Apr 3, 2009

Book Review: What Is Intelligence? - The Flyn Effect

The author of this book, Professor James Flynn, takes a look at the implications of the Flynn Effect. The Flynn Effect is the name given to the observed phenomenon that each succeeding generation has been smarter than the one before it. Using data from over 30 countries that have conducted IQ tests it has been found that this phenomenon of increasing IQ levels exists all over the world. In fact, in developed countries there has been an estimated 18-27.5 point increase in IQ which raises some interesting paradoxes.

The paradoxes are as follows;

1. In the IQ tests used, the particular increase most noted is that this generation is better at ‘similarities’ part of the IQ test. General information, vocabulary and arithmetic show no increase going back 50 years (though with mass schooling – and all the ‘improvement’ implemented - theoretically there should have been increase). The part of the IQ that has most developed has nothing to do with schooling

2. This part of the IQ test shows such large increases in IQ that is our IQ tests really test intelligence we should notice that our children are talking with a subtelity that is beyond our comprehension. Yet this is not so. (or are our kids really super geniuses conspiring to take over like Stewie in ‘The Family Guy’? )

3. The next paradox I s that if we take the current gains and project them backwards we get the untenable hypothesis that our earlier generations had IQ levels that would currently be considered to be at the level of being mentally retarded. If IQ gains being reflected in our tests are real intelligence indicators the only explanation is that our ancestors were mentally retarded compared to us.

4. The next paradox is that identical twin paradox. Studies done on how successful twins have been indicates that IQ may be genetic because even twins separated at birth were shown to have almost identical IQs at adulthood. If there is a genetic influence on IQ then how can there be such huge generational IQ increases?

The author then proceeds to provide possible answers to these paradoxes

1. The IQ tests used, "measure a variety of cognitive skills that are functionally independent and responsive to changes in social priorities over time". This means that when social needs change an individual experiences growth in that aspect of the IQ that is required to deal with these changes.

2. To say an IQ gain is an intelligence gain skews the meaning of IQ tests. What it shows is the development of various cognitive skills. In our times some aspects of our cognitive skills have experienced great leaps while other aspects haven’t. "To assess cognitive trends we must dissect ‘intelligence’ into solving mathematical problems, interpreting the great works of literature, finding on-the-spot solutions, assimilating the scientific worldview, critical acumen, and wisdom."

3. "Our ancestors in 1900 were not mentally retarded. Their intelligence was anchored in everyday reality." For example, if asked ‘What are the similarities between rabbits and dogs” the current generation would be sure to say that they are both mammals from the animal kingdom (or some variation of this). While a person from over a century ago would say they both like to run. The dogs like to chase the rabbits and the rabbits run away from them. Both answers are correct from the particular perspective that the individuals are used to dealing with. The difference is that in the older generation concrete realities are the dominant perspective while in the other the abstractions (a view provided by science) I still the normal mode of perception.

4. The types of IQ that are built over a lifetime are powerfully influenced by one’s environment. For example, if a person has a genetic disposition to being tall and coordinated AND they are in a culture that values basketball then this person is likely to have high development in basketball skills and lower development in mathematics. If the case is of twins separated at birth, both will be tall and coordinated – and as long as they are in a culture that values basketball –even if they grow up in different cities they will have similar IQ levels. This is because genetic predisposition made them more likely to develop a certain set of skills over another.

The main difference between us and our ancestors is that we have adopted the scientific worldview i.e. ‘scientific spectacles’, “Science altered our minds and then liberated our minds from the concrete.” This gave us the ability to be able to make abstractions that makes us more flexible and innovative in our thoughts

Another trend noticed in the Flynn Effect data is that developing nations have begun to show marked increases in IQ just like the developed world…in fact, there is even evidence of a slow down in developed countries IQ;

Page 175 “There are signs that IQ gains may cease in developed nations in the twenty-first century but may take off in the developing world. This would eliminate the IQ gap that separates these two worlds and refute those who see the lower IQs of developing nations as largely fixed cause of lack of economic progress. It would show that industrialization and IQ rise in tandem and boost one another in a cycle of reciprocal causation. All of this assumes that problems of food supply, water supply, energy supply, and climate do starve the poor and debase the rich.”

In other words, as third world nations become educated enough to switch from the world of the concrete to the world of abstractions (i.e. they use a scientific viewpoint) this will increase their IQ scores.


The author goes through examples that show how little we really know about intelligence and he suggests studies and observations that we can make over the coming years (and decades) that can help our understanding on this topic. At present we do not have enough knowledge to know exactly what intelligence is, much less who is really smarter than another.

Read a short preview on Google Books.

Learning & Education

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