James Flynn, in his book What is Intelligence (Flynn 2007), lists several paradoxes he associates with intelligence and the Flynn effect. Two of these paradoxes (labeled as the intelligence paradox and the mental retardation paradox) deal with the problem that people from one time period appear to be too implausibly dumb or too implausibly smart compared to people from a different time period. Flynn describes these paradoxes as follows:
“If huge IQ gains are intelligence gains, why are we not struck by the extraordinary subtlety of our children's conversation? Why do we not have to make allowances for the limitations of our parents? A difference of some 18 points in Full Scale IQ over two generations ought to be highly visible.
“If we project IQ gains back to 1900, the average IQ scored against current norms was somewhere between 50 and 70. If IQ gains are in any sense real, we are driven to the absurd conclusion that a majority of our ancestors were mentally retarded.”
The resolution to each of these paradoxes is to recognize that Flynn is mixing up two different aspects of intelligence; he is mixing up environmental intelligence and individual intelligence. In particular, he is using changed rankings in one aspect (environmental intelligence) to infer that there must be a corresponding change in rankings for the other aspect (individual intelligence). It simply does not work that way.
In my previous post, Flynn Effect 101, I created a hypothetical example to demonstrate the concepts of environmental intelligence and individual intelligence, and to show how these concepts can produce the kinds of intelligence differences we routinely observe in individuals while at the same time producing the Flynn effect. Here is a short summary of that example:
At time 1, the environment contains a certain amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form (environmental intelligence) measured as 200 ei. [Both the number and unit are arbitrary. For the example, all that's required is that the quantified amount be less than it will be at time 2.] Also at time 1, there are three individuals named A1, B1, and C1 who based upon their population-normed performances on intelligence tests display the following set of intelligence results:
Time 1 Environmental Intelligence: 200 ei.
Time 1 Test Performance:
- A1: 80% of environmental intelligence mastered (high intelligence)
- B1: 70% of environmental intelligence mastered (medium intelligence)
- C1: 60% of environmental intelligence mastered (low intelligence)
Time 1 Absolute (Raw) Intelligence Score:
- A1: 160 ei (80% times 200 ei)
- B1: 140 ei (70% times 200 ei)
- C1: 120 ei (60% times 200 ei)
At time 2—assumed to be several generations later—the amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form located in the human environment has increased to the point where it can now be measured at 400 ei. A2, B2 and C2, identified as biologically equivalent descendents of A1, B1, and C1, perform as follows on the time 2 intelligence tests:
Time 2 Environmental Intelligence: 400 ei.
Time 2 Test Performance:
- A2: 80% of environmental intelligence mastered (high intelligence)
- B2: 70% of environmental intelligence mastered (medium intelligence)
- C2: 60% of environmental intelligence mastered (low intelligence)
Time 2 Absolute (Raw) Intelligence Score:
- A2: 320 ei (80% times 400 ei)
- B2: 280 ei (70% times 400 ei)
- C2: 240 ei (60% times 400 ei)
Let's begin by concentrating on the individual named A1. At time 1, A1 is assessed to be a smart person. He is able to absorb and constructively respond to about 80% of the environmental intelligence to be found around him, an ability he demonstrates through his performance on intelligence tests—tests which are composed out of representative examples from that same environmental intelligence. And as A1 navigates through his time 1 world, we can expect relatively high achievement compared to that of, for instance, B1 and C1.
But if we take A1's absolute (raw) intelligence score of 160 ei and compare it to those who live in the time 2 world, A1 suddenly doesn't look so smart. 160 ei is well below the 240 ei score of C2, a person assessed to be of low intelligence at time 2. If 240 ei is considered to be of low intelligence at time 2, then A1's score of 160 ei must make him out to be a borderline imbecile.
So which is it, is A1 a smart person or an imbecile? The answer is that A1 is a smart person, no matter what time period is being considered.
It is a logical mistake to think that A1's relatively low score of 160 ei at time 2 has anything to do with A1's intellectual ability, has anything to do with A1's individual intelligence. A1 has the capacity to absorb around 80% of the environmental intelligence around him, no matter what that environment might happen to be, and so if we could magically transport A1 forward in time and raise him in a time 2 world, he would absorb and constructively respond to about 80% of the time 2 environment. That means he would score at an absolute level of 320 ei, which at time 2 is pretty darn good. A1's score of 160 ei at time 1 is produced not just by his individual ability, it is produced also in concert with the amount of environmental intelligence existing at that time. His raw score of 160 ei looks low at time 2 solely due to the fact that the level of environmental intelligence has so dramatically increased from time 1 to time 2.
If we concentrate on the individual named C2 and contemplate going backwards in time, we'll witness the same phenomenon at work in reverse. At time 2, C2's absolute (raw) score of 240 ei puts him in the category of low intelligence, suggesting life circumstances that can be expected to be more difficult than for his cohorts A2 and B2. But if we take C2's score of 240 ei and place it in the time 1 context, C2 suddenly comes across as a Mensa candidate, and we might be wondering if C2 could have been a high achiever, if only he had had the good fortune to be born at time 1.
