James Flynn: Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’ (TED Talk)

Over the course of the last century, our minds have altered dramatically. We’ve gone from a concrete world, to a world where we’ve had to develop new mental habits – like clothing the concrete world with classification, abstractions, and taking the hypothetical seriously, wondering what might have been, rather than what actually is.

Time has shown that we have gotten better at dealing with the hypothetical – for example one hundred years ago we struggled with this notion:

There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a place in Germany. Are there any camels in Germany?

And records show that people answered that there might be, if Hamburg was a large enough place.

Similarly this question was asked in interviews:

In the North Pole there is always snow. Wherever there is always snow the bears are white. What colour are the bears at the North Pole?

“Every bear that I’ve seen is a brown bear. If a wise person should go to the North Pole and come back to tell me that they are white, then I should believe it.” Was a response.

In 1900, 3% of American’s were in professionals that were cognitively demanding. Today 35% of American’s occupy those professions.

Moral debate in developed countries has increased because of our ability and tendency to take the hypothetical seriously. Flynn mentions that his Irish father, who was born in 1888, was racially prejudice. If you would have asked his generation the following:

“If you woke up tomorrow morning to find you were black, would you still hold those views?”

To which their answer would have been something like: “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard – who have you known that wakes up one morning to find they are now black?”

They were fixed in the concrete world, and would not take a hypothetical question seriously. Without this, it’s very hard to get moral questions off the ground.

We’ve made huge progress in some areas, but unfortunately not in every area. Politics is one – if you are ignorant of history and other countries, you can’t do politics. There’s a trend among young Americans, that they read less literature and less history, and pay less attention to other lands, they have become essentially A-Historical.

They don’t know who was an ally to America in World World 2, or the difference between the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Think how different their opinion might be if they knew that this is the fifth time America has gone to Afghanistan to put its house in order – and if they had some idea of what exactly had happened on those four previous occasions.

Or what if most Americans know that they had been lied into four of their last six wars.

(Part of TED a day for June)


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