American IQ scores have risen steadily over the past century, James R. Flynn has found, but are we really getting smarter?
Modern people do so well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities. We have evolved to deal with a world that would have been alien to previous generations.
A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call “utilitarian spectacles.” Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols — what I call “scientific spectacles.” Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.
The mind-set of the past can be seen in interviews between the great psychologist Alexander Luria and residents of rural Russia during the 1920s — people who, like ourselves in 1910, had little formal education.
Luria: What do a fish and crow have in common?
Reply: A fish it lives in water, a crow flies.
Luria: Could you use one word for them both?
Reply: If you called them “animals” that wouldn’t be right. A fish isn’t an animal, and a crow isn’t either. A person can eat a fish but not a crow.
The prescientific person is fixated on differences between things that give them different uses. My father was born in 1885. If you asked him what dogs and rabbits had in common, he would have said, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” Today a schoolboy would say, “They are both mammals.” The latter is the right answer on an IQ test. Today we find it quite natural to classify the world as a prerequisite to understanding it.
Here is another example.
Luria: There are no camels in Germany; the city of B is in Germany; are there camels there or not?
Reply: I don’t know, I have never seen German villages. If B is a large city, there should be camels there.
Luria: But what if there aren’t any in all of Germany?
Reply: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.
The prescientific Russian wasn’t about to treat something as important as the existence of camels hypothetically.