Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Are we really getting any more intelligent?

This post is going to be stuffed full of questions. I'd be grateful for comments which could shed some light on them!

Are human beings today more intelligent (across the whole of the population) than they were 100 years ago? 1,000 years ago? 1,000,000 years ago? If you could return to Shakespeare's times, would you be surprised by a) how foolish and ignorant your your interlocutor in the Boar's Head tavern was, or b) how smart and knowledgable he was?

IQ as a measure of human intelligence works on the basis that average value is 100, with equal distribution below and above that mark. But is today's IQ 100 higher - or lower - than that of Elizabethan England or Jagiellionian Poland? The spread of education and the written word has raised levels of learning - but in terms of innate ability to reason, to intuit, to be aware - is there any qualitative increase in intelligence over the millennia since homo sapiens emerged as a species? (The Wikipedia article on the Flynn effect is interesting but inconclusive). Are we smarter as well as brighter? Wiser or just better able to solve problems? Is intelligence a cumulative result of generations of increasingly better educated parents?

One would guess, by Darwinian deduction, that intelligence being a trait that confers biological advantage on its possessor, just as a bigger more colourful tail would suggest that its peacock owner would be biologically more fit.

My next set of questions are tougher. Is there a link between levels of consciousness (or awareness) and intelligence? In other words, the quality of one's reactions to moments, lost in wonder, gazing at a marvellous painting or landscape, listening to a beautiful piece of music or pondering a poignant thought that connects one to the Eternal? Is it possible to have a high IQ and yet be hollow, vapid, lacking in human qualities?

Specialist or generalist - who's more intelligent? The single-mindedly focused, or the gifted all-rounder who excels in no one field?

Intelligence and the story-telling gene - as I tell my pupils, your knowledge is useless if you can't communicate it. Is the ability to get your point of view across more, or less, or equally important as having a point of view worth communicating? Which leads me swiftly onto emotional intelligence, is it a more human measure than sheer number-crunching IQ? Mankind's greatest scientists were generally people lacking social skills, suggesting low EI, but their restricted, repetitive behaviours and interests have led to the scientific advances that bestow on us today a standard of living (and lifespan) undreamt of a millennium ago.

Should we be looking therefore at a larger number of spectrums defining intelligence? Now were getting somewhere. But, as we can see from this article, science still has a long way to go before a theory of multiple intelligences becomes mainstream.

I believe we're at a fascinating time in human history - akin to the Enlightenment, when alchemy gave way to scientific method. Advances in genetics, neuroscience and subatomic physics will give mankind a clearer understanding of what we can know and what lies beyond our ken. The single most complex thing that man has discovered so far is the human brain.

And yet... Question on BBC 1's The Weakest Link (same format as TVN's Najsłabsze Ogniwo):

Question: What word beginning with the letter C describes snakes like the python, boa and anaconda that crush their prey?

Answer: Arachnophobic?

Some excellent articles from the New Scientist about the human brain and intelligence here.

19 comments:

student SGH said...

A good post should include many questions, but it's better if doesn't offer too many answers. Too many answers would make reading too easy, bedides, there's no quick fix, especially in the topic of intelligence.

I've just heard on the radio that some scientists worked out human brain reaches a peak of its activity when a man is aged 22. Bearing in mind my brain is now having the time of its life I'm trying to figure out how to make extensive use of it.

Now seriously.
I've been long wondering why such a progress in science and technology in the last century was possible. Changes the twentieth century witnessed were unprecedented. For centuries civilisations were slowly moving along, what pushed them to make such a big stride in the last decades, I mean what contributed to such fast pace?

I think what our ancestors pass on us some knowledge, so we have to spend less time thinking how to solve many problems, we have ready solutions and the saved time can be spent on moving forward and tackling only those unsolved problems.

Is it possible to have a high IQ and yet be hollow, vapid, lacking in human qualities?

If it's true that Doda has a high IQ then the answer to your question is positive and the world is falling apart.

