This is a long essay, about 3700 words, so I’m putting a summary on the front page and the main essay “below the fold”.
Modern, first-world society needs a lot of bright people to keep everything working. Because of a number of social forces, average intelligence in the Western world is declining and can be expected to decline to the point that the modern infrastructure cannot be maintained. Some solutions are proposed for averting this fate.
Take a moment to think about the good things in your life. Material things; for the moment I don’t care if you’re married to the love of your life.
You’re reading an essay published only on the Internet, so it’s safe to assume that you have electricity whenever you want it. You can light your house for the price of a few minutes’ work per day. You have a computer (or a tablet or phone, but tablets and phones are computers which can do other things). You live someplace which has Internet connectivity, with all that that implies in terms of computers and reliable electricity and cabling or radio signals or satellites, plus everything behind that in terms of rare earth mining and chip manufacturing. You probably have a place to live which keeps the weather out and you probably have plenty to eat – if either is not the case, why are you reading what some knucklehead writes rather than finding food and shelter?
You like having all that, right?
Well, then, it behooves you to do what’s needed to keep it coming.
What’s needed to keep the lights on and the water flowing and the store shelves stocked and the Internet feeding you more content than you can consume? That gets complicated, partly because each piece gets complicated, partly because there are a lot of pieces and many of them interact, and partly because most people have never given any of it any thought. Recall I, Pencil (or read it if you never have) and consider that it describes the production of a simple item with no moving parts and no interactions with other pencils.
To take a simple example – and this is a simple example, and I’m skipping half of the pieces to make it simpler – in order to keep your municipal water flowing you need to pull the water in from somewhere. You need pipes. Lots of pipes. You need pumps. You should have storage tanks. You need monitoring of flow coming in and flow going out and water pressure and pH and a dozen chemical contaminants and biological contaminants. You probably need chemicals to kill biologicals, to adjust pH, and to remove or neutralize other contaminants. You need machines to add the chemicals, a place to store them, and truck drivers to bring them in. You need people to scout around for new water sources in case the current one fails or is contaminated. You need maintenance crews for the machinery and spare parts for the machines. You need operators to monitor the sensors. You need technicians to run the machines. You need maintenance crews to fix the pipes, plus the machinery and parts needed to do so. You need accountants and managers and … You get the idea.
And remember, this was a simple example. I could give you chapter and verse on building a sensor box which monitors the water pressure at any point and reports it back to headquarters, from finding the right kind of sand to make the microcontroller to performing quality assurance testing on the finished sensor module, but that would take an entire book, much larger than I, Pencil.
Where I’m going with this is, we rely on a lot of systems to keep us alive and happy. Some of the systems are comparatively simple but even the simplest interact with other systems and make a giant, impossibly complex mess.
The entirety is beyond human comprehension. I posit that not only is there no living human who understands it all, the entirety is larger and more complex than any human can understand. Maybe someday a genetically engineered megabrain or cybernetically enhanced demi-human will understand it all, but that day is not today. (Er, so far as I know.)
Humans can understand parts of systems, though. More intelligent humans can understand more complex systems.
And here, finally, we’re past the setup and into the main part of this essay.
To keep the modern world going, many jobs are needed. Some of them don’t need a whole lot of brains: transferring crates of chemicals from a delivery truck to the store room can be done by someone barely bright enough to scrawl an X on his paycheck.
Running the tests to check the purity of the incoming water takes more brains than that but is mostly a matter of being trained to follow procedures that someone else came up with.
Coming up with the tests and the procedures for using them takes more brains.
Coming up with the basic science behind chemicals and biologicals in water and the ways to remove or neutralize them takes still more brains.
Every system has a hierarchy like that. It takes a lot of brains – intelligence, usually combined with a degree of focus that most humans can’t manage – to devise a machine to perform a task. Less so to maintain it. Less than that to use it. Even less to gain the benefits of it being used. Similarly for inventing new methods of drilling for oil, reading surveys and assays to identify good locations, down to running the meal trucks which feed the men working the rigs.
We in the developed world have a lot of complex systems requiring a lot of operators and repairmen. We have enough people who can do these jobs. (The “Help Wanted” signs are the result of economics, not a shortage of people with the raw ability.) In the US we may have a shortage of engineers who can create new products; I think it’s a matter of the employers trying to lowball engineers’ pay by claiming a shortage in order to get in a flood of low-cost guest workers but I could be wrong.
