People Getting Brighter, Culture Getting Dimmer

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
people.

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.

14 thoughts on “People Getting Brighter, Culture Getting Dimmer

  1. Forgive me if this is way off mark…but I feel that the whole world is one big RPG with leaders and statesmen all reading lines spun by spin doctors. And what we are seeing now on TV is presented in such a way that the actual truth gets distorted. We are not only losing the plot, we are losing the skills we once had in the stoneage, the iceage, whatever else age that have gone before. We are not getting brighter, we are becoming dull and lifeless. We need to switch off our TV sets and our computers and switch on to fact we are beening hoodwinked by the media.

  2. The average IQ of the world as a whole is falling, but not because of popular culture (or at least, not directly because of it).

    Rather, the differential birth rate between more and less intelligent people is growing (more intelligent people have fewer children). This is a serious problem with serious consequences. It partially the result of “civilized” society supporting childern who cannot otherwise be supported by their parents, and even because “advanced” nations help children in counties who cannot otherwise support their children. There is also a difference in generation size between more and less intelligent people (less intelligent people have children earlier in their lives). Note this doesn’t depend on a genetic component to intelligence, only that intelligence correlates between parents and children (could be 100% environmental), which is easily shown by many studies.

    A big subject.

  3. It’s strange that I read this just after watching Apollo 13 on The History Channel. We have lost our national will to explore space. This would be, to me, a natural place to give our civilization a goal, just as the moon landing race did in the 1960s…but we’ve lost that national will to make it happen. Do we have the national will to make anything of the sort happen again? I don’t know, but I’m pessimistic about it.

  4. Glad I found this blog. I’m interested in reading and writing about the same kinds of “deep” questions about society that this blog reflects. A word of caution seems in order here: You noted that we need to devote our increased capacities to the achievement of goals that are bigger than we are. That could lead to rather ominous social phenomena, like expanding the power of evangelicals in American society.

  5. Eric, you are right – and the USA is still way more better of than we here in Europe. I can see generally more ambitious, more willing, braver and stronger people there. A good indicator is that our best hackers (Linus, Guido) have moved there. Just let me tell a story. A friend of mine were in Sweden. He went to a gas station to buy some stuff, and he found a couple of drunkards there shouting, kicking the furniture, harassing the clerks and generally making trouble. There was an security guard and just did nothing. So drew his trusty GRP-9 teargas-handgun (http://fegarmy.hu/?p=grp&lang=en) and asked them to stop. Everybody was grateful especially the security guard. And he simply could not believe it – why did the guard not dare to do the same thing? So this a nice example – the USA with handguns, Eastern Europe with teargas-guns and Western Europe with nothing but their “not in my job description” shit. And the barbarians may be at your gates, but they are in our kitchens – the millions and millions of arab immigrants, with an average of 6 children… big, big trouble ahead. And the political asshole now want to get Turkey into the EU… really don’t know how to stop this crazyness. I know a German guy who moved here (Budapest) and told me the reason: they wanted to live at a place where men are still men and women are still women. Well, what to say… but in culture we are at an even worse situation: I think Western Europe and USA is dumping here all the outdated, out-of-fashion shit and succesfully concinvincing all the stupid people to think that’s hip, because it has “Rome”, “London” or “New York” printed on it – while in Rome, London or New York people would never buy that second-grade, outdated, low quality shit.

  6. Concerning the idea of goals bigger than we are leading to an ominous social phenomena, I believe the solution and the clue is in open source development. In the open source world, it is the self interest of the free market that guides and molds the projects. This leverages everyones self interest and provides the much needed information that a centrally planned system is incapable of. Whereas with evangelicals for instance you have a central power structure. Such a structure cannot leverage the free market system. Also in a free market system, goals that are bigger than we are will come about in an almost evolutionary way. Kind of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. We have many examples in nature. Such as how DNA and other chemical process produce a system with much greater complexity than the underlying structures themselves, such as ourselves for example.

  7. Shenpen: I spent the better part of a year travelling and living in various parts of eastern Europe (including about three months in your fair city). I thought it was a fascinating region of the world, and I’m sure a large part of what draws people from North America, western Europe or the Antipodes there is that it still has a certain romance about it (although most of the ex-pats I met were complete misfits living in some bubble half-way between the west and the east) and it’s a bit of a frontier (the beautiful women and cheap alcohol help too I think). It doesn’t seem nearly so sanitised as where we are from and people will speak their minds and not worry about being politically correct (although I’m sure that will change). Of course, the grass is always greener, and I can certainly see why eastern Europe wants to mimic the west, and the east still has a lot to contend with in terms of wacky governments, corruption and racism. Still, I’m of the mind that in the long term, joining the EU was a very, very big mistake for eastern Europe as eastern Europe may indeed have been able to make something of itself, given time. As it is, in twenty years time, western Europe will be a massive liability for eastern Europe, if eastern Europe hasn’t gone the same way by then. Still, to some extent, you were hamstrung. I mean, if everyone else joined, unless you were like Switzerland (which no eastern European nation was) and could afford to go it alone and be left out in the cold, what option did you have?

  8. One of the more compelling explanations I’ve read for at least part of this phenomenon is Doing Our Own Thing by linguist John McWhorter. Essentially, he argues that, mostly as a by product of the attacks on authority during the 60s, we’ve moved from a writing-based cultural that values formality and artifice to a neo-oral cultural that values casualness and spontenaity.

  9. Good carnival-submit. Great, posts which follow. Intelligence has indeed escalated, and with the birth rate at an uncontrolled high, we become innovators of mass efficiency vs. individualized skills for advancement. “If you are not the solution, you are part of the problem” seems to be the intelligence. Yet who could organize a consciousness around the masses of a “bell curve” of over-population? (This must change)
    MEDIA is (WAS) in perfect position to dominate the rest of our over-growth consciousness.
    With blogging, we are no longer letting it! Glad I found your blog…
    Cheers, MensaB
    ps: glen reynolds did memo of the Carnival (on 25th) glad I caught it. (^_^)

  10. > …we are all aristocrats now…

    And we will be for a while – before the cheap energy from oil that is the base of recent economical development (20th century) runs out.

    We will have a little bigger problems than so-called Islamofascism then. See http://www.hubbertpeak.com/ and http://dieoff.org for more information.

  11. … with evangelicals for instance you have a central power structure. Such a structure cannot leverage the free market system.

    Arguably, it leverages the market in ideas to gain members from other sects.  But that’s a nit.

    It’s good that we have geek culture, science and other meritocratic elements of civil society.  On the flip side, when the broader ethos is anti-intellectual and puts whim over knowledge (“I want a Hummer and buck-fifty gas and anybody who tells me I can’t have it is un-American!”) there isn’t much that merit and reality can do to reshape things in the short term.

  12. Andrej: When the natural oil runs out, we can synthesize oil from coal using nuclear power. That will give us plenty of time to come up with something else for when the coal runs out, for there is lots. Lots under American soil, too, and already it’s being mined.

    Regarding the “broader ethos”, how much do you think our atrocious state school system has had to do with this?

  13. In order for a nation to stay fit and keep some moral standards it has to face some challenge. It has to face it, not to try to avoid it by denial of some realities.
    Some 30 to 50 years ago it was the cold war that made America stick together, and did about the same thing for western Europe.
    What is it going to be this time?
    Or is the whole “civilised” world going to plunge into a promiscuous self-indulgence?

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