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Study Claims Human Intelligence Peaked Two To Six Millennia Ago 637

Posted by Soulskill
from the on-the-shoulders-of-consecutively-dumber-giants dept.
eldavojohn writes "Professor Gerald "Jerry" Crabtree of Stanford's Crabtree Laboratory published a paper (PDF) that has appeared in two parts in Trends in Genetics. The paper opens with a very controversial suggestion: 'I would be willing to wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions.' From there, Crabtree speculates we're on the decline of human intelligence and we have been for at least a couple millennia. His argument suggests agriculture and, following from that, cities, have allowed us to break free of some environmental forces on competitive genetic mutations — a la Mike Judge's theory. However, the conclusion of the paper urges humans to keep calm and carry on, as any attempt to fix this genetic trend would almost certainly be futile and disturbing."
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Study Claims Human Intelligence Peaked Two To Six Millennia Ago

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  • no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:14PM (#41971611)

    *looks at the robot on Mars*

    No. No it did not.

  • by tylikcat (1578365) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:21PM (#41971699)

    Having read only the popular article so far, I confess, it sounds rather speculative.

    But more to the point, there is an assumption that intelligence is itself is a single quantifiable thing, and that the intelligence that did so well on the African savannah, or in ancient Athens would do equally well in our circumstance. (For that matter, that this "intelligence" would be the primary contributing factor to who lived or died.)

    That there are genetic differences relating to intelligence seems highly likely. That they produce more or less of a single linearly quantifiable intelligence seems rather less likely. That selection pressures have greatly changed (as everything else about our environments have greatly changed) seems something like overhwelmingly likely.

    What this means, and what conclusions can be drawn... seems speculative to the point of parlour games.

  • by concealment (2447304) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:21PM (#41971705) Homepage Journal

    As soon we form fixed civilizations, natural selection is no longer in effect.

    For a few millennia, perhaps, we get by with early social selection, which shows people selecting mates for admire for bravery, intelligence, wisdom and strength. This puts the wealthiest, smartest, most healthy and most attractive into the same elite breeding pool.

    After that, society gets faddish. Think of Rome in its final days. People no longer pick the best, but the most popular. That means people who are good salespeople, drama queens, hip cats, etc.

    Thus begins the long slow path to Idiocracy.

  • Re:Flynn effect? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tylikcat (1578365) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:23PM (#41971745)

    Especially since the Flynn effect is likely not tied, or at least not exclusively tied, to genetics.

    (Though mind you, with epigenticis trundling along, the distinction is dwindling.)

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Z00L00K (682162) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:27PM (#41971823) Homepage

    Only workaround would be to require everyone to have an IQ of 100 or above to be permitted to procreate.

    But that's not politically correct.

  • Re:Actually (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vinegar Joe (998110) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:30PM (#41971869)

    There's a difference between IQ and education.

  • Re:Well... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tony Isaac (1301187) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:31PM (#41971873) Homepage

    Yes, and members of Congress!

  • Re:Actually (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:32PM (#41971891)

    I don't think you understand the difference between knowledge and intelligence.

  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:32PM (#41971903) Journal

    âoeI would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas and a clear-sighted view of important issues,â Professor Crabtree says in a provocative paper published in the journal Trends in Genetics.

    The average Athenian lived a life of drudgery and was illiterate.

    Citizenship was hereditary (or very rarely granted by democratic vote) which made the "average citizen" a much different class of person than the average Athenian.
    It's like saying that if the average Harvard student were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive.

  • by wcrowe (94389) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:33PM (#41971927)

    I am not sure I can buy in to his hypothesis. Our perceptions could be skewed because most of what we know about the ancients was left behind by the more intelligent and intellectual members of those societies. I don't think humans are less intelligent today than they were in the past. It only seems that way because we have YouTube.