I don’t know if we have a shortage of scientists and engineers able to make groundbreaking, world-changing discoveries and inventions. I’ll take the cop-out of asserting that these discoveries are not evident until years later, but the reality is that there is so much discovery and invention going on that it’s impossible to keep up with it all and even more impossible to distinguish between the trivial enhancements, the wrong paths, and the potentially world-changing breakthroughs.
We in the United States in 2022 have enough humans who are bright enough to keep all of our systems going and to scale them up to fit growing needs and to improve them incrementally. That’s at current demographics, both total population size and intelligence distribution.
Many other nations do not have the native population needed to operate systems developed in the past century, let alone have ever been able to create them on their own. For examples, look at any nation in Africa, most of the Middle East, or any part of Central or South America which does not have Europeans running the show. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and set up a puppet government, they poured billions into building infrastructure. As soon as the Soviet Union declared defeat and left Afghanistan the infrastructure fell apart. Much the same after the United States invaded Afghanistan and poured billions into infrastructure.
There can be any number of explanations for this lack, anything from poor schools to forced nepotism, but I think that the biggest problem is the lack of enough people who are smart enough to do the jobs.
Different nations, different peoples, and different subspecies have different distributions of intelligence. This is a controversial statement because it makes people feel bad. I will not waste my time arguing on the basis of feeewings. The science is open, replicable, and not substantively refuted that I know of.
The average intelligence of Afghans is 80. Assuming the same standard deviation of 15 points found in Western Europeans and European-descended Americans (not a safe assumption; the SD is probably smaller), the percent of Afghans with an IQ of 110 or higher would be the same as the percent of White Americans with an IQ of 130 or higher.
110 is a fair estimate of the IQ needed to troubleshoot basic problems in a power plant, water works, or similar. Less bright workers can follow the procedures set up by others and keep things going so long as nothing goes wrong but they need the somewhat-bright supervisors to handle routine changes or failures. Even brighter supervisors are needed in order to deal with major changes and major failures.
The problem for Afghans is that only about 2% of the population is bright enough to be day-to-day supervisors. With women effectively excluded from such roles and children unable to perform them, Afghanistan has perhaps one person out of 200 who is smart enough to be an effective floor or team supervisor for any of the infrastructure services which keep modern nation going, or who keep an import/export operation working effectively, or who perform any number of jobs above the menial level. That’s not enough people with enough brainpower to keep Afghanistan in the 20th century, and it shows.
(To be clear, lack of intelligence is not the only thing preventing Afghans from keeping the lights on. Corruption is a big one. Rejection of the modern world can be a bigger one if those doing the rejecting can do it with guns and explosives.)
Group intelligence varies not only by race and culture but by time as well. That is, over time the average intelligence of the group can change. Sometimes this is a temporary effect caused by famine or something similar; when the stressor goes away, the group intelligence should recover in a generation or two.
Sometimes the effect is permanent, caused by change in population genetics. The group’s genetics can be changed by immigration of people of lower intelligence, by emigration of people of higher intelligence, or by less-intelligent people having more children than more-intelligent people. More surviving children, that is, an important distinction.
The United States and Great Britain have suffered a genetic 15-point population IQ drop in less than a century and perhaps as much as 30 points in two centuries. This is masked by better nutrition and medicine (Charlton’s observation), by the Flynn Effect (modern society trains people in many of the forms of pattern recognition used in IQ tests), and by greater population and greater wealth allowing more people to go into research and engineering fields and create a steady stream of discoveries and innovations (my observation).
Charlton’s reasoning is plausible and I didn’t see any obvious flaws, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s outside of my field and that I didn’t put time into really digging into the data and the method. However, even if Charlton overstated the decline, others have found the same thing if to a lesser extent. The decline is also evident in such things as the constant fiddling with standardized tests. As above, other factors can contribute to the decline, conspicuously including declining standards of teaching in the public schools.
Taking everything into account, it’s almost certain that the native intelligence of American and British residents is going down. Emigration of bright citizens is not the cause; bright people from around the world come here, with only a handful going from the US to Germany or wherever.
