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Why We’re Getting Dumber

[1]3,718 words

Edward Dutton & Michael Woodley of Menie
At Our Wit’s End: Why We’re Becoming Less Intelligent and What that Means for the Future
Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2018

You are not imagining it: The predictions made in the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy are already coming true. This is the premise of last year’s At Our Wit’s End: Why We’re Becoming Less Intelligent and What that Means for the Future by Edward Dutton and Michael Woodley of Menie. They argue that in the nineteenth century, the average level of intelligence in the West began to decrease due to differential fertility rates; whereas previously those who were more intelligent tended to have more surviving children, it is now the case that the more intelligent people are, the lower their fertility rate is. The authors connect this trend to the collapse of past civilizations, and predict a new Dark Age for our own.


As in Idiocracy, high-IQ people end up with fewer descendants.

Intelligence, as the authors make clear, is simply “the ability to solve complex problems and to solve them quickly” (9). The authors debunk several popular criticisms of intelligence as measured by IQ tests, explaining that it is not a narrow test-taking skill, but an estimate of g – a general mental ability –  which is correlated with a wide variety of more specific skills, as well as concrete real-world outcomes. For example, less intelligent people are more likely to be alcoholics, smokers, and criminals, while more intelligent people are more likely to live longer and earn more money. IQ testing is not culturally biased, as it is similarly effective at predicting these outcomes regardless of the culture or race of the people tested. Intelligence is also not mainly a product of environment, as studies of identical twins show that differences in intelligence are eighty percent attributable to genes.

The authors provide a fascinating explanation of how numerous factors meant that, for much of history, the more intelligent had an advantage in reproduction which they have now lost in recent times. The first factor discussed is polygamy, which is still practiced in hunter-gatherer societies today. Men in such groups compete for social status, which largely means access to women. The winners of such competitions are most likely among the most intelligent, having shown superior ability in problem-solving challenges such as hunting and making alliances. Such high-status men almost always have multiple wives, whereas many others have none; a study of the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert found that “62% of adult males produced no children at all” (36). Thus, the most intelligent pass on their genes to a much greater degree, while the genes of the least capable in every generation are lost.

Pastoral societies and early nation-states favored the most intelligent to a greater degree, as greater intelligence was required to function in these more complex societies. Early nation-states had greater class divisions, with the upper classes being both significantly healthier and better able to provide for children than the poor, and thus more capable of having many surviving descendants.

Exactly how dramatic the fertility differences were historically is a matter of guesswork until the early modern period. Drawing on evidence from England in the seventeenth century, when the relevant records began to be widely kept, the authors cite research showing that of those who left wills when they died, the richer half had “almost twice as many surviving children” as the poorer half (43). Even the poorer testators had fifty percent more children than the majority of people, who left no will at all.

As long ago as medieval times, social mobility contributed to the selection for intelligence. Those born into the working class who had higher IQs were likely to gain social status, while the less intelligent offspring of the nobility would descend in the ranks and have less ability to pass on their genes.

One of the most interesting factors which it has been claimed increased intelligence in the early modern period was the criminal justice system. In modern times, it has been suggested that prison is a form of eugenics, as with limited access to women, criminals are far less likely to conceive while they are incarcerated. Criminality, like all personality traits, is significantly influenced by genes, so this should mean fewer criminals than there would otherwise be in future generations. But the authors of the present volume cite research suggesting that executions historically removed not only the more criminally inclined from the gene pool, but also the least intelligent. With all felonies carrying the death penalty at the beginning of the early modern period, up to one percent of every generation was executed, with another one percent dying in prison or at the scene of the crime. These were mostly poor and uneducated people, not only because they had higher crime rates but because the better-off offenders could often afford to fund better prison conditions. Also, through a legal provision known as Benefit of the Clergy, convicts could avoid execution by proving that they could read. Both wealth and literacy were, and are, connected with intelligence.

The authors argue that Christianity actually had the opposite effect in several ways. Firstly, it abolished polygamy, so that with the exception of those men who never married, no man had more or fewer wives than another, regardless of his intelligence. Second, it established priestly celibacy. As priests needed to be willing and able to spend a significant amount of time reading, they would have been some of the most intelligent people in a mostly illiterate society, and celibacy removed them from the gene pool. Third, it prohibited abortion. As today, this meant that many children began to be born to “those of relatively low intelligence who had acted in the moment and not considered the future consequences” (41).