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:37PM (#41972003)
    You are right; it isn't politically expedient. However, if you look at stats (work on your Google-Fu; find them yourself), you'll see that people with an IQ lower than 100 have a lot more babies than people with higher IQ. So it is not a surprise that overall there is a downward trend. Don't forget that in the distant past, people with a very low IQ were at enough of a competitive disadvantage that they were much more likely to qualify for a Darwin Award. Today, they just get welfare (or whatever it is called in other countries) and keep having kids. They are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to measures like "has a big house" or "makes a lot of money", but when it comes to the life pressure of procreation they are winning.
  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:40PM (#41972033) Homepage Journal

    Only workaround would be to require everyone to have an IQ of 100 or above to be permitted to procreate. But that's not politically correct.

    It would also not help. Most mental deficiencies are caused by environmental factors, not heredity. Problems in childbirth and drug (especially alcohol) use are by far the most common causes of mental retardation.

    As to the untestable hypothesis that we're getting dumber, the theorist (I almost said "researcher", duh!) has missed a few clues. The main strength of our species isn't that we're all really smart, it's that one really smart guy comes along once in a while and tames fire, invents the spear, invents pottery, invents calculus, etc, and the rest of us can learn from that person.

    There's no reason to think that random chance, barring evolutionary pressures, wouldn't even things out. I read that humans almost became extinct at one time (I don't remember how long ago it was) but that is the sort of evolutionary pressure that results in huge shifts in a species' change.

    I seriously doubt that Aristotle could have comprehended calculus or designed a Mars rover.

    That said, people sure seem stupider than they were when I was young -- but that's not nearly a long enough time for evolutionary pressures. And I would posit that people are getting smarter, not dumber, because a thousand years ago there were far more things that would hinder a child's developing brain, from lead paint that they didn't know made kids stupid, to drinking mothers, who didn't know was retarding their fetus' abilities, to falling off of horses and things like that. It's far easier to protect young brains today than just fifty years ago, and things have gotten better over the centuries as we learn.

  • Re:Actually (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @03:48PM (#41972189) Journal

    And there is no objective way to test this. Let's remember here that the output of Classical Greek learning and thought was done by a relatively small number of people compared to the number of people living in Ancient Greece. Trying to determine how smart (by whatever metric you use) the average Greek was based upon how intelligent Socrates or Eratosthenes were is about as useful as trying to determine how smart the average Renaissance Italian was by looking at Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, or the average Enlightenment Briton by John Locke or Isaac Newton.

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spy Handler (822350) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:04PM (#41972445) Homepage Journal

    It would also not help. Most mental deficiencies are caused by environmental factors, not heredity. Problems in childbirth and drug (especially alcohol) use are by far the most common causes of mental retardation.

    We are not talking about mental retardation from prenatal trauma here. We are talking about the general IQ level of those who have fully functioning non-retarded brains.

    Selective pressure in favor of a certain trait results in a population with more of that trait. This is like, really obvious stuff from chapter 1 of Evolution 101. It is a well-understood and widely accepted phenomena. How do you think humans developed higher IQ than the other primates?

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Serious Callers Only (1022605) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:04PM (#41972453)

    I seriously doubt that Aristotle could have comprehended calculus or designed a Mars rover.

    I seriously doubt Democritus or Archimedes would agree with you.

    The article is bunk though. First there's no proof that intellect has declined, only speculation. Then there's the silly idea that there are no selective pressures today. There are, but they are working in different areas, and death as an outcome doesn't really matter to evolution unless it is very early, all that matters is reproduction.

    As a counterpoint to his specious argument about Ancient Greece being the pinnacle of human evolution, we could look at all the foolish endeavours, demagogy, rotten politics, incessant warfare, slavery, genocide and ignorance which prevailed at the time, and feel that we have collectively come a long way.

  • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2@gdar g a u d . n et> on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:07PM (#41972491) Homepage

    This guy seems to have studied the people who did write, and the people they wrote about, and came to the astonishing conclusion that the interesting people 2000 years ago were very bright and intellectual. Bah.