Immigration of less-intelligent people is a big part of the problem. Mexicans have an average IQ of 86. Guatemalans are lower and Somalis still lower. (Don’t trust claims that Somalis’ average IQ is 68. For reasons which are the converse of those which cause the Flynn Effect, people from non-modern cultures will tend to do worse on IQ tests than their actual real-world intelligence should indicate. An American with a tested IQ of 68 is not able to function on his own. An average Somali can herd cattle, cook supper over an open fire, and generally get on with his life.) The millions of dim immigrants to the US over the decades grossly outnumber the bright immigrants, especially since merit-based legal immigration was scrapped in favor of warm-body immigration in the 1960s. Britain’s path was different but ended up with a similar deluge of the dim.
In each nation, enough low-intelligence immigrants came in to drop the national IQ scores by a point or more.
Another big problem is the difference in fertility of people of different intelligence levels. In short, the brighter you are, the fewer children you have. On average, of course; the rare genius will have seven children and thirty grandchildren, but that’s not the way to bet. In general, we have the trend comedically displayed in Idiocracy: bright couples choose not to have children (for selfish or practical or altruistic reasons), or choose to have only one or two, or intend to have children but never find the right time until it’s too late.
The unintelligent, by contrast, often start popping out children young and keep going. This is one of the (many) cases in which general perception is borne out by statistics. American women in the top quintile of intelligence have barely over one child each, while women in the bottom quintile have more than four. (These numbers are barely better than educated guesses. I had to mix-n-match a number of reports, some of which used IQ tests and others which used educational attainment as a proxy for intelligence. Age buckets differed, or the study looked at only non-White families, or the study is 40 years old, or whatever. In the end I did what I suspect most sociologists do when combining data sets with irreconcilable differences: I guessed and called it good enough.) The profoundly retarded, both male and female, generally don’t have children, but that just means that the mildly retarded have even more children to make up the average.
Today’s intelligence-stratified reproduction rates differ from those of a century or so ago in at least two ways. First, the more-intelligent women in times past gave birth to almost as many children as the less-intelligent. Attribute it to an interpretation of Christianity which held that it was a duty to bear children or blame it on a shortage of career choices for women other than “wife and mother” or on a lack of contraceptive options, but the fact is that it was unusual for a woman to have given birth to no children. (I’m focusing on women’s reproduction rates here because that’s what most of the studies focus on.)
Second, as mentioned a few paragraphs up, childhood mortality was a major problem. Average childhood mortality was around 50%, with poor families not infrequently losing 75% of their children to hunger, disease, or mishap. (Or, and this is my supposition, not mentioned in the reports or articles I’ve seen, to abandonment because the family could not feed another mouth.) Wealthy families lost children, but at a fraction of the rate. The result is that more children from wealthy families than from poor families survived to adulthood and having children of their own. With wealth used as an indicator of intelligence (because not much else is available) this resulted in a gradual but steady increase in group intelligence. (Again, I’m focusing on the United States and Great Britain because I’m most familiar with their societies and with the data and analyses from them.)
One effect of this gradually increasing intelligence was an increase in the rate of scientific discovery and technological invention. Many of these discoveries were put to use to make people’s lives better, naturally, and a major focus was on preventing deaths from disease. Sanitation, vaccination, and better nutrition due to increasing wealth reduced childhood mortality from an average of 50% in the mid-1800s to under 1% today.
An unintended consequence of this improvement in individual lives is that the group is suffering. Population intelligence is declining, as discussed above, with dire consequences which are discussed elsewhere above.
Given all of the above and assuming that we want to keep the electricity flowing, the new medicines invented, and the stuff manufactured to put on the shelves, what should we do? Right now we need some fraction of the population to have an IQ of 110 or better, some fraction with 120 or better, and so on. We also need some number of very smart people for scientific discoveries and inventions.
We can develop autonomous utilities and factories which don’t need people to keep them going or to troubleshoot problems. This would take a number of very smart men to create but none once it’s running. While a number of scifi stories have been written on this theme, I don’t know that the necessary level of artificial intelligence will be available any time soon.
