Human Intelligence - increasing or decreasing?

Moseley college
Moseley college | Source

Is Human Intelligence falling?

Are we, the human species, losing our much vaunted intelligence? A good question, and not one with a simple answer. Let’s start with a discussion of intelligence. I do not refer to something as simple as an IQ score - this is much too simple and far too culturally biased to be of much value when discussing the overall intelligence of a species. Nor is it a matter of how much accumulated knowledge either an individual or their society has; low intelligence coupled with a good deal of time will result in accumulation of knowledge. Instead, let’s consider it as the ability to learn, or the ability to reason and think (given a reasonably competent memory reason becomes learning). Are we losing that ability?

Intelligence over time

Eons ago we find our ancestors requiring sometimes a million or more years to improve even slightly the spear point they used to hunt with. Given that it was good enough for the purpose, it still seems that there was not a great deal of intelligence involved if it took that long to find a better way to chip stone to make a better killing tool. That the knowledge base took so long to increase (coupled with a 700cc brain) makes it apparent these ancestors were not a great deal more intelligent than many animals today.

In the last few hundred years, on the other hand, our societal knowledge base has increased so rapidly that no one today can keep up with changes except in very narrow fields. How many of us truly understand how a computer works? Of those that do, how many understand string theory? And of those that know both, how many know how to make common sheetrock? The rate of expansion of our knowledge base is simply astounding today. This is not a good indication of the intelligence of the average man in the street, however. In many cases it is the Steven Hawkings of the world that drive the expansion of knowledge. In others it is the sheer numbers of humans working on a problem. A million people trying to make a better tire will probably find an answer faster than 10 people, and a handful of genius level people can accomplish a great deal in their lifetimes.

Modern Human Intelligence

But what about the ordinary people, living our ordinary lives? We still produce vast numbers of children coming out of our schools that are functionally illiterate. Although nearly all of us can drive a car, how many can change a tire? I recently had a new employee (in the building trades) that couldn’t read a ruler - had no concept of what a fraction of an inch was. Or what about product liability stickers on everything we buy? They are not only there because of a sue happy population, but because people WILL stick their fingers in a garbage disposal, WILL use a ladder as a scaffold, WILL close their pocket knife on their own fingers. The internet is possibly the greatest tool man has ever developed, but people WILL believe everything they read on it even knowing that so much of what they see is pure garbage.

All of these are things we expect of infants and small children because they haven’t learned to think critically and analytically. But teens should be able to reason enough to understand that they will need the information being given in school and put some effort into their learning. Do we really think it is a guarantee that we will never have a flat tire on a deserted mountain road? That the garbage disposal will chew up a chicken bone but not our fingers? Not at all - we don’t think those things because we don’t think at all! Too much of the time we go through life somehow assuming that we don’t need to think - someone or something else will do it for us. The inevitable result is not only ignorance (correctable) but stupidity. We are losing the ability to reason. We learn to drive a car, but not well and not safely. We learn to bake a pie, and to put the bandaid on our cut finger afterwards. Above all we learn to blame someone else, but never to think and reason for ourselves outside of our personal narrow field of expertise. The accountant can build a computerized spreadsheet, but cannot figure out that if he cuts his dead tree down it may fall on his car parked next to it. Of course, he could, but he doesn’t think. Just cuts and then blames the chain saw manufacturer for his damaged car.

Mental abilities are no different than physical ones in that those abilities need exercise. If we depend on others to do our thinking and reasoning for us we will inevitably lose that ability. Small children show an amazing ability to learn but few people continue to learn at the pace of a child even that ability to learn much at all is often lost; "You can't teach an old dog new tricks". Add in the fact that relatively few ever learn to reason accurately and consistently and it would seem that our intelligence as a race is indeed falling.

Perhaps the intelligence available to, and used by, a very few will carry the rest of us. Evolution and history would indicate otherwise.

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Comments 28 comments

dallas93444 profile image

dallas93444 6 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

Intelligence is like a diamond: it has many facets. Gardner's theory argues that intelligence, particularly as it is traditionally defined, does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities humans display.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I would have considered most of Gardner's types of intelligence to be more in the area of "talent" or "ability" rather intelligence, although he does make some good points. His number/reasoning smarts would come closest to my concept, although I would not limit it to mathematics or even make that a large part of it.

