IN THE MID-’80s, the political philosopher James Flynn noticed a remarkable but puzzling trend: for the past century, average IQ scores in every industrialized nation have been steadily rising. And not just a little: nearly three points every decade.
Are we are simply getting better at taking IQ tests? Are the tests themselves a poor measure of intelligence? Or do rising IQ scores really mean we are getting smarter? Why has this happened? The short answer, according to Flynn, is that a convergence of diverse social factors in post-industrial societies—from the emphasis of scientific reasoning in school to the complexity of modern video games—has increasingly demanded abstract thinking. We have begun to see the world, Flynn says, through “scientific spectacles.”
The cognitive history of the twentieth century
Implicit in Flynn’s argument that we are becoming “more modern” is that IQ gains are due to environmental factors, not genetic ones. Some of the most successful moments in this book come when Flynn considers IQ data in combination with sociological facts in order to do away with absolutist notions of intelligence. ... Many developing countries have seen massive IQ gains in recent years and seem to be closing the IQ gap with more developed countries; those that are aren’t closing the gap, such as Sudan, are lagging behind because of extenuating environmental circumstances that would stifle any group’s IQ scores: natural disasters, disease, hunger. It is also hard for a developing nation to raise overall scores when women do not have access to education. If half your population is uneducated, your country’s IQ scores are going to drag.