Tyler Cowen shares his thoughts on the idea that it is important to try to preserve the average level of a society’s IQ, as though this is some kind of precious public good:
I don’t assign special status to The Conservation of IQ for two reasons. The first is the Flynn effect, or the fact that measured IQs have been rising steadily over time. This implies some combination of a) IQ gains come naturally under conditions of progress, and b) IQ statistics are to some extent phony and don’t measure real intelligence. We can debate the mix, but either deflates fears that IQ is somehow especially scarce or endangered. These data also suggest that IQ is an artifice to be unpacked rather than a primary category.
Second, defenders of the IQ view tend to read evolutionary biology and intelligence research. My roots are in cultural history. Clusters of amazing achievement come and go pretty quickly, usually through some mix of environmental effects and luck. Look at Venetian painting. It was much better centuries ago, but I doubt if Venetian IQs have been falling. Once we see how such enormous differences can be explained by non-IQ factors, I again don’t obsess over the variable.
I find this pretty persuasive. The most stimulating thing I’ve read about IQ lately is the chapter on the topic in Francisco Gil-White’s webbed book on Resurrecting Racism: The modern attack on black people using phony science, which is mostly an attack on John Entine’s book Taboo: Why black athletes dominate sports and why we’re afraid to talk about it. I did not know, for example, that the IQ test was invented by Binet and Simon specifically as a test of the cognitive skills middle/upper-class French public schools were trying to develop in their students, and explicitly not as an assessment of raw, genetic, mental processing power. I also didn’t know that Sir Cyril Burt was a huge fraud. Gil-White’s theory an adapted cultural capacity that helps accounts for cultural and cognitive variation (a theory he shares with Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich, among others), seems to me to make good biological sense, to help make sense of the Flynn effect, and to pose a big problem for the Murray-Herrnstein Bell Curve thesis. Reading Gil-White changed my p on the existence of genetically inherited general intelligence from above .5 to below. I get excited when that happens!
Brief aside on clusters of achievement: I want better explanations! What accounts for 4th c. BCE Athens? Late 18th-early 19th c. Scotland? Early 20th c. Vienna? Philosophy mostly just coasts along on these efflorescence’s of genius. What’s going on? Why aren’t we having having one of these NOW, in the US? One idea is that our system of supporting our top intellectuals through the huge, geographically dispersed university system practically guarantees that no single place will develop enough of a critical mass of talent to create a world-historical outburst of brilliance. What if the world’s best economists, philosophers, psychologists, etc., were clustered in the same place in the same way the world’s best software engineers are clustered in Silicon Valley?
Fun facts about Gil-White: (1) he was canned from the Penn psychology department he says for his controversial views about recent history regarding several ethnic conflicts. I have developed no opinion on Gil-White’s opinions about these matters. I just know he’s a fascinating and intellectually solid theorist in biological anthropology. (2) He is the son of Francisco Gil Diaz, who was Secretary of Finance for Mexico under Vincente Fox.