Less ambitiously, we can design better power plants and sewer systems and oil refineries so that they need fewer somewhat-bright people to keep them going. This is a likely path, as it’s a continuation of what’s been happening for decades. Computerized milling machines allow ten workers of average intelligence to produce as many widgets as fifty technicians could have on human-controlled milling machines, with one supervisor taking the place of five or ten. True, the CNC machine takes a much more intelligent engineer to design, but that’s a one-time effort. Repair of the machine may require a more intelligent technician but may not, because of modular replacements and computer-guided adjustments. Setting up the program for the machine to fabricate a part requires a moderately intelligent engineer but no more so than drawing up schematics and setting up a work plan for machinists using old-style machines.
Similarly on the utilities side, more and better sensors and control systems allow the work to be done by fewer people and in particular by fewer bright, highly trained people.
Better engineering lets us work around a less intelligent population. We still need some number of very bright people to design the “smarter” systems.
If population intelligence is declining and thus a smaller percentage of the population is bright enough to design the next level of control system enabling more-automated plants, then one option is to increase the population. If the average IQ is 100 then about 0.13% of the population will have an IQ of 145 or above, or 429,000 out of a total population of 330,000,000. If the average IQ is 95, then 0.04% of the population will have an IQ of 145 or above. Rather than despair over the shortage of people smart enough to make breakthroughs, look into tripling the population in order to get back up to the 429,000. Then think about United States territory holding a billion people. Now you can despair.
None of these solutions is likely to help much or else will cause more problems than they solve. (To be clear, I’m referring to the population bomb. I’m not particularly worried about a sewage treatment plant AI going all SkyNet on us, hilarious though the attempt would be.) Let’s look at some more practical solutions. Keep in mind that I care about population intelligence in the United States and to a much lesser extent the rest of the Anglosphere. The rest of the world can deal with their own problems, so long as they don’t make their problems into our problems.
An obvious solution is to halt immigration of the unintelligent. A return to the immigration law prior to the Ted Kennedy Immigration and Amnesty Act would be a good start: permanent residency only for those of proven ability or accomplishment. Couple that with expulsion of illegal immigrants, low-ability resident aliens, and “birthright citizenship” nominal citizens and half of the last sixty years’ intelligence slide will be reversed.
As politically unpalatable as immigration reform would be, addressing the declining intelligence of the American-born population would be worse. An outright eugenic solution, the killing or sterilization of the unintelligent or otherwise unfit, will never fly. Soft eugenics, through encouraging healthy, intelligent, and capable citizens to have more children, will not fly in the US both because of disparate racial impact and because the intelligent are more likely to be wealthy and there’s a national reluctance to overtly give money or privileges to those who “have more than their share”.
(Moral concerns and political considerations aside, a good reason not to go fully into hard eugenics is that we aren’t smart enough to know all of the consequences of removing some slice of DNA from the human gene pool. I can’t think of any need for us to keep allele 3 of the IGF2R gene, but that doesn’t mean that that allele won’t play a role in a beneficial mutation a century from now.)
One eugenic method which might do some good is an expansion of programs which are already in place: provide convenient, free or low-cost abortions and concentrate both the clinics and the advertising in low-income, and thus presumptively low-intelligence, neighborhoods. Provide free IUDs or other long-term contraception, again concentrating on low-income areas. The abortion approach is likely to run into a bit of opposition but the contraceptive approach might slide through.
Religion might play a useful role. A return to the self-confident Protestant ethos which characterized the United States and England from the 1800s through the early 1900s could overcome the despair, nihilism, and self-centeredness which has infected so many of the somewhat-intelligent and led them into not reproducing.
Finally, we can put an end to the soft dysgenics which has led to a population explosion of the less intelligent and the unhealthy. Stop subsidizing the children of those who cannot afford them. Letting the poor starve, and especially letting poor children starve, is an ugly decision, but it’s better than dragging the entire society into ruination. The same goes for childhood vaccinations and other healthcare provided for free or very low cost to the poor.
Ending welfare and free doctor visits for the poor is unlikely to be put into place in the current United States, for reasons mentioned above. Ending free vaccinations, however, might happen. The medical, political, and activist establishments greatly overplayed their hand with the SARS-CoV-2 “vaccinations”, destroyed their credibility, and increased suspicion of vaccinations in general. Like starvation, setting up poor children to die of measles and tuberculosis and tetanus is an ugly choice but better than the realistic alternatives.
