At Our Wit’s End: Why We’re Becoming Less Intelligent and What It Means for Our Future
Edward Dutton and Michael A. Woodley of Menie
Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2018
We in the West have long become accustomed to the idea that scientific and technological progress is the normal state of things, although decline—technological deterioration and loss of knowledge—is by no means uncommon across world history. The contemporary West may be declining in many ways, but what stage in our history could we point to as the summit of our scientific knowledge and technological capability if not the present? And wouldn’t it be absurd to suppose this progress has reached its completion?
Authors Dutton and Woodley, however, would note that a civilization may pass its peak long before the sum of its achievements is complete. We may look for our greatest era not when our knowledge and capabilities were most extensive, but when they were growing most rapidly. And that point, they believe, is already well behind us.
They begin their study by drawing our attention to two technological breakthroughs of the year 1969: the first flight of the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, cutting transatlantic travel time from eight to three and a half hours, and the first manned moon landing. At the time, most people assumed more such aeronautical wonders lay in store. This writer can remember the ubiquitous “artist’s impressions” of future manned flights to Mars and beyond; every little boy of that generation wanted to become an astronaut.
But a Concorde crashed due to human error in 2000, and all flights were discontinued three years later. We have not returned to the moon since 1972. The authors do not mention this, but by 2010 a NASA administrator was saying that “perhaps [the] foremost” of the space agency’s missions was to “reach out to the Muslim world … to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.” We are not exactly aiming for the stars any more.
In the authors’ view, the best explanation for such regression is extremely simple: we are becoming less intelligent. Other explanations have some validity: the end of the cold war, e.g., partly accounts for the lowered ambitions of NASA, although not the end of the Concorde. But on Ockhamist principles, as the authors write, “if we can plausibly explain two separate events with one theory, that is superior to having a different theory for each event.”
Intelligence is the ability to solve problems efficiently. It has survival value because it enables organisms to face novel challenges; instincts are reliable only for recurring challenges. Intelligence is about 80% heritable, and during most of the genus Homo’s time on earth, the trait has been favored by natural selection: the earliest hominids seem not to have been notably more intelligent than today’s great apes.
Dutton and Woodley focus on the last millennium or so of European civilization. During most of this evolutionarily recent period as well, there has been positive selection for intelligence. That is because higher intelligence usually translates into socioeconomic success (correlating at 0.7), which tends to result in larger families. In A Farewell to Alms (2007), economic historian Gregory Clark has carefully documented this pattern in England from the fifteenth century (as far back as the records allow). He calls it “the survival of the richest.” Dutton and Woodley summarize:
Between the 1400s and the mid-19th century, in every generation, the richer 50% of the population had more surviving children than the poorer 50%. As economic status and intelligence are positively correlated, this led to us becoming more and more intelligent every generation.
To test this hypothesis, Clark looked to a number of proxies for intelligence, including literacy, numeracy and even interest rates (which tend to go down as intelligence rises because smarter populations display lower time preference, resulting in less demand for loans). The results confirm the hypothesis: intelligence continued to rise
until the most intelligent people—the outlier, super-clever geniuses—were so numerous and so capable that their innovations actually allowed us to take control of our environment to an unprecedented extent. Here we had the Industrial Revolution.
Even a slight upward shift in average intelligence means a substantial increase in positive outliers, and this is far more consequential than the small improvement in the great mass of the population.
Dutton and Woodley devote some of their most interesting pages to the topic of genius, previously treated in Dutton’s and Bruce Charlton’s book The Genius Famine (2016) as well. Outlier intelligence is obviously a necessary precondition of genius, but if we define the concept in terms of outstanding intellectual breakthroughs, certain personality traits appear necessary as well.
