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Tradition does not reflect the better angles of our nature

James Giago Davies

This story begins with a tall guy who had a white beard and a kind face. His name was James Flynn, and he was born in America but moved to New Zealand where he became a highly respected professor at the University of Otago. Flynn is most noted for his work on the Flynn Effect. This effect attempts to explain why IQ scores have risen steadily over the past century. For example, the average scores on the Progressive Matrices test in the UK rose 14 points from 1942 to 2008. Apparently, people have been getting smarter, although many of us, justifiably, struggle to find evidence of that in day-to-day life.

Flynn was a masterful public speaker, and he would give talks, and in one of those talks he delved into why people are getting smarter, by explaining that people really aren’t getting smarter. People today just think differently than people in the 19th Century, or so has been the trend.

The problem with trends is they are not absolute change—many critical and often debilitating aspects of past mentalities linger on long after their shelf life has expired. If these trend subsets are pervasive enough, that archaic mentality can sandbag social progress. Past templates serve the present poorly and they are an even worse idea for the future.

One of Flynn’s explanations for the change in the way people think has to do with the concrete and the abstract. If you take the same subjects, in this case a dog and a rabbit, and ask what they have in common, concrete and abstract thinkers will respond differently. High intelligence will not lead to abstract perceptions automatically. People must learn over time to think abstractly. A 19th Century concrete thinker with the same intelligence as a 21st Century abstract thinker will say, the dog chases the rabbit. His response will only consider the aspects which he can readily and practically observe and process. An abstract thinker will look for a deeper association that probes the connective nature of the subjects, and he will say they are mammals. As thinking transitioned from concrete to abstract you could see that transition in early TV programs from the 1950’s, like What’s My Line. The panel on that program were highly intelligent and witty celebrities, but they confused animal for mammal, and did not see creatures like insects or microbes as animals. These classifications are common knowledge for grade school kids today.

When concrete thinkers collectively address the problems of the modern world, they apply a template which lost efficacy two centuries ago. They validate their perspective through tradition and rationalizing, rather than logic and reason.

Sadly, in the past few decades, although the overall trend remains positive, there has been a mini reversal in certain countries, the USA being one of them, of the Flynn Effect. Our collective national IQ is dropping. Why? Because with the rise of the internet, large portions of this country can be indoctrinated into concrete thinking patterns that jeopardize our future and threaten our basic freedoms. These concrete mentalities reflect our biases, prejudices, and fears rather than the “better angels of our nature.”

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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