Human Intelligence - increasing or decreasing?
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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