Specialist or generalist - who's more intelligent? The single-mindedly focused, or the gifted all-rounder who excels in no one field?

A specialist is someone who has spent more time focusing on one of a few issue an has an in-depth insight into them. A generalist is a well-rounded man, whose knowledge is often superficial. Both are appreciated by society in different ways. A generalist in for more intelligent, by dint of his versatility and flexibility. Specilisation carries a threat of narrow-mindedness.

your knowledge is useless if you can't communicate it

Then don't try saving on translation services ;-)

Is the ability to get your point of view across more, or less, or equally important as having a point of view worth communicating?

Equally, I lately attended a lecture by K. Rybinski and I have to say in spite of his knowldge, cleverness and wit he doesn't have a gift for sharing it. Many other students shared my observations.

Mankind's greatest scientists were generally people lacking social skills, suggesting low EI

Remember John Nash who was a main character of A beautiful mind? I sometimes suppose human brain's capacity is limited, so if someone is very talented in maths, maybe their brain lacks room for EI.

And can after intelligence by numerically measured by some quotients.

Still more questions than answers, but I hope something has cleared up.

scatts said...

Bloody hell! Too much comment required for such a small little box. I'll try.

Are we smarter now than we were before? I would imagine it's a fair assumption that the average level of intelligence is higher purely because of advances in education systems and formation of a middle class - less poverty. I would however not expect to see a significant improvement, most likely even a drop, in the intelligence of an educated person now versus an educated person back then.

Darwin. Who's to say that evolution is not driving us to become less intelligent? For example to prevent us from killing the planet and eveyone on it? I wouldn't bet against it.

Is it possible to have a high IQ and yet be hollow, vapid, lacking in human qualities? - YES

Specialist or generalist - I feel that the human brain, no matter how excellent it may be, does have a relatively finite capacity. Much as does any computer. This capacity can either be used to some effect on many different topics, with more depth on fewer topics or in the greatest possible depth on one or two topics. I think we need people who do all of the above.

I think another important factor is how well people use "down time". The way SETI uses downtime of computers to do work. Any measure of inteligence needs to calculate what your brain is doing when it's not working on something, not just the output of certain measured tasks.

The single most complex thing that man has discovered so far is the human brain. - very possibly but I think black holes and the whole quantum mechanics field might give the brain a good run for its money!

There are obviously different forms of intelligence and we need them all. The trick is being able to apply the person with the right kind of intelligence to the right kind of task and this is something we are terribly bad at right now. Were I as sci-fi writer, this might make a very good topic for a book (if it hasn't already been done).

adthelad said...

I was just watching this video lecture http://www.tpuc.org/content/my-stroke-insight when I decided to visit your weblog and read the latest posting. Coincidence?

Jeannie said...

Even Einstein refused to memorize phone numbers so that he could save room for more important things. He was a specialist; he wasn't lacking in human qualities, though. Take Stephen Hawking, through no fault of his own, his I.Q. is extremely high, he's a specialist, but closed into his own world. He can still think. Emotions can derail intelligence where fear comes into play, because the fight or flight responses take over--fear can develop from anger or jealousy, etc. Do you remember that American Astronaut woman who became so jealous of her boyfriend's new lover that she wore a Depend's diaper and drove across the country without stopping to confront the woman with a knife in an airport? That was an astronaut, someone who was intelligent enough to have earned her position yet stupid enough to have ever concocted this scheme--this is what emotions can do to intelligence. Also, mankind's frontal lobe space, the thinking part has increased over the years (I saw this on some TV show) so that we are using more of that space now, though judging by some of the modern RAP music, I wonder why we bother. In the olden days we would memorize what trees, herbs, plants, flowers were medicinal, poisonous, etc., and have probably hundreds of these in our minds--much more useful than rap street banter, IMHO.

