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The Flynn Effect: Are We Smarter than Our Grandparents?

David Langness | Apr 2, 2021

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Apr 2, 2021

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

One of my intellectual heroes, Professor James R. Flynn, died the other day, taking his brilliant mind with him to the next world—but luckily, he left us with a load of remarkable insights into our human reality.

Flynn started out in his adult life as a civil rights organizer in Kentucky. Intending to be a philosopher, he veered off that track to become a prominent defining contributor to the science of psychology, which he undertook when he began to study and understand the intersection of human IQ and race.

Are Intelligence and Race Related?

The whole subject of IQ, or intelligence quotient, became a racialized flash point in 1969 with the publication of Arthur Jensen’s infamous Harvard Educational Review article “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Called “the father of modern academic racism” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jensen’s research and that particular article argued that lower IQ scores among Black children were primarily the result of genetics—which meant, theoretically at least, that no social program could ever remedy the gap. 

Racists and white supremacists hailed Jensen’s research, and claimed it proved their mental superiority.

RELATED: The Role of Intelligence in Racial Advancement: Teddy P. Brains

But today this long-held theory, which claimed innate differences in intelligence between racial groups, has now been relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. For that outcome we can give credit to Professor Flynn’s strong disagreement with Jensen, and the fact that Flynn set out to prove his theory wrong. Eleven years later, in 1980, Professor Flynn published Race, IQ, and Jensen, which scientifically demolished the mistaken idea that IQ had any genetic basis in race. In the book, Flynn wrote that after his extensive research he had developed the:

… view that an unjust and deleterious environment damages one’s capacities as well as one’s opportunities, and … the above sort of extreme cultural relativism usually lacks the courage to face up to unpleasant facts …

In other words, when a racial gap exists in IQ scores, we can assign the responsibility for that gap, not to any individuals or group, but to the unjust racist structures of society itself. 

Flynn’s conclusions have now become an accepted part of science and the world view of most experts. We have him to thank for completely demolishing the racist IQ-related theories promulgated by people like Jensen and Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve.

The Baha’i View: Race and Intelligence Have No Relationship

Professor Jensen’s work affirms one of the core Baha’i teachings: that skin color and race have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. Abdu’l-Baha said exactly that when he spoke at the Fourth Annual Conference of the NAACP in Chicago more than a century ago in 1912:

Can we apply the test of racial color and say that man of a certain hue—white, black, brown, yellow, red—is the true image of his Creator? We must conclude that color is not the standard and estimate of judgment and that it is of no importance, for color is accidental in nature. The spirit and intelligence of man is essential, and that is the manifestation of divine virtues, the merciful bestowals of God, the eternal life and baptism through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, be it known that color or race is of no importance. He who is the image and likeness of God, who is the manifestation of the bestowals of God, is acceptable at the threshold of God—whether his color be white, black or brown; it matters not. Man is not man simply because of bodily attributes. The standard of divine measure and judgment is his intelligence and spirit.

The Flynn Effect

After completing his race and IQ project, Professor Flynn’s extensive curiosity in and research on human intelligence further interested him in a related topic: are people getting smarter?

He came across that question when comparing IQ testing results from a century ago to test scores today. Flynn’s New York Times obituary, written by Clay Risen and published on January 25, 2021, succinctly explains Flynn’s startling discovery:

Like most researchers in his field, Dr. Jensen had assumed that intelligence was constant across generations, pointing to the relative stability of I.Q. tests over time as evidence. But Dr. Flynn noticed something that no one else had: Those tests were recalibrated every decade or so. When he looked at the raw, uncalibrated data over nearly 100 years, he found that I.Q. scores had gone up, dramatically.

“If you scored people 100 years ago against our norms [now], they would score a 70,” or borderline mentally disabled, he said later. “If you scored us against their norms, we would score 130”—borderline gifted.

RELATED: The Exercised Intelligence of the Rational Soul

Just as groundbreaking was his explanation for why. The rise was too fast to be genetic, nor could it be that our recent ancestors were less intelligent than we are. Rather, he argued, the last century has seen a revolution in abstract thinking, what he called “scientific spectacles,” brought on by the demands of a technologically robust industrial society. This new order, he maintained, required greater educational attainment and an ability to think in terms of symbols, analogies and complex logic—exactly what many I.Q. tests measure.

“He surprised everyone, despite the fact that the field of intelligence research is intensely data centric,” the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said in an interview. “This philosopher discovered a major phenomenon that everyone had missed.”

The major phenomenon the eminent professor discovered, now universally known as “the Flynn effect,” basically means that IQ test scores have continuously increased in a roughly linear ascent from the earliest years of testing to today.

So no, you’re not necessarily smarter than your own grandparents—but in general, across the entire human population, we’re collectively much smarter than our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations. Why? Well, a 2017 survey of 75 intelligence research experts agreed on four key causes of the Flynn effect: better nutrition, better health, more and better education, and rising standards of living across the world.

The Baha’i teachings suggest a fifth key cause of a general increase in human intelligence and our ability to “think in terms of complex symbols”—the revelation of Baha’u’llah, and the power unleashed by a new outpouring of the word of God. As Baha’u’llah wrote in The Book of Certitude:

Such are the mysteries of the Word of God, which have been unveiled and made manifest, that haply thou mayest apprehend the morning light of divine guidance, mayest quench, by the power of reliance and renunciation, the lamp of idle fancy, of vain imaginings, of hesitation, and doubt, and mayest kindle, in the inmost chamber of thine heart, the new-born light of divine knowledge and certitude.

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil.

This key human ability—our unique talent for going beyond the surface of any one concept or idea in order to comprehend its deeper symbolic meaning—proves that we have not only minds but souls.

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