In response to my previous post noting that the Flynn effect turns out to be a mirage, at least two respondents have suggested that average IQ has actually been falling, and have pointed to the alleged dumbing-down of politics and popular culture in the last fifty years.
I think both those respondents and the psychometricians are correct. That is, it seems to me that during my lifetime I’ve seen evidence that average IQ has risen a little, but that other traits involved in the “smart or stupid” judgment have eroded.
On the one hand, I’ve previously described the emergence of geek culture, which I take among other things as evidence that there are more bright and imaginative individuals around than there were when I was a kid. Enough of us, now, to claim a substantial slice of turf in the cultural marketplace. This good news is reinforced for me be the explosive growth of the hacker community, which today is easily a hundred times the size it was in, say, 1975 — and far larger than I ever dreamed it would be then.
On the other hand, when I compare Americans today to the country of my childhood there are ways the present comes off rather badly. We are more obese, we have shorter attention spans, our divorce rate has skyrocketed. All these and other indicators tell me that we have (on average) lost a significant part of our capacity to exert self-discipline, defer gratification, and honor contracts when the going gets tough.
To sum up, we’re brighter than we used to be, but lazier. We have more capacity, but we use less of it. Physically and mentally we are self-indulgent, flabby, unwilling to wake up from the consumer-culture dream of entitlement. We pursue happiness by means ever more elaborate and frenetic, dimishing returns long since having set in. When reality hands us a wake-up call like 9/11, too many of us react with denial and fantasy.
This is, of course, not a new complaint. Juvenal, Horace, and Petronius Arbiter wrote much the same indictment of their popular culture at the height of the Roman Empire. They were smart enough to understand, nigh on two millenia ago, that this is what happens to elites who have it easy, who aren’t tested and winnowed by war and famine and plague and poverty.
But there are important differences. One is that while decadence used to be an exclusive problem of the upper crust, we are all aristocrats now. More importantly, where the Romans believed that decadence in individuals and societies was inevitable, we know (because we’ve kept records) that as individuals we are taller, stronger, healthier, longer-lived and more intelligent than our ancestors — that, in fact, we have reaped large gains merely within the last century.
We have more capacity, but we use less of it. And, really, is it any surprise? Our schools are abandoning truth for left-wing bullshit about multiculturalism and right-wing bullshit about “intelligent design”. Our politics has become a wasteland of rhetorical assassinations in which nobody but the fringe crazies believe even their own slogans any more. Our cultural environment has become inward-turned, obsessed with petty intramural squabbles, clogged with cant. Juvenal would find it all quite familiar.
In a cultural environment gone so decadent, why shouldn’t individuals spend most of their capability on idle pleasures — status games, video games, role-playing games, sex and drugs and rock and roll?
Notice that what I’m not offering here is any moral condemnation. The classical way to respond to noticing cultural decadence and individual self-indulgence is to launch into a conservative or reactionary rant, but I consider those boring and pointless. I don’t have the conservative’s desire to scold people and tell them what to
do. Nor am I any more eager than the Roman satirists to see a return of virtue and toughness, if the price is a return to the poverty and suffering that hammered our ancestors into virtuous and tough
Instead, I’ll reverse the previous question, and ask: what are we offering people to do with all their capacity? The subcultures that are escaping decadence, like the open-source movement or the U.S.’s volunteer military in Iraq, are composed of people who have dedicated themselves to a goal bigger than they are. What are we doing to find new goals as large or larger? What more could we doing to call forth peak performance from our increased capabilities?
Yet another similarity with Rome is that the barbarians are at our gates, but far too many of us cannot summon the will to fight them. In some ways we are coping with the threat less well than Rome did, exhibiting not merely denial but an active willingness to pander to them as though they have the virtues we have given up. But while war against Islamofascism is necessary, it’s too easy — not in my judgment a sufficiently stiff challenge to demand peak performance from the average member of our civilization. Not enough to get the couch potatoes and slackers off their butts, not enough by itself to restore a tone of moral seriousness to our
civilization. Not yet, anyway.
And I’m not going to fall into the temptation of hoping that changes, either. Much as I might like to live in a less decadent civilization — one in which our increased intelligence translates into more virtuous collective behavior — I hope we can find a way to it that doesn’t involve megadeaths at the hands of jihadis first.