Personality studies lack the objective accuracy of intelligence studies, since they must rely on either self-assessment or peer assessment rather than direct measurement. Still, psychologists have been able to achieve considerable agreement on the existence of five basic dimensions of personality, viz.:
- Emotional Stability—Neuroticism
The first four vary independently of intelligence, while Openness/Intellect correlates weakly (0.3). Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability may conveniently be grouped together as a broader Stability factor of personality, while Extraversion and Openness/Intellect make up a Plasticity factor. These two factors themselves correlate significantly, allowing us to infer (or construct?) a General Factor of Personality (GFP) analogous to the General Factor of Intelligence (g).
People with high GFP are “socially extraverted, empathic and concerned with the feelings of others, conscientious and self-disciplined in pursuit of socially-approved goals, have stable emotions, and [are] open to new ideas,” which traits might be summed up as “social effectiveness.” They tend to make more desirable mates and better employees, and to have more friends than those with low GFP.
While those with high GFP will generally be viewed as having “good” personalities, the opposite qualities can sometimes be socially useful. For example, geniuses tend not to have the most balanced personalities:
The genius is extremely high in intelligence, but moderately low in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, which, when coupled with high creativity, is associated with the personality trait Psychoticism. This is crucial to genius because genius involves coming up with and presenting a ground-breaking and highly original idea. Frequently, it involves solving a very difficult problem and working to solve this—to the exclusion of most other things—for years on end.
Such obsessive personalities may entirely lack common human interests such as relations with the opposite sex or financial success, and they be downright incompetent in aspects of life outside their specialized fields. The authors provide a short biographical glimpse of Isaac Newton:
As a child and young man, Newton would spend nearly all of his time alone and when in company he would be silent. He had essentially no friends, formed no relationships with women, and made very little effort to conform at all. As a boy, his relationships with other boys tended to be antagonistic. He really wasn’t a very nice person.
Whatever he did, he did because he wanted to do it, he became engrossed in it and he did it brilliantly. In a year or so, he went from knowing almost no mathematics to being among the best in the world; and then went on to make some of the greatest ever mathematical discoveries. Then he all-but dropped mathematics and worked on one area of physics after another—making major discoveries, then moving on. Newton would think solidly for hour upon hour—sometimes standing lost in his own world half way down the stairs. For many years he hardly ever left his college.
Geniuses tend not to be model students. Newton’s school grades were erratic. Francis Crick “was rejected from Cambridge and went to university in London, where he failed to get a top degree. He then proceeded to drop out of a variety of PhD courses” before successfully discovering the structure of the DNA molecule with James Watson. Einstein never learned to drive a car. He “once got lost close to his home in Princeton, New Jersey. He walked into a shop and said, ‘Hi, I’m Einstein, can you take me home please?’” Bertrand Russell is said never to have mastered the art of boiling water for his tea.
The psychologist Charles Spearman, who first proposed the General Factor of Intelligence (g), also discovered an explanation for this phenomenon:
It has been shown that as people become more intelligent, the relationship between the different cognitive abilities becomes weaker, [i.e.,] they become more specialised in the nature of their intelligence. The g factor is somewhat weaker among such individuals—as specialised abilities become more autonomous, playing a bigger role in influencing cognitive performance.
Rising intelligence in England between the 1400s and the early 1800s, combined with an increase in the country’s total population, meant that geniuses and the macro-innovations for which they are responsible were becoming more common. This led to a qualitative shift in the character of the entire society: what we think of as modernization. Economic historian Gregory Clark emphasizes that this shift involved an escape from the “Malthusian Trap,” the premodern trade-off between population and living standards: England became the first society in human history to experience sustained population increase and rising standards of living simultaneously, and the same phenomenon soon spread to other Western nations. And of course, science and technology accelerated, reaching peak growth rates in the nineteenth century.