Anyway, here is a sardine sandwich that I thought you'd enjoy (good for the brain, too):

-Take a slice of whole wheat toast (or untoasted)
-spread 1/2 mashed or sliced avocado
-2 tsp mayo
-2 sardines (1/2 small tin)
-sliced tomato
-lettuce of your choice
-top with other half of toast

adthelad said...

Most frustrating. The link I provided above is a lecture by a Jill Bolte Taylor who is a neuroanatomist and her talk highlights the 'battle' between the left and right sides of the brain (and the seduction of 'intelligence'). Most frustrating however, is that my lhs does not know how to post a link on Blogger that can be clicked on to take you automatically to the relevant page (SHG knows how I see from his post). Doesn't happen on other web logs I've responded to. I've tried using 'Dummies guide to Blogger' but terms are not explained and however I write a code it gets rejected and is unpostable. Any chance of someone using the link I posted above to show me how I would write a code to make it into a direct link? Thanks.

student SGH said...

Adthelad, firstly don't call me what others can see

example:
"site address" is "http://student-sgh.blogspot.com/"

and the final link is
what others can see.

Hope you got it.

student SGH said...

damn it, the code is beyond my control!

It was meant to go:

firstly don't call me SGH

student SGH said...

now let's get to grips with HTML

the code is:
what others can see

and remove the X and instead of 'hrXef, use 'href' and should work.

I had to spoil it prevent codes from working!

student SGH said...

sorry for the rubbish above.

Adtheland, write an e-mail to me (address can be found in my profile). Here I won't explain anything.

adthelad said...

Sorry student SGH - my error - I have a tendency to use shorthand - SGH is quicker to type. Maybe sSGH will be ok in future?

Thanks for for the offer of help by the way - will be in touch.

p.s. don't call me Adtheland - it's adthelad (actually - call me whatever you like - I won't mind, as long as it's not intentionally offensive - even then I'm sure I'll only dispute why you decide to call me what you decide call me).

student SGH said...

sorry for the 'n', typing error only, not an attempt of revenge.

Michael Dembinski said...

Intelligence and wrestling with HTML - I compose in the Blogger window, insert a link over the text, then switch from 'compose' mode to 'html' mode - and there's the link, perfectly set out in faultless HTML which I can cut and paste into any comments box.

adthelad said...

I was intrigued you didn't comment on the link I posted - seemed to cover both the matter of cognisance and what you describe as flashbacks of events/ places you do not consciously remember. Here's another interesting one http://tiny.cc/h2ngs

Michael Dembinski said...

The Croatian teenager that wakes from a coma speaking fluent German is a fascinating story, it's good that modern science will be able to study this case.

Jill Bolte Taylor - I read something along these lines recently though I can't find chapter and verse.

adthelad said...

The quote at the end also leaves you thinking. "There are references to cases where people who have been seriously ill and perhaps in a coma have woken up being able to speak other languages – sometimes even the Biblical languages such as that spoken in old Babylon or Egypt – at the moment though any speculation would remain just that – speculation – so it's better to continue tests until we actually know something."
I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray and Love' and her attainment of meditational Nirvana seems very close to what JBT described in her talk.

Michael Dembinski said...

JBT - found it:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91861432

adthelad said...

I have to post this here though probably no one will see it. Perhaps you'll let your kids see it http://tpuc.org/content/sir-ken-robinson-do-schools-kill-creativit

Michael Dembinski said...

Listening to Sir Ken right now...

"All kids have tremendous talents"

94% of children go to university but only 24% of kids go to university. I find the word "kids" spoken by an educated middle class person deeply patronising...

Gross generalisations, I'm afraid.

"All children are born artists, said Picasso" Twaddle. They are not.

"There isn't an education system on this planet that doesn't make maths more important than dance." Well, Sir Ken, there's a good reason for that.

"Creativity is having original ideas that add value" - yes, but what about HARD WORK? You can't get away from 10,000 hours.

adthelad said...

I don't want to waste your time, seriously, but if you ever want an interlude - here's the lady he was referring to http://www.ted.com/talks/sirena_huang_dazzles_on_violin.html