Why are we becoming dumber?

I previously agreed with the contention of the book At Our Wits End that people in general–especially in the “Western” parts of the world–are becoming dumber, and I have reached the part of the book where the authors try to explain WHY. Some of their major conclusions, backed by studies, are: intelligence is heritable; it is negatively correlated with fertility, impulsivity, materialism, and selfishness; it is positively correlated with delaying gratification, openness to new ideas and information, broadness of vocabulary, physical reaction time and altruism. A correlation does not explain cause and effect, however. Some of the correlative factors are causes of intelligence, some are effects, and some are indirectly related.

Heritability: “In twin studies, researchers test identical twins, meaning that the only variable causing them to diverge is the environment. Intelligence is seemingly 80% heritable—meaning that 80% of the variation among individuals is due to genetic factors and overwhelmingly, therefore, people resemble their parents in terms of intelligence. Those with higher intelligence will tend to create a more intellectually stimulating environment for themselves when they grow up, surrounding themselves with other highly intelligent people, for example. For this reason, among others, the heritability of IQ during childhood is not very high, as the child’s environment will be a reflection of factors that are beyond its control. Only as the child becomes an adult will its environment start to reflect its own intelligence.”

They explain the negative correlation between fertility and intelligence: “Simply having the genes that make you smart does not necessarily make you less fertile. Instead, the negative association is driven to a substantial degree by the fact that smart people choose to trade time spent in education against fertility. Education is therefore one key factor that creates selection against the genes responsible for cognitive ability, which indicates that intelligence will decline over time.” The negative correlations with impulsivity, materialism and selfishness are borne out in testing, but they may come down to the degree of ability to visualize possible consequences of actions, and then to control actions which are likely to produce unwanted results.

The positive correlation with delaying gratification is related to the same idea: If I can associate putting off what I want now with having more of something I want later, I can guesstimate the relative odds of my investment of time or money now bearing fruit rather than being wasted. The more intelligent people have faith that what they plant now will bear disproportionately more fruits later, whereas the less intelligent are afraid to risk what they want or have now, due to lack of faith in the idea of investing or lack of patience. I would suppose that makes farmers among the most intelligent people. Of the other positive correlations–openness to new ideas and information, broadness of vocabulary, physical reaction time and altruism–three are obvious, physical reaction time is the least intuitive, but all are borne out by studies.

Correlations are not explanations though. Why are we getting less intelligent? I am about to make the same assumptions about my readers as they make about theirs, that my readers are intelligent enough to weigh evidence objectively without getting upset about the implications of that evidence; if you didn’t want to think rather than just emote, you wouldn’t be reading this. The reasons they list for western societies getting less intelligent are (and I challenge you to go through the reasoning before getting offended):

  1. Less intelligent people having more children than they can properly raise, due to welfare and reduced shaming for out of wedlock birth, and improper use of contraceptives.
  2. More intelligent women having fewer children (or delaying them), due to feminism and more educational and employment opportunities;
  3. Immigration from parts of the world with the least education or poorest health;
  4. Failure of education to select for intelligence rather than conformity!

If our nation IS becoming less intelligent, and if intelligence is heritable to a large extent, then it stands to reason that greater numbers of less intelligent people are coming from somewhere, and fewer numbers of more intelligent people are procreating. They explain each of those reasons groups. 1. Welfare and lack of shaming for out of wedlock births remove barriers to having children for the more impulsive (and least likely to use contraceptives or use them properly); 2. This is obvious. The later women start having children, the fewer they will have; 3. There are lots of reasons people want to live in this country, but most immigrants come for a better life than they had. They may be choosing to brave the rigors and uncertainty of emigrating over what they have at home (which must be pretty bad), or may not be intelligent enough to think through the difficulties. 4. I personally think this is the biggest reason, and the most self-perpetuating. Universities and colleges used to select for and encourage thinking; now thinking is discouraged and conformity to mostly stupid ideas of “equality” of outcome is selected for. The authors believe, therefore, that intelligence will continue to be lost until a survival crisis changes the direction.

I agree with that conclusion, and want to add some personal experience that might be helpful for those wanting to enhance their own intelligence. Take what you can use: Intelligence being expressed as problem solving ability, it should be negatively correlated with the tendency to ask for answers rather than to figure out or research answers, positively correlated with map reading and trip planning rather than depending on GPS. Maybe the latter is my prejudice rather than factual, but I would much rather do the work of studying and memorizing the map, planning the route and visualizing where I am on the map (as I drive) than to use a GPS device, mainly because I consciously choose activities which develop the most neural connections. Visualization practice is a huge aid to intelligence, and map reading is a great way to improve visualization. Many times I have driven with people who are GPS dependent. I often quiz them on what direction we are driving (at midday) and in what direction our destination lies. They usually don’t know either.

I might be an outlier, but if not, then my personal experience is relevant to others. When I was felled at age 70 by a hemorrhagic stroke in 2016, I spent two months in the two best rehabilitation facilities in Spokane. One, St. Luke’s, is world class. About a third of my rehab was cognitive testing, which consisted of all kinds of problem solving–logical, spacial, mathematical, word problems–both on paper and electronic media. The goal of this rehab was to challenge me with harder and harder tasks until I reached the limit of my problem-solving ability. They ran out of tests before I reached my limit. The therapist at St. Luke’s said that I tested higher than anyone he has ever tested in any setting, including non-rehab.

That was surprising for me to hear. He and his colleagues tried to account for this. The stroke should have caused some cognitive falloff, but I strongly suspected that I had become more intelligent, rather than less. The explanation we settled on was neuroplasticity. It is well known that human brains have far more neurons than are being used, and that loss of certain functions is often compensated for by enhancing others. I have averaged reading a book a week, every week since 1970. I still do. I won’t allow myself to watch videos until I have read for at least 4 hours. When I was in 6th grade, I asked my parents to buy me a set of Worldbook Encyclopedias, and I read through the entire set three times, which was more interesting to me than TV. My parents didn’t encourage me one way or the other, and my mother was more concerned with my sociability than my intellectual achievement. Little did I realize that more than 60 years later, I would reap the benefits in cognitive functioning after a stroke. There is little we, as individuals, can do about our societal loss of intelligence, but there’s lots we can do for ourselves and hopefully, for our children. Substitute reading for tv and social media, map every destination before you drive and turn off the GPS, find intelligent blogs and follow them, and best, start writing your own, find debating partners and be willing to admit when you are wrong. Hello geniuses.

Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

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