    Yeah, it's like people who go "music nowadays is shit, look how good Mozart or Beethoven were". Well, duh, you pick up the best two the 18th century and compare it to whatever came out this year, so it's no surprise. Maybe you should compare them to the very best that came out in the 20th. Or wait another 88 years and compare it to the best of the 21st.

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zordak (123132) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:18PM (#41972687) Homepage Journal

    As a counterpoint to his specious argument about Ancient Greece being the pinnacle of human evolution, we could look at all the foolish endeavours, demagogy, rotten politics, incessant warfare, slavery, genocide and ignorance which prevailed at the time, and feel that we have collectively come a long way.

    Yes, because, ALL--- no wait, MOST--- well, no, not really, SOME--- ah, screw it.

    Absolutely, because we're much better at pretending we've eradicated those things than the ancients were.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:18PM (#41972695)

    Maybe they just don't want to talk to a self-righteous prick, relative or not.

  • Re:no (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:26PM (#41972799)

    What's really really obvious is that if you take a human and raise them in isolation or in a primitive tribe, they might have a much lower IQ than if the exact same human was raised by the finest minds and educators in the modern world. This is a nonsensical study in particular since we have no clear definition of what "intelligence" is (hint: its not IQ). Basically he's just equating intelligence to those who weren't eaten by a tiger or killed in wars, avoided plagues, and generally got lucky long enough to procreate. I don't know about you but that's strikes me as tripe.

    We have at this point taken control of our own evolution in terms of intelligence and are developing it seperately from the law of the jungle, constructive rather than destructive evolution.

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:27PM (#41972813)
    You assume a work around is needed. Intelligence is not the only measure of a man. Live a happy, honest, hardworking life while only having an IQ of 80, and I'd say you've done better than most geniuses.
  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cream wobbly (1102689) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:30PM (#41972867)

    Interesting that you missed the more obvious point: that the data collected by the individual measures only historical artefacts created by those who were able to put their stamp on history; i.e. those with higher intelligence, or put another way: those whose mental capacity was stretched by the need for developments in every single area of study, including exploration, religion, the establishment of modern science and medicine, etc.

    Perhaps among those artefacts is a study showing how the people of 4000 B.C.E. show a greater mental capacity that degenerates like Socrates, Plato and such like.

  • by green1 (322787) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @04:46PM (#41973101)

    Yeah, a Wall Street executive who is homeless and hungry is sure going to attract lots of mates. (/sarcasm) Simply because our decisions now are different from what they were 3000 years ago, does not mean the intelligence required is any less so. Or any more, for that matter.

    Things aren't quite the same though, as a society we prop up the lowest classes of people through various initiatives, from welfare, to homeless shelters, etc. The result is that the poorest people are still "rich" by the standards of cavemen. This leads to an interesting problem in society though, the poorest people, those with the least education, tend to breed far more than the richest people who are usually more career focused and have few, if any, children.
    Intelligence is still required, and you are right that it is different things we must think about than thousands of years ago, but the consequences of both failure, and success are also quite different. Evolution is no longer picking the top tier of civilization to procreate the most, but instead we are concentrating more of the reproduction of the population in to lower economic groups.

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RabidReindeer (2625839) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @05:04PM (#41973337)

    I would wager that Aristotle *could* comprehend calculus given proper instruction. I mean, he was one of the premier thinkers of his time. Great minds also make mistakes, but still...

    Zeno's Paradox is about 98% of what it takes to invent differential calculus. All that remained to be added was limits.

  • by TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @05:09PM (#41973393)

    I can safely say intelligence did not peak 2000 years ago.

  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rk (6314) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @05:32PM (#41973721) Journal

    A Kalahari bushman would probably get himself killed trying to live my life for a week, and I probably wouldn't last 3 days in the Kalahari left to my own devices. What is really intelligent in one ecosystem is really stupid in another. To look at the DNA and say "this person must be smarter than the other" is complete bullshit.

  • by knarf (34928) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @05:33PM (#41973737) Homepage

    Look at that Archimedes palimpsest [wikipedia.org]. There we have a book made of parchment, in which Archimedes philosophised himself towards calculus. Scraped out at a later stage and reused... to write a prayer book. From the conquest of knowledge to the submission of free thought, on one piece of parchment.