However, this was somewhat counteracted by two factors. First was the fact that the restrictions on sex were often violated; there were many cases of both noblemen and clergy having illegitimate children. Second, the Church also banned contraception. The less intelligent are less likely to use contraception, due to their lesser concern for the consequences, so its use serves only to reduce the intelligent people’s contribution to the gene pool.

The authors not only argue that intelligence was selected for in the past, but also present more direct evidence that intelligence was actually increasing before its more recent decline. This includes increases in brain size, improvements in literacy and numeracy, and a decrease in the murder rate, as crime is correlated with low intelligence. They even argue that dropping interest rates were a sign of increasing intelligence, as a capacity for delayed gratification is correlated with intelligence, and people willing to lend money out for low rates demonstrate such a willingness to accept a lower immediate reward.

The most interesting choice for evidence of increasing intelligence was a decrease in officially sanctioned brutality. A desire to see others tormented implies a lack of empathy for others, which is often connected with low intelligence, so the authors argue that the abolition of various forms of public cruelty suggests greater intelligence. For example, in seventeenth-century England, many offenders were hanged, which was a public spectacle and involved strangulation rather than the more merciful technique of breaking the offender’s neck. Those condemned for high treason were hanged, drawn, and quartered, which meant that they were castrated, beheaded, disemboweled, and cut into pieces, which were then put on public display. This latter punishment was no longer employed after 1782, while public executions were abandoned entirely in 1869. Public cruelty toward animals can also be seen as a sign of a low-empathy and low-IQ society, and cock fighting and bear baiting, previously popular forms of entertainment, were banned in 1835.


In Idiocracy, low-IQ Clevon Jr. devises a superior reproduction strategy to that of his high-IQ compatriots.

Several factors explain the reversal of the pressures on intelligence, although there are wide discrepancies between the points at which various factors came into play. Condoms came into use around the middle of the nineteenth century, and as already mentioned, contraception serves mainly to limit the fertility of the more intelligent elite who have the foresight to use them. Infant mortality was also an issue, as it was previously far more common among single mothers, who at that time would often simply abandon unwanted children, and who then as now tended to be less intelligent than most women. But improvements in sanitation, medicine, and the general wealth of society after the Industrial Revolution meant that infant mortality dropped dramatically, from forty-five percent in the seventeenth century to ten percent in 1900. Although there is still a negative correlation between intelligence and infant mortality today, as a large proportion of children no longer died in childhood, even among the poor, this was no longer a factor in the intelligence of the surviving population.

The issue of welfare being dysgenic is also dealt with here, with references to Charles Murray’s influential 1984 work, Losing Ground. Single mothers, along with those who have unplanned pregnancies in general, tend to have low IQs. Prior to the introduction of the welfare state in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a strong financial and social disincentive for these people to have children, meaning that they had them less often, and those they did conceive were often put up for adoption. But with guaranteed welfare payments to support their children, along with the loosening of the social stigma against illegitimacy, the number of births to those least able to provide for them increased.

Finally, the influence of immigration on intelligence is covered, which is another factor dating to the second half of the twentieth century. In Western nations, non-Western immigrants tend to have lower IQs than the native population, as in for example the average such person in Denmark, who has an IQ of 86. This is not enough to be self-sufficient in modern Western society; it suggests they are less intelligent than over eighty percent of the population and significantly below the average IQ of a long-term welfare-dependent single woman, which Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s classic The Bell Curve put at 92. Not only is the population of such people increasing through immigration, but all across the Western world there is evidence of non-Europeans having significantly higher fertility rates than whites. Considering all these factors, the English psychologist and intelligence researcher Richard Lynn has estimated that by the year 2106, the average IQ in the UK will have dropped to 87.

The author’s thesis may come as a surprise to many people due to something known as the Flynn effect, named after the political scientist and intelligence researcher, James R. Flynn. Looking at IQ test results over the course of the twentieth century, Flynn found evidence of dramatic increases in intelligence in a variety of nations, including Western, Third World, and former Communist countries, as well as in Japan and South Korea. If these are taken at face value, they would suggest that “the average person today would have to be considered some kind of genius in the 1930s,” as IQ was increasing at 3 to 5 points per decade. However, the authors explain why this is misleading.

