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Journey towards idiocracy may have begun 2,000 years ago

In the 2006 Idiocracy film (Wiki), an average soldier is hibernated and appears in the year 2505 AD to find out he is the brightest person in the world. So he is elected the U.S. president and tries to save the world that will have been plagued by centuries of deterioration and brainwashing.



The U.S. president in 2505 AD

Now, the geneticist Gerald Crabtree of Stanford has published two papers in Trends in Genetics:

Our fragile intellect. Part I
Our fragile intellect. Part II.
He argues that the decline isn't starting now; it began 2,000-6,000 years ago.




The Guardian offers a clear summary of the papers:
Is pampered humanity getting steadily less intelligent?
They're purely theoretical papers but they contain much more than an unjustified guess. The author tries to quantify the number of genes responsible for the intelligence and the degree of selection that the lifestyles at various moments of the human history imposed on the genes.

Because the punishment for low intelligence was arguably severe and mostly lethal when humans were hunterers, people were smarter. The decline is linked to the appearance of agriculture. Well, in some regions, the agricultural revolution already began with the neolithic era, perhaps 20,000 years ago. But there are other complaints one could invent.

In particular, the choice of agriculture as the main culprit seems a bit arbitrary. There are lots of other achievements that have both simplified human lives as well as encouraged the people to be ever less intelligent. After all, agriculture also needs some thinking. In my opinion, nothing like agriculture or steam engine or computers can match the crippling effect that the modern welfare states and political correctness have on the genetic quality of the human population when it comes to the intelligence.

The timing is subtle and hard to measure and there may also be "different types of intelligence" that peaked at different moments. However, I think that the most universal assertion of the papers, namely that there is a point ("peak IQ") at which the people's intelligence starts to decline, has to exist, is valid.

I've been often thinking about the true intelligence of folks like Isaac Newton – who was arguably the smartest famous man who was ever walking on the surface of the globe. I included the word "famous" because it seems very plausible to me that there have been smarter folks who just weren't as lucky as Newton so they didn't make the same impact. But if one focuses on the famous folks, Newton was arguably #1.

It's interesting to guess how quickly Isaac Newton would be able to learn quantum mechanics, general relativity, string theory, and all the things needed to become the #1 physicist in the world of 2012 who would also discover new things we are unable to find. It seems more likely than not that he would have the potential to become a top physicist, I am slightly less certain that he would be considered #1 – of course, the folks who judge others may often be wrong – but it's also plausible that he would have trouble with the new physics in a similar way as Albert Einstein had trouble with quantum physics (and there are other examples). Some great personalities may have only been given the potential to lead a particular revolution or two but not "any revolution".

There are many theoretical questions about the actual behavior and evolution of the mankind's IQ distribution. And there are also many practical questions whether it matters and whether something should be done about it – and what should be done about it if the answer is Yes. I am agnostic about it. Any policies of this kind that would try to intervene into people's reproductive life look repulsive to me. On the other hand, if I were assured that the mankind would converge to the middle between current humans and chimps within 150 years, of course that I would prefer some mitigation policies. ;-)

What do you think about those matters?

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reader Carbone said...

This contradicts the Flynn effect.


reader Carbone said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect


reader Luboš Motl said...

Well, the page says that the effect has been measured to exist since the 1930s or so, so I don't think that the Flynn effect if true contradicts the possibility that ancient Romans were brighter than we are.


reader victor said...

This article caught my attention a few days ago. I find a pdf version of it http://bmi205.stanford.edu/_media/crabtree-2.pdf Very interesting reading! However, it should be noted that neither this thoughts nor the conclusions are something new. Some anthropologists, geneticists and evolutionists for decades talking about it.


reader Carbone said...

