Monday, April 02, 2012

If IQ declines in rich countries, where does that leave our better angels?

It seems that the so-called "Flynn Effect" -- the steady rise of average IQ in developed nations -- may have very recently gone into reverse in some countries. So suggest studies in England, Denmark and Norway, reports Philip Hunter in Prospect (flagged by Sullivan). If the trend is real, and lasting, and widespread, it could spell serious trouble for continued decline in violence tracked by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

In Better Angels, Flynn attributes the "rights revolutions" of recent decades, in which oppression of one group after another has come under fire or become taboo, to the spread of capacity for abstract reasoning. Not only recognition of common humanity but a sense of proportionality in inflicting punishment and deploying violence require the "Rational-Legal model' of moral judgment, which in turn "requires the nonintuitive tools of symbolic mathematics, such as fractions, percentages, and exponentiation...and depends on the cognition-enhancing skills of literacy and numeracy" (Kindle location 14338).  What if those skills no longer continue to grow, and indeed start on average to decline, in those countries that have laid  the rules of the road for the international community?

The research Hunter cites was published in 2009 (by James Flynn, in the study of IQ in England) and 2005 (a study of IQ in Denmark) -- and so presumably available to Pinker.  A weakness in Pinker's overall argument, it seems to me, is that he does not consider the possibility that various negative or potentially worrisome trends in the United States and Europe -- countries at the vanguard of the global decline in violence -- could undermine the progress to date that he documents. Some such trends he tracks himself, but does not consider their possible long-term effects: these include parental overprotectiveness and the dumbing down of American political discourse (he cites a study finding that the complexity of political speech in the U.S. has declined since the early nineties).  Others he does not consider at all, including rising income inequality -- and perhaps, I would now add, reverse Flynn.

While human life has improved dramatically over time, the progress, as Pinker acknowledges, has been far from linear. Societies decline, and when they do, both the decline in violence and the production of material wealth can go into reverse for very long seasons.  Whether the near- to mid-term future is bright or grim, western power will decline relative to Asian and that of other developing parts of the world -- it has to, if world prosperity is to grow.  Whether, in tandem with that decline, the best of values developed first in the west will be adopted, adapted and transformed for the better by emerging powers, or whether harsher values will accompany further technological advance, remains very much up in the air.

More on Better Angels
Reason vs. Love, or Steven Pinker vs. Martin Luther King 
Better Angels in Super Hornets
Better dead than red, revisited
Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?
Better angels leave their kitchens in Cairo
How our better angels' wings might be clipped
Religion helped develop our better angels
Better angels in the news
The bettering angels of our nature

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