IQ testing is an attempt to estimate g, or general intelligence, but different parts of the IQ test are said to be more or less “g-loaded,” meaning more or less strongly correlated with g. The authors point to studies showing that g itself is not improving; instead, scores are improving “most strongly on the least g-loaded parts of the test” (116). Flynn himself has agreed with this conclusion; apparently the improvement instead has to do with abstract thinking, such as putting things into categories.

The authors credit these improvements to environmental influences, noting that there is greater improvement on the parts of the test least influenced by genes. Firstly, they argue that since the Industrial Revolution, society has changed in such a way as to increasingly encourage abstract thinking. This includes increasing levels of education, developing easier access to information, and making it a requirement to understand basic science in order to “keep up in the industrial world, with its ever-increasing mechanization . . .” (119). There have also been other improvements in the environment, such that in the West almost no one any longer suffers stunted intelligence due to malnutrition.

The authors provide several types of direct evidence that IQ is declining, including a reduction in reaction time and in the ability to discriminate between shades of color. One of the most interesting signs of decline is creativity, which, according to a study [4] by Korean psychologist Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary, has significantly decreased since 1990. Among the conclusions was that “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle” (292). This may account for an often observed decline in the quality of popular entertainment, including music, television, and movies.

A 2012 study [5] supports the idea that popular music has declined in quality, not only since 1990 but since a peak in the 1960s. Specifically, more recent songs show a decline in variety in something called timbre. This is an aspect of sound sometimes called “tone color,” which largely accounts for the difference between the sound of the same note played on, for example, a saxophone and a guitar. Changes in pitch, both in chords and melodies, have also become less varied; it is not just a subjective perception that every song today sounds the same.

One measure used to approximate intelligence can also be used to approximate the general level of civilization, and that is “macro-innovation,” meaning major scientific and technological breakthroughs on the level of electricity or the airplane. The authors cite Jonathan Huebner, an American physicist who in 2005 estimated the global per capita rates of highly significant events in science and technology over the course of more than five hundred years. Huebner found “that scientific innovation rates per capita increased four-fold between 1450 and 1870” and declined significantly since then (82). Indeed, Dutton and Woodley of Menie suggest that we are already losing the ability to maintain established technologies, citing the manned missions to the Moon, which have not taken place since 1972, and the supersonic Concorde jet, which hasn’t been in service since 2003.

The authors make reference to three basic theories of history and suggest that “[t]here is neither constant progression towards perfection” as Marxists, transhumanists, and others believe, “nor perfection in the past that we try to imitate as best we can”; many during the Renaissance had such a view of the Classical past, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one example of an Enlightenment thinker who believed that modern people had sadly deviated from the ideal way of life embodied in prehistoric tribes. Instead, the scriptures of religions such as Hinduism and Norse paganism, along with historians and philosophers from ancient to modern times, have referred to some type of cycle in the rise and fall of civilizations.

The modern expression of this concept is known as Social Cycle Theory, and posits that civilizations begin in a Dark Age, expand and improve until they reach a Golden Age, then decline into another Dark Age – and so on indefinitely. However, the authors have made a valuable contribution to the understanding of why this would occur.

Earlier thinkers referred to a shift in values; the ancient Greek philosopher Polybius suggested that, as the authors paraphrase him, “[s]ocieties rise when they 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 give them “a sense of superiority, a sense of their own destiny,” and a cohesive community which they are willing and able to defend. “When they lose these qualities . . . then they fall. People become too rich,” and this luxury leads them to abandon all the values that previously made them strong (155).

The medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun referred to the waxing and waning of something called asabiyyah, which can be translated as “group solidarity” or “tribalism,” and which he believed formed the basis of religiosity and martial values. Harsh conditions among desert nomads meant that such feelings were necessary for survival, but once these people managed to conquer or create cities, conditions became much more luxurious. This caused a decline in asabiyyah so that, over time, the city-dwellers became vulnerable to attacks by other tribes who had not been softened by luxury. These people would eventually overwhelm them, so that their cities would once again be occupied by people high in asabiyyah.

