Sunday Times, 05 June 2016
Does Your Family Make You Smarter?
Nature, Nurture and Human Autonomy
by James R Flynn
To understand James R Flynn’s enormous — and supremely consoling — transformation of human thought about… well, humans… you need to grasp the significance of just one sentence from this book. “Comparative data,” he writes, “suggest that when a nation goes from premodern to full modernity, it will gain at least 36 IQ points.”
And to understand that sentence you need to meet a man named Arthur Jensen who, you will discover, was, to a rough approximation, wrong about everything. Jensen, who died in 2012, was an educational psychologist in California. He believed in something he called “g”, a level of general IQ that was fixed at birth. Nothing that happened in life — a good family, education, hard work — would ever raise it.
Published in 1969, the core of this theory became a global, supposedly scientific, orthodoxy; indeed, it can still be found in the popular imagination and among some less well-informed members of our elites. I am being kind when I say “less well-informed”; in truth, the whole thing is a barbaric superstition driven by prejudice more than science. Because, especially in America, blacks consistently scored much lower in IQ tests, the concept of “g” seemed to suggest that they were fundamentally inferior and nothing could or should be done for them. Racists, as the Nazis had done before them, wallowed in the realisation of their dream — scientific validation.
Jensen acquired backing for his theory from so-called “twin studies” in which identical twins did similarly well in IQ tests. The level of these correlations suggested “g” was overwhelmingly genetically determined. These studies induced a mood of pessimism among the progressively minded who thought we had escaped the genetic determinism of Nazism. Overwhelmingly, it seemed, nothing could be done.
Then, in the 1980s, Flynn, a New Zealand academic, took the whole thing apart with a beautifully simple experiment. He gave contemporary students old IQ tests from the 1920s and 1930s and, astoundingly, they did incredibly well. Apparently, our grandparents were morons. If Jensen was to survive this discovery, then there must have been an unprecedented and, necessarily, genetic transformation in mental capacity. This was impossible.
Flynn worked out what was really going on. IQ tests are not neutral, cross-cultural measures of some fixed quantity etched for ever in the human mind; they are, more mundanely, just quite accurate measures of the progress of modernity. Blacks scored poorly to the extent that they were excluded from modern societies.
Consider, as Flynn does here, a fish and a crow. A premodern person, say a villager in the midst of the Amazonian jungle, thinks these two creatures have nothing in common, One swims, one flies; one you can eat and one you can’t. That’s it. A modern person, however, will know they are both animals, they both have DNA and so on. Modern people see invisible abstractions, premoderns see what is before their eyes. IQ tests are all about abstractions. The Amazonian will score badly, but this has nothing to do with his intelligence, it is to do with the fact that his life has no need for abstractions. To put it another way: IQ tests measure the likelihood of success solely in the kind of society that sets IQ tests.
The whole genetically fixed “g” thing was a fantasy. Flynn had given us back those most precious human intuitions — that we are all, in some deep sense, equal, that we are all in the same boat or, as the poet John Donne put it, that the bell tolls for thee.
Flynn is now in his eighties and this book reads like a summary of his life’s work. Be warned, it is not “popular science”, much of it is extremely tough going, and if you are allergic to tables of figures, you will need to do some skipping. But it is worth it. In spite of all the technicalities of the writing, the quirks and humanity of the man keep shining through. At one point, for example, he considers the moral superiority of a New Zealand gang leader who happened to have an IQ of 150: “He takes satisfaction in his moral superiority: he has robbed only a few people rather than the millions robbed by merchant bankers.”
He also brings in his own life. All but one of the males in the older generation of his family were alcoholic. “I suspect,” he writes movingly, “that (as they all left school between the ages of 11 and 14) this was due to a mismatch between their promise and the kind of education that might have enhanced their lives. Yet, I can testify that all of them were highly intelligent, perhaps as intelligent as their genes ‘intended’; but that was not enough.”
Throughout you have the sense that Flynn takes pride in the fact that his insights have freed us from the prison of predestination created by bad science. “All of us,” he writes, “both in childhood and maturity, have the capacity to choose to significantly enhance our cognitive performance.”
As for the question in the title — does your family make you smarter? — well, it’s complicated. Genetically gifted parents are likely, though not certain, to bless their children with some intellectual advantage. They will also confer advantage by ensuring their childhood environment is as stimulating as possible.
Parental influence, however, stops at the age of 17. At that age, children have entered new environments which, stimulating or not, take over. This, of course, does not mean all that upbringing has gone to waste; the child that enters these new environments is the one made by genes, the home and, crucially, chance.
Chance seems to account for 20% of IQ variation. In the era dominated by Jensen and kinship studies this tended to be discounted, but, in fact, it is a very large figure that makes it clear that no matter where you start, things can go wrong or right more or less at random. A blow on the head can set you back; a brilliant teacher can send you flying forwards.
I could go on. But the book, finally, is an outline of a theory of intelligence as a complex, multifactoral phenomenon that cannot be used by anybody to justify racism or barbarism — like compulsory sterilisation in prewar America or, indeed, the Holocaust.
This could be Flynn’s last work. You might find it hard going, you might not read it at all, but buy it anyway in tribute to James R Flynn, one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time.