At the same time, I would still believe that most of his types are also going downhill. For instance, Body Smart is hard to show for a couch potato. Our physical abilities are definitely declining. People Smart folks are ever more able to control the general population, but not because they are particularly people smart - rather the general population will not take time to reason about what they are told or how they are being controlled. Nearly all Americans seem very dissatisfied with our politicians in general, but are not smart enough to do anything about it. Likewise, Linguistic Smarts are hard to exhibit when a person is illiterate and has the vocabulary of a 10 year old from 50 years ago. The only one of Gardners group I would consider to be possibly increasing would by his Nature Smarts and then only if you consider the ability to see and recognize such things as type of makeup, brand of shoes, model of car, etc. This seems to me to be on the increase. Social climbing is becoming more important with increasing numbers of people and that is one way to gain advantage. That, however, seems more of a memorization effect than reasoning ability to me.

raisingme profile image

raisingme 6 years ago from Fraser Valley, British Columbia

I enjoyed this read.....I think. "If you don't use it you lose it" It seems to me that those among us who "drive the expansion of knowledge" are those who have the ethics and integrity to take responsibility for their own innate intelligence, knowledge, skills and abilities. There are those whose intelligence is invested in cleverness, shrewdness, deceit and guile. And those who take no responsibility whatsoever and vaguely wag their blaming fingers in the general direction of something called 'they'. And we too often quash any signs of intelligent life in our children before they even have a chance to flex their 'muscles'. I think that many people are afraid to acquire knowledge because the next step terrifies them - the application of it. In order for one to apply their knowledge they have to be willing to be seen and known. And if you don't think that's pretty scary, take a look at what we do to those that are seen and known - like crabs we try to pull them back down into the pot and failing that we just wag our tongues and fingers. If we applied as much life force supporting and assisting each other to grow as we do to keeping ourselves and others dumbed down it would be a different world altogether.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I'm glad you enjoyed it. And you make some very good points. There is considerable research now pointing to the elderly in that they need to continue learning and using their minds. Schooling, mind puzzles, etc. "Use it or lose it" indeed.

I never thought about quashing our children, but you're right. We try to fill their heads with knowledge, but not with the ability to actually use that knowledge. They may learn the rules, for instance, on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but if they can't tell what the sales tax is on a $10 item, the rules aren't doing much good.

Your comment about supporting and assisting others is also right on, and a real shame. Part of my job is to teach and train others to do what I learned to do from my own teachers and it is probably the most rewarding part of my work.

raisingme profile image

raisingme 6 years ago from Fraser Valley, British Columbia

I just started on Hubpages three weeks ago myself and I am very much enjoying the experience. I look forward to reading your future Hubs!

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Well, I would welcome you, but I'm the newbie compared to you! LOL. And I, too, am enjoying the experience.

lxxy profile image

lxxy 6 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

"... how to make common sheetrock?" You're right, I don't know that last one.

I think human intelligence is increasing globally because of the technology infrastructure your species is busy building. Almost all young adults today are cyborgs, and children are garnering their first cell phone earlier and earlier.

Third world countries are gaining internet access and the price of laptops are dropping rapidly, not to mention cell phones are getting more sophisticated.

If you know how to access information, and know what information to look for, I would assume you to be of learned enough intelligence to reason most common daily tasks.

The older generations struggle, but many adapt--some better, some not as well. But most can at least play solitare.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Certainly, children are learning new technology oriented things that their parents and grandparents do not know. At the same time they cannot do even simple things like track and kill their supper. They can't clean their kill, or even start the fire to cook it with without a match and paper. A different knowledge base does not equate with better or even larger.

To make it worse, what they DO learn they often can't use. They learn basic arithmetic, but if the cash register goes down they can't make simple change. They drive a car, but can't do the most minor of repairs (tire change maybe). They can't find information on the net because even though they know better they assume anything that they find that agrees with what they want the answer to be is true. Fewer and fewer people bother to think about anything except what might apply to immediate problems, such as maintaining a job.

lxxy profile image

lxxy 6 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

I think with the rise of bio-engineering and cybernetics you'll find less need placed on the basics--but with a frontier-like society being spurned on from starship cruising, maybe they'll need to recover their pioneering skills again generations later.

As far as maintaining a job--I think children today can learn to do such things, as soon as jobs become available. ;)

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I agree that the "old basics" are not real important today, although your possibilities for the future bear weight. Will anyone be able to build a log cabin? An interesting question.

It is the "new basics" such as simple math, good english skills, legible writing, etc. that concern me. In all too many cases these skills, basic to modern life, are missing in our young, new employees. One of the most common college courses is probably math 100 - a remedial course because it was presented, but not learned in high school. Why isn't it learned? It is now necessary for most jobs and certainly college, but so many high school graduates don't learn it. For whatever reason (boring, unwilling, can't understand math, etc) it is not being learned. Students can't seem to get it. When pressed, such as college entrance, they struggle through it, but how long will it be till we either remove math from college requirements or begin flunking students out because they can't pass a basic math course? A course they have already had and flunked whether or not their grade reflected that.

Fluffymetal profile image

Fluffymetal 6 years ago from Texas

Very interesting information. Great writing style. I look forward to reading more of your hubs.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Thank you for the compliment; I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

Aneesh3 profile image

Aneesh3 6 years ago from India

This hub is also Useful Wilderness.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

Thanks, Aneesh3. If we could only get people to actually think instead of simply reacting to life I think we would all be better off. Maybe the hub will convince someone somewhere to do just that.