The authors agree with Ibn Khaldun that stress increases religiosity, and argue that ethnocentrism, which is correlated with religiosity, is a critical advantage in competition between groups. However, they add the key factor of g. That people in decadent societies had fewer children had already been observed by ancient historians such as Polybius, but Dutton and Woodley of Menie add that in such conditions, as already discussed, the earlier patterns of fertility would be reversed. The elite, losing their religiosity due to a luxurious low-stress life, no longer believed in any transcendent values in their civilization or their duty to perpetuate it, but the least intelligent lacked the foresight to take precautions against pregnancy, so their fertility remained unchecked. Rather than the most intelligent having the most surviving children, the least intelligent now did so, and over many generations, society declined into a new Dark Age. Dutton and Woodley of Menie argue that this was exactly what happened to ancient Rome.

This volume is a great improvement over another work published earlier the same year by Dutton alone: How to Judge People by What They Look Like, which dealt with the connections between personality traits and the genetic aspects of appearance. Where the former work seems cursory and half-finished, lacking even an index, At Our Wit’s End is approximately twice as long, going into much more detail and adding not only an index but also helpful tables and graphs. It is dense with facts and figures, but accessible and argued in a clear and logical style.


William Hogarth’s 1751 piece Gin Lane is here repurposed to suggest the results not of gin, but of declining intelligence.

The book’s cover is illustrated by the English artist and social critic William Hogarth’s 1751 sketch, Gin Lane, which was intended to illustrate the evils of the drink, but is clearly meant here to refer to the consequences of propagating low intelligence. Along with depicting various horrors, including drunken violence and death by various means, including suicide, there is a woman giving her baby gin, emphasizing the hereditary nature of both alcoholism and low IQ. Another mother is clearly neglecting her small child, allowing it to fall over the railing of the stairs on which she is sitting. She is more interested in getting a pinch of snuff, and the syphilitic sores on her leg suggest prostitution. All of these are instances of the type of high-time-preference mentality, a preference for immediate indulgence over long-term responsibility, which will become more common as general intelligence decreases. The image is summed up by a man and a dog both gnawing on the same bone, indicating the decline of humanity to an animal level.

The authors are unfortunately not optimistic about the prospects for reversing such degeneration. They suggest that genetic manipulation for eugenic purposes is viscerally repulsive even to most medical students, and that ordinary people would not accept the abstract thinking behind eugenic measures. If left to choice, such technology would be exploited by a self-interested elite who would not use it for the benefit of the general population, while any attempt to impose such things forcefully would be rejected by the population to the degree that civil war would likely break out.

Despite a general revulsion towards eugenics, though, it is entirely possible to improve the gene pool to some degree in the current year. Although this is not covered in the text, Project Prevention [7] is an organization which provides long-term birth control procedures to unfit parents, judged as such based on alcoholism or drug abuse. While not deliberately targeted at intelligence or any genetic issue, the program tends to remove from the gene pool many who are of low intelligence, given that alcoholism and drug abuse are negatively correlated with IQ. Over eight thousand people have voluntarily undergone such procedures in exchange for a small cash payment. While criticized by many, the program violates no law and has managed to operate since 1997.

A similar program [8], targeted at teen pregnancy rather than drug abuse, has been implemented by the state of Colorado with great success. Through an entirely voluntary program, the teen birth rate has declined by forty percent in four years. Given that teen pregnancy is largely a phenomenon of those near the bottom of society, and that social status is correlated with IQ, this is a eugenic program in all but name. But of course, neither of these programs operate at anything near the scale necessary to reverse a trend which spans our entire civilization.

Dutton and Woodley of Menie are also pessimistic about other hypothetical solutions to this predicament. At most, they suggest that a return to traditional religion, which emphasized the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, could slow down the decline of civilization by encouraging even the most intelligent to have numerous children. But even this might prove difficult, as there is a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, so it would be difficult to engender religious devotion among those we most need to reproduce.

The book concludes with the admission that although “there are probably ways to slow down the collapse of civilization . . . that will be for a small minority if it happens at all, and those people will have to survive very harsh conditions” (204). But ultimately, this is no reason to despair; as the authors support the Social Cycle Theory, they expect civilization to rise again at some point in the future, and encourage the reader to “safely store the knowledge that our civilisation has produced” in the hope that it will benefit people of the future, when society begins to move again towards a brighter age (204).