Dutton and Woodley’s review of some of the innovations this revolution involved is worth citing at length:
Someone born in 1770 would have grown up in a world little different from 1470. Transport would be via horse and almost everything had to be done by hand. Production was already beginning to mechanise, because James Hargreaves had invented the Spinning Jenny in 1764. An early steam engine had already been forged, but it hadn’t yet caught on. However, if that person had lived until just 1804, they would have seen the invention of the electric telegraph, the steam ship, the submarine, the circular saw, the steam roller, a reliable clock, the bicycle, the battery, and the steam-powered locomotive. The world of 1804 would have been dramatically different from that of 1770 or 1470.
If this person had lived until 1870, until the age of 100, they would have seen the electric light (1809), the steam train and the first photograph (1827), the electro-magnet, the typewriter (1829), the sewing machine, the electric dynamo, the calculator, the propeller, the revolver, the telegraph, rubber tyres, the washing machine, and, in 1858, the internal combustion engine. Then there was plastic and dynamite and we reach the year 1870. The extent and speed of change over a lifetime like that, compared to those for hundreds of years before, would have been astonishing.
And this new technology assisted numerous scientific breakthroughs, especially in the realm of public health and medicine. In the pre-industrial world, there was a very limited understanding of the causes of illness and, therefore, illness selected against the least healthy. But this began to change. In 1796, Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine, for example. There were also many other improvements in public health, such as better sanitation. And the simplest explanation for why all this was able to happen was that, for so long, we had been selected for intelligence by the rigours of natural, sexual, and social selection.
Those who lived during this period knew that the revolution they were witnessing was of momentous importance but had no idea why it was occurring. Dutton and Woodley’s account is based almost entirely on research performed since 1900, including some that is quite recent.
It is difficult to pinpoint the zenith of European progress. In Human Accomplishment (2006), Charles Murray estimated that scientific breakthroughs peaked in about 1825. Dutton and Woodley do not see a falling off until 1873, and suggest the generation born around 1850 was the most gifted in history.
But as early as 1857, a French physician named Benedict Morel noticed a trend that did not bode well for the future: declining infant mortality meant that sicklier persons were surviving to reproduce. This meant that the partly hereditary strengths necessary for survival before the improvements in public health were made were becoming less common in the population. Furthermore, he observed that the ‘underclass’ of prostitutes, criminals, and the desperately poor seemed to have particularly high fertility. Morel predicted that these two processes—the reduction in child mortality as a check on the fertility of the ‘underclass’ and the, apparent, greater fertility of the underclass—would necessarily lead to the population of France gradually becoming less intelligent.
Eight years later, the British polymath Sir Francis Galton made similar observations:
There is a steady check in an old civilisation upon the fertility of the abler classes: the improvident and unambitious are those who chiefly keep up the breed. So the race gradually deteriorates, becoming in each successive generation less fit for a high civilisation.
Darwin voiced similar concerns in The Descent of Man (1871).
Today we can confirm that hereditary intelligence has been declining. Dutton and Woodley summarize the evidence, which includes deterioration in simple reaction times, color discrimination, the use of “difficult” words, working memory, special perception, child developmental schedules and—most critically—frequency of macro-innovations. In 2017, an Icelandic study found the first direct genetic evidence that a set of alleles predictive of g has been declining in frequency in that country’s population. More such studies can be expected in the years ahead.
According to a 2015 meta-analysis of studies conducted since 1927, IQ in the USA and the UK appears to be declining at a rate of 0.39 points per decade. Declines are also reported in Russia and a number of non-Western countries.
The authors emphasize five reasons (besides improved public health) why this is happening: 1) naturally gifted people have a tendency to trade mating and parenting opportunities for the opportunity to develop their abilities, e. g., through higher education; 2) being forward-thinking, such people are likelier to use contraception; 3) the modern welfare state taxes the more successful in order to support single mothers, who can often increase their benefits by having more children; 4) the modern movement for sexual “equality” has encouraged the brightest women to pursue careers and postpone marriage, often until it is too late; 5) finally, and most unforgivably, Western elites are now deliberately sponsoring the colonization of our nations by vast numbers of low-IQ persons from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Declining general intelligence has been masked during the Twentieth Century by the so-called Flynn effect, an improvement in specialized mental skills independent of g. This may be one factor which made possible the continued technological progress of the twentieth century. But there is good evidence that the Flynn effect has now done about all it can do, and lower genotypic intelligence will increasingly make itself felt.
