December 25, 2012

"Primitive" people were less intelligent?

From a column on increasing IQs around the world, I posted the following excerpt:

It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World

By Nicholas D. KristofFlynn argues that I.Q. is rising because in industrialized societies we give our brains a constant mental workout that builds up what we might call our brain sinews."Mike" responded:IQ is a matter of perspective.

A response by an elder to a missionary that offered to take his tribes children to be educated educated in "White" schools:

"A number of years ago another missionary like yourself came to us with a similar offer to which we agreed. When our young men came back to us, they could not stand the cold, they knew not how to hunt, they were weak and timid, in fact they were without any skills at all. I would ask of you that you send your young ones to us to be educated and we will make men of them."
Yeah, a couple of questionable assumptions here:

1) If IQ's have increased recently, the tests are measuring something other than innate intelligence, which should be stable over time.

2) Who says "primitive" people who were hunting dangerous animals, creeping through dangerous forests, or sailing dangerous seas weren't juggling variables and giving their brains a workout? You could argue the opposite. Except for our complicated computer technology, our lives have gotten softer and easier. We're sitting in a car, at a desk, or in front of a TV while they had to stay alert or die.

"Brad" chimed in and disagreed with my last point:First I'll say that it's already been shown that I.Q. tests are skewed unless the language and content is adjusted for the people taking them. So I'm not even sure HOW reliable their data is. I.Q. is not, however, a matter of perspective. I.Q. isn't about what you know, it's what you have the capacity to learn to solve problems.

Second, I think it IS logical to assume that I.Q.s of modern urban people are higher than your "primitive" people. People in modern society have to navigate many more diverse and complicated problem-solving situations than hunters or people before the industrial revolution. It's difficult to say whether "primitive" people had the same capacity for I.Q. because the cultural frame of reference is so different. It's true that we likely give such people too little credit for intelligence, but if something goes wrong with a spear, there's only so many possible solutions. It's tough to realize as much potential when you're limited by the available problems and solutions.
We have to navigate more complex problem-solving situations, perhaps. Although finding food when you're starving seems complex enough to me. But "they" were play for much higher stakes, often their lives, so mental acuity was much more necessary.

Now, everyone--even dumb people--has a good chance of surviving to old age because of healthcare, police protection, etc. Then, only the best and the brightest survived. For all we know, they could've had tribes full of geniuses, with no way to express themselves except via cave paintings.

I'm not saying they definitely were smarter. But I don't think the comparison is nearly as clearcut as you and the author seem to think. Evolution selects for the smartest people, and evolution was more of a factor then.

"I.Q. isn't about what you know, it's what you have the capacity to learn to solve problems." Yes, and that should be stable over a period of millennia. I don't see any evidence that humans have evolved better brains that can solve more problems. Have Bush, Obama, and Romney made better decisions than a tribal chief, pharaoh, or Roman senator? I don't think so.

What's the evidence that IQ is actually increasing? That IQ tests say it is? Unless there's some independent evidence of this, it's a circular argument. It's like saying supermodels are the definition of beauty, and women are getting more beautiful because there are more supermodels.

Discover article supports Rob

Another article notes that our brain size has been shrinking in recent centuries. One explanation supports what I said above.

If Modern Humans Are So Smart, Why Are Our Brains Shrinking?

Here are some leading theories about the why the human brain has been getting smaller since the Stone Age.

By Kathleen McAuliffe
Bailey and Geary found population density did indeed track closely with brain size, but in a surprising way. When population numbers were low, as was the case for most of our evolution, the cranium kept getting bigger. But as population went from sparse to dense in a given area, cranial size declined, highlighted by a sudden 3 to 4 percent drop in EQ starting around 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. “We saw that trend in Europe, China, Africa, Malaysia—everywhere we looked,” Geary says.

The observation led the researchers to a radical conclusion: As complex societies emerged, the brain became smaller because people did not have to be as smart to stay alive. As Geary explains, individuals who would not have been able to survive by their wits alone could scrape by with the help of others—supported, as it were, by the first social safety nets.

Geary is not implying that our beetle-browed forebears would have towered over us intellectually. But if Cro-Magnons had been raised with techno-toys and the benefits of a modern education, he ventures, “I’m sure we would get good results. Don’t forget, these guys were responsible for the ‘cultural explosion’”—a revolution in thinking that led to such startling new forms of expression as cave paintings, specialized tools, and bones carved into the first flutes. In terms of raw innate smarts, he believes, they probably were as “bright as today’s brightest” and might even have surpassed us.

Still, Geary hesitates to use words like genius or brilliant in describing them. “Practically speaking,” he explains, “our ancestors were not our intellectual or creative equals because they lacked the same kind of cultural support. The rise of agriculture and modern cities based on economic specialization has allowed the very brightest people to focus their efforts in the sciences, the arts, and other fields. Their ancient counterparts didn’t have that infrastructure to support them. It took all their efforts just to get through life.”
Not our intellectual or creative equals, perhaps, but just as intelligent, if not more so.

There are other possible explanations, but none of them support Brad's theory that our "complex" society is making people smarter. Looks like I win another debate. <g>

I'd classify this debate as part of the uncivilized Indians stereotype. You know, the idea that Indians and other indigenous people were too primitive to develop advanced cultures and civilizations. Naturally, I disagree with this presumption.

For more on the subject, see Native with Professional Voice Goes Unrecognized and Charles Dickens on The Noble Savage.

Below:  Which takes more intelligence and planning: killing a dangerous beast or shopping in a supermarket?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, race and IQ. IQ and race. This will not be easy.

Basically, race and IQ is a bunch of equine excrement. Anthropologists manage to give the wrong reasons why (claiming Indians have lower IQs, as if that disproves the fallacious notion of IQ being linked to race), when in reality, any IQ test will only measure how to take an IQ test (which seems tautological, but it's important to keep in mind), and racial differences aren't as big a deal as the Rushtons of the world claim. Plus, Rushton loves to be almost a strawman, asking men anonymously at the mall about their penises and how far they ejaculate.

But basically, civilization, with its high population density, favors immune genes...and little else. Those of us who live after the development of vaccines can't appreciate this (and people like Jenny McCarthy refuse to), but being 99% less likely to get smallpox, even before factoring in that everyone else is 99% less likely to get smallpox, killed off smallpox.