performance of just the type of test that has shown the greatest increase, the average IQ for children of this cohort would be 50.

"To make our ancestors that lacking in problem-solving initiative is to turn them into virtual automatons," Flynn says in his latest book What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect.

It gets more interesting. Let's say a bunch of rowdy rock n' roll IQ testers took a groovy time machine back to ancient Greece and rounded up the entire community and gave them a modern IQ test. Let's say Aristotle happened to be in that sample, and scored the very highest relative to everyone else in the community. In fact, he earns an IQ score of 200, which is about as high as you can get, even today. Impressive, right?

Actually, no. Applying the same calculation we did for your grandparents--by today's standards Aristotle's IQ would be -1000 (yes, that's a negative sign). Taken at face value, not only would the least intelligent individual of our society be smarter than the most intelligent individual in ancient Greece, but that person would run circles around Aristotle's head.

Sound absurd? Well, it is. Absolutely, deeply, mind-bogglingly absurd. Yet the paradox still stands. In fact, the implications of the Flynn effect go much, much deeper, raising quite a few paradoxes.

I remember a particular day in my life quite vividly. In 2002, as an undergraduate, I had flown over to Cambridge, England to study intelligence with Nicholas J. Mackintosh (who would turn out to be a lifelong mentor and friend), then head of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University. I was sitting in one of Mackintosh's famous lectures on "IQ and Human Intelligence". After explaining the Flynn effect, and the paradoxes it raises--about human intelligence, society, and even morality-- he then proceeded to say, "I'm going to be honest here, intelligence researchers are stumped by this one. In fact, the one who solves this mystery wins the Nobel Prize of intelligence research."

This statement etched into my consciousness and fired me up. I have always liked puzzles. Ironically, I can't stand the type of puzzles that are on IQ tests, but this kind of puzzle, one with deep social implications, me like.

I hope I have also fired up some of you as well. In my opinion, the greatest insights into the nature of human intelligence and creativity will come not just from "intelligence researchers", but from the synergy of scholars across disciplines as well as readers of this blog (some would call you "laymen", but I find that term offensive at two levels: it's sexist as well as insulting to those who enjoy getting laid).

Indeed, it took a man with a philosophical bent, James Flynn (who I greatly admire), to see the paradoxes that the rise in IQ generates.

So in my next series of posts, let's roll up our sleeves and really look at this bad boy of intelligence research. I can't say all this talk of paradoxes will be pretty, but why does everything have to be so pretty? I'm more interested in the truth. Are you really smarter than Aristotle? Stay tuned. And, all along the way, please chime in. Who knows, you just may win the Nobel Prize (of intelligence research).

© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Other posts in this series:

Are you smarter than Aristotle?: On the Flynn Effect and the Aristotle Paradox

IQ Bashing, Breakdancing, The Flynn Effect, and Genes

More Posts