Sunday, October 19, 2008

What If the Flynn Effect Has Ended?

Some recent studies have suggested the Flynn effect might soon be ending (at least in the Scandinavian countries), and several authors, including Professor Flynn himself, have latched onto this possibility like it were a lifeline being tossed to a drowning man. Those who have regarded the Flynn effect as mostly a twentieth century phenomenon—an historical anomaly, as it were—are experiencing near palpable relief at this hint the anomaly might soon be going away. Such a disappearance would end their fright, would end their gnawing fear that mankind is indeed growing ruthlessly more intelligent in a damn near inexplicable way.

But some of us are not so easily frightened. Those who have contemplated the entire history of mankind—from its animal-like existence not that long ago, through the sudden sprouting of complex civilizations beginning around six thousand years ago, to the franticly paced modern efforts to transform nearly every square inch of this entire planet (and those who have seen the imprint of the Flynn effect throughout that blazing history)—for us, any suggestion the Flynn effect might soon be ending (and coincidentally just now, right at the very moment of its discovery)—well, how are we to choke back our reaction without offending those who have become so terribly frightened, for really such suggestions are little more than laughable.

To be sure, over the past fifty thousand years the Flynn effect has certainly gone through some surges and ebbs. To focus on Western Civilization alone, the era of Ancient Greece, along with its enduring aftermath, would undoubtedly have been one of those periods during which the Flynn effect ran at peak. Just one perusal through the physical constructions of that age—the buildings, the written mathematics, the crafted and portrayed arts—and one sees an embodiment of pattern and form running far beyond anything mankind had ever experienced before. That embodiment, suffused throughout the populace and down through the generations, showered its re-creating and foundational intelligence across the Roman era and well into the first millennium A.D. It was not until the stretch of the Dark and Middle Ages that we discern a slowing down of this ordered construction—and only then a slowing down of the Flynn effect—but not a complete halting, mind you, Western Civilization at 1500 A.D. still was more rapid and complex than Western Civilization at 500 A.D. And elsewhere of course—in Byzantium, India and China—we find yet more examples of the Flynn effect crescendoing into various bursts of sudden and local bloom.

Beginning with the Renaissance, the pace of this structural change embodied into the human environment resumed once more its rapid acceleration, and over the last five hundred years, and across all manner of civilization, man’s temporal, spatial, and non-biological abilities and patterned formulations have been increasing at a nearly mind-breaking speed. The I.Q. tests of the twentieth century have captured only the most recent period of this ongoing phenomenon; if there had been intelligence tests available in all the previous centuries, the Flynn effect could have been discovered long before now. Professor Flynn has not stumbled onto anything new. He has stumbled only onto the most recent residue of a process that has been profoundly reshaping the human landscape from the time of the great leap forward, and if the impressive Flynn effect statistics from the twentieth century are to be telling us anything at all, it is that from sheer momentum alone the Flynn effect can be expected to remain with us, and sustain us, for a considerable time to come.

But allow me to offer a moment’s respite to those who are so terribly frightened. Let us consider for speculation’s sake what might happen if indeed the Flynn effect has ended. What this implies of course is that in theory any one of us would be able to score as equally well on any future-offered intelligence test (say those being sat for two hundred years hence) as we might tally on any of the currently offered standardized forms. This feat, we realize in retrospect, would not have been possible for those poor souls who lived in the early nineteenth century. Try imagining a man from the early 1800s nabbed suddenly by the scruff of his neck, hustled forward a couple hundred years or so, whisked by plane, taxi and elevator to a brightly lit, sharply cornered examination room, placed before a typed-out pamphlet of the strangest looking shapes and most oddly worded phrases—pen and stopwatch waiting impatiently there on the table beside him. What answers do we anticipate from such a man? What brilliance might we soon be expecting to hear, beyond, that is, his repeated stammering, “But dear sir, what exactly do you propose I do?”

Respite over. For honestly, how can we believe, frightened or not, that we ourselves would escape a similar fate? Try imagining yourself now, suddenly bolted forward towards the twenty-third century, hastened to an examination hall by powered means you cannot begin to describe, then suddenly strapped to a contraption of all manner of knobs and wires and switches (at least, those are the only words you can think of to describe such an oddly constructed panel), and now with flashes of three-dimensional light dancing all about you, with rapid questions poured upon you in a grammar you have never considered before, and all the while accompanied by frantic demands to respond with a quick jab of finger, a flicker of eyelid once or twice, or at least a simple grunt or two. And just about the time you manage to catch your breath, just about the time you gather enough wits to offer at least one feeble attempt, the lights of the examination hall suddenly darken, the rapid stream of questions comes to a jarring halt, and from out of the walls a stentorian, twenty-third century form of a tut-tut voice announces that your time is over and that your score has failed to register, at least on any significant range. Some intellect you turned out to be.

If the Flynn effect has ended, then so has the course of human progress. To embrace this absurdity would be to misperceive what the Flynn effect has been trying to tell us; it would be to misconceive the question, what is intelligence? There are no paradoxes to be explained away from increasing intelligence scores; there is only a befuddlement from brain science dogmas that have been turning our inquiries outside in. The Flynn effect compels us to remove intelligence from out our head and place it in surroundings where it more rightly belongs, in the structured landscapes we humans have been building all around us, and will continue to build for a considerable time to come. A world increasingly more spatial, more temporal; an environment always more patterned, more frenzied—and what wonder can there be that we require newer generations to absorb each change afresh, and leave all the ancestors behind?

The Flynn effect has been shadowing the path of our human journey; it has been marking the pace of our considerable advancement, the one taking us all the way from savannah-bound primate to questing knight of a massive universe. Intelligence is not to be found in packets of scores alone: cast an eye wider, cast an eye across the twentieth century’s entire vista—from horse-drawn buggy to rocket in sky, from ground-hugging hovels to skyscrapers knifing air, from shovels and guns and axes to computers and networks and drones. Cast an eye across that entire scene, then say with conviction that the show is about to end. The sudden halt would jolt us right out of our skin; the end of the Flynn effect could only mean the death knell of all mankind. Allow me to save my fright for that possibility alone—for humanity’s darkest age indeed.

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