It’s an ugly choice that needs to be made, because to avoid making it is to choose the ongoing decline in intelligence until modern society cannot be maintained, population crashes, and Darwinian conditions return. And ain’t none of us want that.
Thought provoking for sure. Quite well written.
I have no real quibble with the point of your essay. I do have a few cautions to keep in mind.
What is intelligence? I’m not the first to ask this question. I find that no solid answer exists.
How do we measure an IQ decline when IQ testing only began in the early 1900’s? I do not believe that natural selection works this fast.
Why is IQ changing? If we take breeding as the example, putting together a low IQ with a high IQ, why is the result presumed to be a lowering of IQ? Why not an increase or, gasp, the average remaining the same?
Are IQ measurements across disparate groups valid? My personal opinion is that they are not. Which person do you prefer to be with when in the middle of a jungle full of man eating lions and tigers? The bushman with his as we measure it low IQ, or Einstein? Which do you think increases your survival chances? Is IQ situational?
OK, easy to take pot shots at an idea. While I have my cautions above, I think you are correct, but for reasons that are less clear to me with respect to our country. My own answer is quite simple, people are lazy. When hungry that leads to innovation and IQ rising. When wealthy and well fed it leads to stagnation and IQ dropping. I’m not a believer in IQ being fixed. While I believe some are more gifted than others, I believe education and experience can increase IQ, and the lack of decrease it.
I’ll also note that many of the early IQ promoters were in favor of eugenics.
If you meant that as a slur, it was a fizzle.
Everyone with any sense is at least slightly in favor of eugenics. Did you choose a retarded woman to have children with? A woman with a family history of mental illness which prevents them from functioning? A woman with congenital medical problems requiring lifelong treatment? Most likely not. Why not? What are you, some kind of ablist? A eugenicist?
When I planned this essay, I’d actually intended it as a mildly satirical piece promoting full-on execution of anyone below average. As I thought through the issues, though, I realized that it’s a real problem which is going to bite us hard if nothing changes.
LOL, no it wasn’t meant as a slur. It was meant as a statement supporting your notions in the essay. No clue why you would take it as a slur.
You might take note of my very first line. As I say, I think it was both well written and thought provoking.
Binet was leary of using the test to quantify intelligence. I actually tend to agree with Binet on his intelligence findings.
Excellent stuff, Steve. I hope you’ll stick around after Mike is back in form.
One of the key problems is today’s extremely high cost of having children. If you’re not a dependent of the State, you must be pretty affluent to have more than two and raise them in a socially acceptable manner. If current conditions persist, the days when a bright couple — say, both parties above IQ 115 — would have four or five kids are probably over.
Add to the above the seeming paradox that the extremely bright — IQ above 145 — tend to go into fields that are only middling-remunerative. Further complicate matters by the near-uniformity of the “two-income” couple today. The rest is an exercise for the reader.
Yep. It was a coincidence of timing that Mike made me an admin here and then he was hospitalized.
If your neighbors don’t accept a simpler lifestyle, you need to find better neighbors. Ditto for relatives, and I specifically include spouses. It shocks many white-collar suburbanites to learn that children don’t actually need drawing lessons and piano lessons and private chess lessons and $3000 of new clothes every six months and a two family vacations every year.
“…you must be pretty affluent to have more than two and raise them in a socially acceptable manner.”
Fair point depending on what the definition of “affluent” and “socially acceptable” are.
I raised 4, and they in turn are raising an average of two each. I readily admit that in world terms we are all filthy rich. So are the vast majority of Americans. OTOH, like SteveF, I’m an engineer and reasonably well paid but not wealthy. While the children were in my care I had to be cautious, after they left the nest I started my own company. 4 children require a fair investment if you try to give them all the advantage you can in education and experience. So, while the children were at home my wife and I were “poor”. We had a nice home in a nice neighborhood (because the children) but everything we did was budgeted. My children believe they grew up in relative wealth but really we were just upper middle class.
We spent wisely and that is the critical thing.
Strongly agree with SteveF and Barry. Barry’s description sounds a lot like my parents. Professional dad SAH mom with three kids, they stretched financially to buy a house in a nice neighborhood with very good schools. Most of the people my brothers and I went to school with were significantly richer, but I never felt like I was really lacking anything growing up. By today’s insane standards I was hugely “under parented” — basically a free range kid. Summers were “go outside and play, come back when it gets dark.” That would probably get a parent arrested these days. Bad weather usually meant a trip to the library for fresh books — everyone in the family was an avid reader.