So which is it, is C2 a person of low intelligence or a Mensa candidate? The answer is that C2 is a person of low intelligence, no matter what time period is being considered.
Just as in the analysis of A1's circumstances, the relative positioning of C2's raw intelligence score at times 2 and 1 has nothing to do with C2's intellectual ability (individual intelligence). It is solely a consequence of the difference in environmental intelligence between the two time periods. If C2 could be magically sent back and raised at time 1, he would score at an absolute level of 120 ei and be judged once again to have low intelligence. The timing of his birth cannot alter his personal intellectual ability.
Allow me to tackle a non-hypothetical example that Flynn mentions in his book: the learning of baseball rules. After noting that the average raw intelligence score from about 1900 would translate to an IQ of about 50 to 70 on today's scale, Flynn raises the specter of the following tableau:
“Jensen relates an interview with a young man with a Wechsler IQ of 75. Despite the fact he attended baseball games frequently, he was vague about the rules, did not know how many players were on a team, could not name the teams his home team played, and could not name any of the most famous players.
“When Americans attended baseball games a century ago, were almost half of them too dull to follow the game or use a scorecard? My father who was born in 1885 taught me to keep score and spoke as if this was something virtually everyone did when he was a boy. How did Englishmen play cricket in 1900? Taking their mean IQ at face value, most of them would need a minder to position them in the field, tell them when to bat, and tell them when the innings was over.”
This is a perfect example of taking a change in raw intelligence scores as evidence for a change in individual intelligence, when in fact it is evidence for a change in environmental intelligence.
Think about putting some questions dealing with baseball rules on an intelligence test. If you had put those questions on a test administered in 1800, absolutely no one would have answered the questions correctly, including the smartest people who then lived. On the other hand, if you had put such questions on a test administered in 2000, lots of folks, including those of average intelligence, would have been able to answer the questions correctly—by then baseball and its rules had become an established part of the human environment. Following Flynn's anecdote, you would have had to drop down to those with an IQ of about 75 before you might have consistently expected to get wrong answers on basic baseball questions in the year 2000.
So does this imply that the smartest people in 1800 had about the same intellectual capacity as Jensen's young man? Flynn would like us to ponder that question as though it were a genuine paradox, but in fact the question itself is based upon nothing but a logical fallacy.
If you had placed problems about baseball rules on an intelligence test administered in 1900, you would have gotten a mixed set of results. Some people would have been able to solve them correctly, but others would not, including folks of otherwise average to high intelligence, since baseball had not yet become widely entrenched in the human environment (in 1900, the game was just then catching on). But let's take one of those folks of average to high intelligence who had just failed to solve the problems correctly (because of having never been exposed to baseball), and let's buy that person a ticket and take him to the ballpark. Let's sit with him in the grandstands, go over some of the basic rules, offer him a scorecard and pencil. How do we expect him to perform? Keep in mind that this is a person of average to high intelligence, he has the capacity to absorb quite a bit from what the environment has to offer, there is really nothing amiss in his individual intellectual ability. He will pick up the rules of the game quite easily, he will hardly give them a second thought. And around 1900, this is a scene that would have been repeating itself again and again and again.
The increase in raw intelligence scores from 1900 to 2000 has everything to do with the increasing amount of environmental intelligence (including the addition of baseball rules) and it has nothing to do with individual intellectual abilities.
Allow me just one more example, this one dear to both Professor Flynn and myself. Allow me to consider the intelligence of an ancient Greek named Aristotle.
If an intelligence test appropriate for the classical Athenian environment had been administered to Aristotle, I'm certain he would have scored quite well on it, likely among the top tier of his fellow citizens; Aristotle left behind ample evidence he could absorb a very large portion of the classical Athenian surroundings. But if on the other hand the equivalent of a modern intelligence test had been administered to Aristotle, he would have found nearly all its questions to be utterly incomprehensible. Aristotle had no notion of the number 0. His arithmetic and algebraic skills were crude at best. He had been speaking a language with a more limited vocabulary and simpler grammar than our own. (Not to mention, his baseball knowledge was completely nil.) Almost the entirety of a modern intelligence test would have looked unfamiliar to Aristotle, and his raw score by necessity would have registered exceptionally low.
Does this mean Aristotle was intellectually inferior to us? As I hope the reader must realize by now, it does not mean that at all.
Aristotle's low raw intelligence score on a modern intelligence exam would be driven entirely by the difference in amounts of environmental intelligence existing between classical Athens and the modern world. There would be nothing defective about Aristotle's individual intelligence, and indeed if we could magically transport Aristotle forwards in time and raise him in modern Athens, his ample intellectual capacity would no doubt allow him to absorb as much of the current intellectual environment as do the smartest among us. Dare I say, he might even blossom into a modern-day genius.
As all these examples demonstrate, the Flynn effect is being driven entirely by the ever-increasing amount of non-biological pattern, structure and form existing within the human environment. The Flynn effect has everything to do with environmental intelligence and has nothing to do with individual intelligence. In particular, the Flynn effect has nothing to do with our biological intellectual capacity. It has nothing to do with the neurons inside our head.
(Flynn 2007): Flynn, James R. 2007. What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.