Pente profile image

Pente 6 years ago from Planet Earth

Due to the sheer amount of information available to us, I believe that it is reasoning skills that are becoming the most important aspect of intelligence in our society.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I agree, although not perhaps for the same reason. It is our reasoning skills that have made Homo Sapiens the premier animal on the planet. Unfortunately it seems that the ability to truly reason, correctly and consistently, is becoming a lost art. Memorizing large amounts of information does not convey the ability to actually use that information or to reason properly.

Instead, most people seem to think with their emotions. Like a small child, what they WANT to be true MUST be true because...because...well, it just IS!

Bronson_Hub profile image

Bronson_Hub 6 years ago from San Francisco, CA

I agree with your opinion entirely. Critical thinking is such a valid tool, and even higher learning institutions don't always encourage that behavior as a whole (individuals within those institutions make exceptions against this case).

Even at UCLA in Philosophy, the formula we followed was the professor picked an argument for us, and gave us two options, sometimes 3 to regurgitate what we studied saying we were learning to critically think and present our opinions.

To actually learn how to critically think, I had to distance myself from that part of the school and learn lessons outside of academia. That's when things started to make sense is when practical application trumped the misleading "intelligence" we pat ourselves on the backs for when we pass a standardized test.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I hadn't realized it was so bad in the colleges today. But, you know, too many professors are good only at cramming information in - not in teaching how to think critically and accurately. They don't know how themselves!

And yes, it is the practical application of all that knowledge crammed into our schools where so many of us fail utterly. Knowledge is not intelligence.

jpcmc profile image

jpcmc 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

Comparing prehistoric humans with modern man will undoubtedly yield a huge improvement. On an evolutionary perspective, it's quite difficult to determine if the modern man is actually evolving since the data on this is limited.

Moreover, how we view intelligence has morphed in the past few centuries. Now we talk about emotional intelligence which was unheard of before.

Today kids have imbibed a life with more technical information while back then, we learned about computers when we were older.

The times are changing and the type and level of intelligence must be appropriate to survive.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

I am not so sure that the average man of 10,000 years ago was not more intelligent than the average man is now. Our children are learning more technical "stuff" but less and less of what it actually is or how it works - I don't see that as an increase in intelligence.

You make a good point about the times changing and the level of intelligence required or appropriate to survive. It used to be you had to be smarter than the carnivores around you, but now all you have to do to survive is have kids and go on welfare. Almost no intelligence is required to not only survive but reproduce and that has changed from prior millenia. This method of "survival" is unfortunately growing all the time and will inevitably result in a lowering of the average intelligence of mankind. Without a need for it, intelligence will not develop to it's maximum and evolution indicates we will, on the average, lose it.

4 years ago

Strange you write an article on intelligence when you can't spell "tyre" correctly. Makes the whole thing less persuasive...

wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

LOL You must be from Europe, where the sad process is accelerating even faster than the US.

Half of you folks don't even know which side of the road to drive on for goodness sake!

GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

I'd guess it's increasing though I don't know how to measure that. I'm just putting it out there because children have parents who interact with them more than they did 'in the older days' and during their formative years. Interesting, let me have a think on this!

sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 4 years ago from India

There are all kind of people with different IQ today just like 1000 years back. But if you take over all intelligence then it has increased over the time. Kids these days know much more than our parents did at their age. Atleast in India people who did college in 1980s find it very difficult to do maths problems of 8th standard kids while they do it in minutes.

SimeyC profile image

SimeyC 4 years ago from NJ, USA

I don't think there is a truly objective measure over time - it simply changes. The challenges that our ancestors face were different and as such required a different type of intelligence - the human brain seems to adapt to what is needed at any given time - in times of war, amazing strategists appear - in the time of need other 'differemt' intelligent people appear...

wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

@sweetie: Do they really know more, or do they just know different things, things that their parents had no use for? How many 12 year old kids today could build their own home, kill and cook their own food over a fire that they made without matches or paper? Intelligence isn't a measurement of how much, or what, you know. It's part of the reason that IQ tests are invariably very biased towards a particular culture despite all efforts to remove that bias.

@Simey: Good answer. Intelligence 10,000 years ago was not concerned with abstract though processes, but rather with interpreting (correctly) the 3D images eyes produced and coupling it with information from other senses to deduce the best method of catching and killing that bison on the horizon. The very TYPE of reasoning has changed from being very visual based to far more abstract and symbol based as we can no long directly experience (see, feel, etc.) what we need to think about.

weestro profile image

weestro 4 years ago from Virginia

Great hub wilderness, I think we are just getting lazy, I wrote a hub titled idiocracy prophecy a while back about it. Anyway, enjoyed this, voted up!

wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho Author

You may very well be right - life today is not the struggle our cave men ancestors faced and we don't NEED to reason and work hard mentally all the time, sunup to sundown.

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