If you look at the proposed explanations you may find that it's reasonable to think that not many people had the right environment to develop their brain to very high levels. Even today you can find people living in conditions corresponding to every stage in our history since Greeks. The general rule is higher GDP = higher IQ.


reader victor said...

let me quote a few lines from the above article that may be the answer to your comments:
'...our nervous system evolved until recently to do common, but computation complex task very well, hence none of our modern abilities are different than just a retrofit of modes of thought that we have been selected to do as hunter gathers until the very recent invention of farming. ...an inexpensive hand-held computer can beat all but the best chess players in the world. In addition, relatively little computational power is needed for flying a plane or driving a car. In contrast, the computational complexity of many common practical tasks is revealed by the immense difficultly of building a computer that could direct a household robot to do what humans do very well... Nevertheless, the difficulty of reproducing human tasks is one measure of how computationally complex a given task might be and what its intrinsic value might be... Our brains are good at the things they have been selected to be good at. Many kinds of modern refined intellectual activity may not necessarily require more innovation, synthesis and creativity than more ancient forms. Inventing a bow-and-arrow, which seems to have occurred once about 40,000 y.a. was probably as complex an intellectual task as inventing language or coming up with the theory of relativity.'


reader Carbone said...

A chimp is smarter than you then. He can't do simple math but he can navigate through a jungle and coordinate all his movement like noone else. It requires more computational power than math. Except it's pretty much worthless computation at the end. Also the toughest computations lie in completely different areas. Emulating social behavior is computationally the toughest task.


reader Carbone said...

Chimp > Stephen Hawking


reader Luke Lea said...

The data show that the Chinese are significantly brighter than Europeans on average (by around three IQ points) yet a little over a hundred years ago their main form of overland transportation was the sedan chair. The rickshaw, believe it or not, was an innovation. Even draft animals were rare. It was a dysfunctional society on many levels, as, indeed it remains today. Go figure.


reader Physics Junkie said...

It seems to me that instead of a dumbing down, we have had a broadening of the IQ range. Just as species aquire many mutations over a time during a period of non-stress and then the species and its bad mutations are thinned out during a time of stress leading to a change of species or several new species, I think it is likely that humanity is going through the same think since the agricultural revolution. We have more smart asses and more dumb asses. Of course there is another argument that competition within our species for resources and mates has produced an upward movement of intelligenence. Smarter people tend to be richer and therefore have better opportunities to find mates of higher quality.

One more point here. When we find out how to genetically engineer our brains, a dumbing down will be stopped in its tracks unless we go Brave New World and purposely create a dumber race to do our bidding.


reader Michael A. Lewis said...

We have to be careful to avoid tipping over into Lamarckian evolution in this discussion. "the crippling effect [of] the modern welfare state and political correctness" are not heritable traits subject to natural selection. Furthermore, in a species in which all individuals can attain reproductive age, natural selection is minimal.


It is more likely that the absence of selection allows a greater number of individuals of subnormal intelligence in the human population, rather than decreasing the number of normal and above normal intelligence.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Smarter people tend to be richer and therefore have better opportunities to find mates of higher quality.


Nice except that it doesn't imply that those folks actually prevail in the reproduction rate. One could argue there is solid evidence it hasn't been the case for quite some time.


I must say that even when it comes to the broadening, my guess would actually be the opposite to yours. I think that the mankind has become more egalitarian. It had to be easier to produce extremely smart folks 2,000 years ago even though the total population was much smaller, and I think there had to be some very dumb people, too. A reason why slavery used to be natural is that most of the slaves were probably unimaginably stupid.


Also, the separation of the "classes" lost its importance in recent centuries which also led to the decrease of the variance. You seem to be suggesting exactly the opposite things... Maybe you're right but I think you're not.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Hi, I didn't mean any Lamarckian mechanisms. I just meant that the welfare and PC things have eliminated natural selection. The ordinary Darwinian one.


reader woodnfish said...

"On the other hand, if I were assured that the mankind would converge to the middle between current humans and chimps within 150 years, of course that I would prefer some mitigation policies. ;-)"



You realize Lubos, that is the same argumant the eco-fascists use to stem their AGW fantasy?


reader woodnfish said...

And don't forget they eat with sticks. The fork and spoon were invented somewhere else.


reader woodnfish said...

I don't know if people are becoming dumber, but the number of dumb people is certainly increasing and I hold out the US presidential election as proof.


reader woodnfish said...

I am with Lubos on doubting the validity of smart = wealth. I hold up Hollywood as my empirical evidence where perceived beauty and symmetry of physical features equals wealth.


reader Carlos B. said...