In the last four chapters of their study, Dutton and Woodley leave the relatively safe realm of psychometry to consider the possible long-term significance of Western decline. Here their predecessors are philosophers and scholars of comparative history rather than scientists. As they note, there are three basic ways historical development has been conceived, although they can be combined in various ways: decline, progress, and cycles.
Inherited, pre-reflective conceptions of history tend to follow either a cyclical pattern, as in Hinduism and Norse paganism, or a narrative of decline, as in the story of Adam’s fall and Hesiod’s account of successive ages of gold, silver, bronze and clay. Progressive interpretations of history are less common before the modern era (but cf. Part I of Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1975)).
Dutton and Woodley identify the Greek historian Polybius (second century BC) as “the first to advocate, albeit implicitly, a cyclical philosophy of the rise and fall of civilisations wherein there was no metaphysical dimension.” He observed a pattern recurring in the rise and fall of Greek cities which Rome as well seemed to be following. Early societies
are religious, have a deep reverence for the past and for older generations, are prepared to engage in noble acts of self-sacrifice, and follow clear moral rules. These qualities ensure that they have a sense of superiority, a sense of their own destiny, that they are a cohesive community, and that they can be motivated to defend their society, even unto death.
These qualities make for success, but the resulting power and prosperity lead to religious skepticism, loss of reverence for the past, individual self-seeking, moral corruption and a tendency for the leading members of the society to stop having children. Decline sets in precisely as a consequence of previous success.
Later thinkers such as Ibn-Khaldun, Vico, and Spengler developed similar theories.
Dutton and Woodley suggest that many of the phenomena upon which such men constructed their theories of history can be explained by phases of positive and negative selection for general intelligence. Young societies have relatively low average g and are under extreme conditions of group selection, being unstable, dangerous, stressful places to live. Stress is associated with fertility, as producing lots of children hedges against the fact that relatively few may survive. It is also associated with religiousness, which “is about 40% heritable, so it seems to be an evolved disposition, one of the purposes of which is to help us cope with stress.”
Religiousness is also positively associated with ethnocentrism: positive perceptions of one’s own group and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for it, along with negative perceptions of out-groups. Ethnocentrism has been shown by computer modelling, if not by history itself, to beat other possible strategies such as universal altruism, individual selfishness, and (perhaps most obviously) universal treason, in which individuals cooperate only with those outside their group. By encouraging ethnocentrism, religion has evolutionary survival value: when two similar groups are in conflict, the more religious one will, ceteris paribus, triumph.
In the early stages of civilization, society has a sense of divine purpose, is strongly united, it is under intense selection pressure, and it is becoming ever more intelligent, as only the richest pass on their genes. Assuming the selection intensity for g is strong enough, the society will develop into a civilisation—of great intellectual ability—and become highly urbanised.
As the standard of living increases, people shift their focus to private interests and neglect religion. Skepticism becomes widespread, and the society loses its sense of purpose. The elite take to contraception and cease reproducing, while there is money available to subsidize the poor and idle—and their children. As a result, natural selection goes into reverse.
As g declines, society will stop working as well, levels of crime will increase, levels of trust will collapse, and democracy will be debased. The society will stop innovating and will eventually start to go backwards, becoming less rational and more religious as levels of stress begin to increase. This is likely to continue until it returns to pre-modern levels of selection for g. From this it will—in some form—rise from the ashes.