    It puts in mind that lizard, sitting in the sun on top of the remains of a launch platform built by a civilisation now long gone, thinking (or at least doing the lizard-equivalent of it) 'what a nice basking spot someone made me here'.

  • No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @05:54PM (#41974047)
    The Middle Eastern empires, and Rome, organised food and agriculture. It's in the Bible, even - Joseph gets promoted because he's such a good planner for dealing with famines. The 'priests' of Sumer kept family details on clay tablets to organise welfare in hard times. Egyptian peasants were highly taxed to maintain the grain stores. The exact opposite is true; those highly successful societies had a high degree of social organisation, and the peasants left planning to the educated class.
  • Re:no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DM9290 (797337) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @07:25PM (#41975169) Journal

    You assume a work around is needed. Intelligence is not the only measure of a man. Live a happy, honest, hardworking life while only having an IQ of 80, and I'd say you've done better than most geniuses.

    You've also done better than most people with an IQ of 80.

  • by hawkfish (8978) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @07:52PM (#41975451) Homepage

    Look at that Archimedes palimpsest [wikipedia.org]. There we have a book made of parchment, in which Archimedes philosophised himself towards calculus. Scraped out at a later stage and reused... to write a prayer book. From the conquest of knowledge to the submission of free thought, on one piece of parchment.

    It puts in mind that lizard, sitting in the sun on top of the remains of a launch platform built by a civilisation now long gone, thinking (or at least doing the lizard-equivalent of it) 'what a nice basking spot someone made me here'.

    The book may have been common at the time it was made (950) but by the time of the reuse (1229), the Byzantine Empire was pretty much kaput. The date is from a period when the empire had lost Constantinople itself, so to claim that a book like that should be preserved when the containing society was under violent attack and disintegrating seems culturally myopic.

    More damning to our modern culture is the following:

    Sometime after 1938, one owner of the manuscript forged four Byzantine-style religious images in the manuscript in an effort to increase its value.

    The effort needed to recover the underlying text for these pages was much more heroic. I'd say that in this case, moden greed was much more destructive than some poor sod trying to make peace with mortality under circumstances that most of can't even begin to imagine.

  • Re:no (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Iamthecheese (1264298) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @10:56PM (#41976837)
    That doesn't follow. What our bushman knows and what you know are each a matter of knowledge, not intelligence. If the bushman was born where you were and raised as you were he may have a better chance than you at being successful, determined by his intelligence. In the bush he may be able to better correlate a set of markings in the dirt with an eatable rodent he saw once three years ago. In a bar in your home town he may be better able to correlate a certain tone of voice with a girl's willingness to go home with him. The intelligence is the same: pattern matching.
  • Re:no (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dywolf (2673597) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @09:33AM (#41979449)

    thus do I refute your entire post:
    the IQ metric has been upward adjsuted several times. IE, the baseline 100 point of today is higher compared to the baseline 100 they started with. this is because the collective average point has increased.
    ---
    Has intelligence peaked? No. The hypothetical Athens man being transported to today is no more or less intelligent than everyone around him.

    Has education peaked? Ahh. Here is the true reason the hypothetical Athens man would seem more intelligent.

    His quality of education is better, broader, more rounded and more in depth than the average education of today. But that is true of education frm 100 yrs ago too. By the 8th grade students used to have begun learning 2nd and 3rd languages, physics (not just concepts but math), algebra, chemistry....Now you dont learn physics til Senoir year if not college, chemistry survey (easy, no math no thinking) in junior year, and we're lucky if they even took one semester of language or learned algebra before leaving high school.

    THAT is why he would seem smarter. The capacity of intelligence isnt higher, merely the amount of training and the capability of thought. It's like anything: the more time you spend studying, thinking, learning, ie, the more time you spend exercising your brain, the better you are at using and applying it. Just like any other muscle.

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