We had none of the hyper-scheduled lessons, classes, and activities that seems to be so common for kids of white collar professionals these days. (Got to build up that 6 year old’s future college application!) We usually did have one family vacation per year, but while my classmates would be flying off to Aspen or Europe we would drive around America visiting relatives in different parts of the country and seeing national parks and famous places. I certainly never felt deprived, and we all turned out pretty well. None of us self-destructed as adults, unlike far too many of my “better off” class mates.
Still pushing that White Male supremacy, eh? You surely know that STEM be rasicts! We instead need more Florida Bimbo bridges, bro…
Did you just assume my gender??????? #triggered #literallyshaking
I think you’re Jewish. That should provide the appropriate trigger…
Francis: your “Add to the above the seeming paradox that the extremely bright — IQ above 145 — tend to go into fields that are only middling-remunerative.” reminds me of a quote from a meeting of the Four Sigma Society (IQs of 160 or more): “If we’re so smart, why ain’t we rich?”
It’s a matter of priorities.
One of my kin, who is slightly on the high side of average, decided in his late 30s to become a millionaire, starting from basically nothing. He managed it in twenty years, through pinching every penny and obsessive focus on the markets and his investments. (And aided by “quantitative easing” boosting the markets to unseen heights in dollar terms.)
OK, fine for him. He has enough that he doesn’t have to work if he doesn’t want to.
My path is completely different. I’m brighter than hell, and chose a career, engineering and then software stuff, which keeps my brain engaged, lets me make things, and by this point lets me do pretty much whatever I want to do. It pays well but not as well as if I’d put the effort into climbing the corporate ladder or managing others’ money or becoming an amoral lawyer — “middling-remunerative”, as Francis says. I like what I do and have no plans to retire, so I don’t need a million-dollar 401K.
My one relative remains baffled at my indifference to piling up the paper wealth. Different strokes.
I’ve heard the “If you’re so smart” line innumerable times, Jim. Anyone with a seriously above-average intellect will, on those occasions when he happens to demonstrate it among the less gifted. But it confuses intellect with something else; I’m not quite sure what. And it assumes that everyone’s highest priority is the greatest possible material gain. That, to be gentle about it, turns out not to be the case.
I was pestered and hectored and chivvied throughout my youth to get into a hugely remunerative field and rake in the bucks. I followed another agenda. I have no regrets about it. But the importuning has never ceased. When I retired seven years ago, my broker Peter, who knows of my mathematical skills, beseeched me to go into hedge-fund management! “You could make us both multimillionaires, Fran!”
I forced myself to remain silent and recited “Dover Beach” to myself. When I’d finished, I smiled at Peter and said something I doubt he expected: “Isn’t that your job?”
Peter pouted and relented. But I doubt he’s entirely given up on the idea. A First-World problem, to be sure, but still…😉
Sounds very, very familiar. A lot of pressure early from guidance counselors and the like (but not from family, who were smarter and knew me better) to aim for a top paying field. But that was not what interested me. I ended up with a decent-but-not-extravagantly paying career, and the only money I have ever managed was my own. I have done well enough (better over the years than the average “smart money” on Wall Street) that I don’t need to work if I don’t wish to. I am not “rich rich” in the sense of having a huge house in a fancy neighborhood (that is usually actually owned by the bank) or a luxury car (ditto), but I have all the things I really care about having.
An awful lot of those “highly paid top professionals” are in debt up to their eyeballs and live paycheck to paycheck. They appear to be rich, but the facade is tissue-thin.
“An outright eugenic solution, the killing or sterilization of the unintelligent or otherwise unfit, will never fly.”
OK, who took up the vaccines with wild abandon and tried to force them on everybody else? The Woke crowd, the Karens, the people with bullshit jobs, the 80% of tag alongs who obey the rules and never, ever engage in independent thought. And it would be interesting to see what effects the “vaccination” will have on that population cohort…
That may well have been the true intent of the clot/HIV/sterilization shots but they certainly were not presented to the public that way.