Deserving of special mention is the authors’ perceptive description of changing attitudes toward intellectual pursuit under conditions of civilizational decline:
One consequence of declining intelligence is a decrease in the degree to which people in general venerate “intellectual” pursuits. Intelligence is correlated with a trait known as “Intellect”: being open to new ideas and being fascinated by intellectual pursuit. Until the 1950s, this kind of attitude underpinned the British university. Academics were under no pressure to regularly publish or obtain grants. They were expected to teach and were given vast amounts of time to think and do research based on the hope that some would produce works of genius.
Charles Murray has observed that, in the 19th century, religion was also part of the reason that universities were created along these lines. Their purpose was to reach a greater understanding of God’s creation. If this academic system involved frittering away money—with most academics not publishing anything—this didn’t matter. Some things are more important than money, such as the glory of God.
Since the 1960s, universities have become bureaucratic businesses. This reflects the anti-intellectual, anti-religious attitude that their purpose is to make money. Academics contribute to this by getting funding, publishing frequently, and attending conferences.
Such institutions do not grant appointments to men like Isaac Newton:
They will appoint what [Edward] Dutton and [Bruce] Charlton [in their book, Genius Famine] call the “head girl” (at UK schools)—quite intelligent, socially skilled, conscientious, but absolutely not a genius. This person will be excellent at playing the academic game and will make a great colleague. But they won’t innovate; won’t rock the boat.
Once this stage is reached, academic conformity to an ideological model is easily imposed.
The authors devote a chapter to arguing that the histories of Roman, Islamic, and Chinese civilization can be plausibly interpreted by means of their model of rising and then declining general intelligence. Another chapter applies the model to European civilization since the Dark Ages.
The book closes with some reflections on the choices open to us in the face of civilizational decline. One possible response, of course, is to refuse to accept declining intelligence and advocate intervention to stop and reverse it. Sir Francis Galton, e.g., proposed financial incentives for the most intelligent to have large families. But this obviously cannot be contemplated as long as the current elite remains in power.
Direct genetic enhancement may become possible in the future. But whether it is a vestige of Christianity or a natural instinct, many persons in the West feel a visceral distaste for “meddling with human nature.” Dutton and Woodley suggest an even more serious objection might be “the uses to which the increasingly distant and unaccountable globalist elites may put such technologies.” A purely self-interested elite—or, as the authors do not point out, one particular ethnic component of that elite—might focus exclusively on enhancing the relative success of its own offspring, e.g., through selection for ruthlessness.
Another possibility might be the systematic identification and encouragement of genius, although this would require a radical reversal of the educational trends described above. Still another strategy might be some sort of religious revival, though such an event may not be possible to control.
The authors are most hopeful about the possibilities of long-term knowledge storage to ensure that the next wave of rising general intelligence does not have to rediscover everything for itself:
Eventually, the winter will give way to spring and then summer. Perhaps, with a gift of knowledge from the present to the future, because we have come so far this time, the next Renaissance will take those who are to come even further.
Of course, the next “revival of learning” will be a long time coming indeed if the declining West gets overrun by an exploding population of Africans and South- and Southwest Asians. A renewed ethnocentrism—assuming it is possible at this late date—might increase the odds that the next renaissance will be the work of our own descendants. But the authors do not cover this topic.
In any case, we will long be gone before any such renaissance begins. Is there anything we can do for our immediate descendants? Dutton and Woodley suggest that civilizations, like individuals, can get through the winter less painfully if they accept that it is coming and prepare for it in advance. In the not-so-distant future,
we won’t be able to safely fly aeroplanes, or maintain a lavish system of social security, or keep the electricity on all of the time, or maintain law and order everywhere, or organise democratic government or have widespread use of the internet. Life is going to become more harsh, more dangerous, and simpler. To give an obvious example, many houses are now entirely reliant on electricity: no fireplace, no gas. What are these people supposed to do when electricity becomes unreliable? Many people now commute into London from 70 miles away or even more. How are they going to get work as trains become more and more sporadic? They need to live closer to work, just as we all once did. If we start planning for this—rather than kid ourselves that “things can only get better”—then things will run far more smoothly when the time comes.