I have seen many tribes of nomads from Africa and the jungles of South America on the Discovery Channel and to be completely honest, they really dont strike me as being highly intelligent. I could be mistaken and the face of idiotic wonder on their faces when confronted with modern society could be just a facade. I do believe that modern humans have developed their intelligence far beyond that of any representative individual of the paleolithic era. I would like to read the paper and check his data, although I am not a geneticist surely there must be some statistical data which can give me a better idea. At this stage I dont know if there is endogenity in the sample having Mr. Crabtree sampled himself and his colegues as representatives of modern humans and thus arriving at his conclusion. At this moment I do not know, anything is possible. That said, the price of Thirty Nine Dollars for access to his paper seems rather high.


reader BrianC said...

Lubos, what do you think about the Isaac Newton counterfactual history going the other way: if you were born in the 18th or 19th century, for example, how would you stack up against some of the great mathematicians of previous eras, e.g. Gauss or Euler? How unusual are today's top physicists by historical standards of intellectual greatness?


reader Robert Rehbock said...

Various thoughts:

1. IQ is a measure of test taking capacity.
2. An IQ test that kills all but the best test takers is likely to leave better test takers so I agree with The general premise.
3. Abilities to survive and thrive in modern world are correlated to different tests than for remote ancestors.
4. Formal IQ tests are correlated to modern humans doing things that are correlated to success in endeavors usually unnecessary to survival. That is if one were choosing a partner to survive in a hostile primitive environment one might prefer one quick, agile strong and having excellent sensory processing to one with capacity to follow Lumo.
5. There are far more humans in the modern world than ever in history. The normal distribution virtually assures some of superior intellect to past generations regardless we are on the whole growing less intellectually competent.
6. I watched the movie in 2006 on a domestic flight in US after therefore having watched our TSA in action. Doubt that we need wait 500 years...
7. Don't know about whether other animals are able to meet the usual Turing kind of tests for intelligence. But my bird, a sun conure do math read or reaso


reader Luboš Motl said...

By definition, it's not the same because I said "if the decline could really be assured" while the AGW problems clearly can't be assured.


reader Alejandro Rivero said...

Indeed Newton would have problems with quantum mechanics... because he took some time thinking about it. And, not being able to see how to progress from it, he rejected it. More specifically, he decided that his theory should allow for any small variation in angular momentum, so it could allow for any small variation in the area swept around a point force (which is constant if the angular momentum is constant). This section of the principia is heavily edited, after and before the first print.


reader Eugene S said...

Hi Robert, fascinating bird you have! Are you planning to upload a vid to Youtube?


reader Jordan said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf8R5ZlDiJg


reader Luboš Motl said...

It's made to sound funny and stupid but the message is pretty clever and Rogan is saying pretty much the same thing as I do. ;-)


reader Rob Yallop said...

My first thought has already been noted: if this is true, why are communities isolated from all modern contact until very recently not the most intelligent people on the planet today?

Also, whilst I am largely ignorant of the workings of chromosomes and gene mutations, I struggle to accept that evolution is a one way street downwards. Why is it not equally likely that some mutation will lead to greater intelligence? Are (or were 10,000 years ago) our intelligence genes perfect such that the only way to go is down? Was natural selection really so ruthless 10,000 years ago that there could be no, or at least an insignificant number of, detrimental mutations?

Lastly, I think that the large number of apparently stupid people in the world today is largely a product of their upbringing rather than a reflection of their intellectual potential.


reader Sage Basil said...

IQ measures something real. There's a reason math and physics grad students have +2σ IQs.

It's quite clear that in modern society, people with lower IQs breed more. That means that our society is unsustainable if we need lots of high-IQ people.

As a result, we're either going to need to promote abortions among low-IQ people and give incentives for high-IQ people to reproduce, or genetically engineer high-IQ babies from low-IQ parents, or everyone can come from test tubes. But one way or another, we will need to look into some kind of eugenic policy.


Arguably, refusing to implement eugenics before figuring out what exactly is in our genomes was a good idea.


reader Robert Rehbock said...

May do so when time permits. Did not intend, though, to attract attention to Boo. He communicates and socializes this way because my wife does not speak conure. His predecessor


reader Ogino Knaus said...

If you read "coming apart" by Murray, you'll see that while it is possible that lower-IQ people breed more (I have no proof of that), high-IQ people tend to pair to each other in societies similar to the one in the US. At least for the US, that's a proven fact.