Autistic Songs

Alan Griswold


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What If the Flynn Effect Has Ended?

Some recent studies have suggested that the Flynn effect might soon be ending, at least in the Scandinavian countries, and several authors, including Professor Flynn himself, seem to have latched onto this possibility like it were a lifeline being tossed to a drowning man. Those who have been regarding the Flynn effect as mostly a twentieth-century phenomenon, an historical anomaly as it were, must be experiencing near palpable relief at this hint the anomaly might soon be fading away. Such a disappearance would end their fright, would end their gnawing fear that mankind is indeed growing ruthlessly more intelligent in a damn near inexplicable way.

But some of us are not so easily frightened.

Those of us who have contemplated the entire history of mankind, from its animal-like existence of not that long ago, through the sudden sprouting of complex civilizations beginning around six thousand years ago, to the franticly paced modern efforts to transform nearly every square inch of this entire planet (and to those of us who have seen the imprint of the Flynn effect throughout that blazing history), any suggestion that the Flynn effect might soon be ending—and coincidentally just now, right at the very moment of its discovery—well, how are we to choke back our reaction without offending those who have become so terribly frightened? For really, such a suggestion is little more than laughable.


To be sure, over the past fifty thousand years the Flynn effect has passed through many surges and ebbs. To focus on Western civilization alone, the era of Ancient Greece, along with its enduring aftermath, was undoubtedly one of those periods during which the Flynn effect ran at peak. One glance at the physical constructions of that age—the buildings, the written mathematics, the crafted and portrayed arts—one sees embodiment of pattern and form going far beyond anything mankind had ever experienced before. That embodiment, suffused throughout the populace and handed down through the generations, showered its re-creating and foundational intelligence across the Roman empire and well into the first millennium A.D., and it was not until the stretch of Dark and Middle Ages that we can discern a slowing down of this orderly construction—and even then only a slowing down, not a complete halting. Western civilization at 1500 A.D. was still more rapid and complex than Western civilization at 500 A.D., and elsewhere of course—in Byzantium, India, China—we find yet more examples of the Flynn effect crescendoing into various bursts of sudden and local bloom.

Beginning with the Renaissance, the pace of structural change embodied into the human environment resumed once more a rapid acceleration, and over the last five hundred years and across all manner of civilization, manís temporal, spatial, and non-biological capacities have increased at a nearly breakneck speed. The intelligence tests of the twentieth century have captured only the most recent period of this long-running phenomenon; if there had been intelligence tests available during all the previous centuries, the Flynn effect would have been discovered well before now. Professor Flynn has not stumbled onto anything new, he has stumbled only onto the most recent evidence of a process that has been profoundly reshaping the human landscape from the time of the great leap forward. And if the impressive Flynn effect statistics from the twentieth century are to be telling us anything at all, it is that from sheer momentum alone, the Flynn effect can be expected to remain with us, and sustain us, for a considerable time to come.


But allow me to offer a momentís respite for those who are so terribly frightened. Let us consider, for speculationís sake, what would happen if indeed the Flynn effect has ended. What this implies of course is that in theory any one of us should be able to score as well on a future-offered intelligence test (say those being sat for two hundred years hence) as we might tally on the currently offered standardized forms. This feat, we realize in retrospect, would have been far beyond the capacity of those poor souls who lived in the early nineteenth century; for try imagining a man from the early 1800s suddenly nabbed by the scruff of his neck, hustled forward a couple hundred years or so, whisked by airplane, taxi and elevator to the brightly lit, sharply cornered examination room, placed before that typed-out pamphlet of the strangest looking shapes, the most oddly worded phrases, pen and stopwatch waiting impatiently on the table beside him. What answers are we to anticipate from this nineteenth-century man, what brilliance might we soon expect to hear, beyond, that is, his repeated stammering, “But dear sir, what exactly are you proposing I do?”

Respite over. For honestly how are we to believe—frightened or not—that we ourselves can escape a similar fate? Try imagining yourself suddenly bolted forward to the twenty-third century, hastened to an examination hall by powered means you cannot even begin to fathom, suddenly strapped to a contraption of all manner of knobs and wires and switches (or at least, those are the only words you can think of to describe them), and now with flashes of multi-dimensional light dancing all around you, with rapid questions being poured upon you in grammars you have never considered before, all the while accompanied by frantic demands to respond with a quick jab of finger, a flicker of eyelid once or twice, or at least a simple grunt or two. And just about the time you have managed to catch your breath, just about the time you have gathered enough wits about you to offer at least one feeble attempt at a reasonable answer, the lights of the examination hall suddenly darken, the rapid stream of questions comes to a jarring halt, and from out of the walls the stentorian, twenty-third century form of a tut-tut voice announces that your time has ended and that your score has failed to register, at least on any significant range. Some intellect you turned out to be.


If the Flynn effect has ended, then so has the course of human progress. To embrace such an absurdity would be to misperceive what the Flynn effect has been trying to tell us, it would be to misconceive Professor Flynn's question, What is intelligence? There are no paradoxes to be explained away from increasing intelligence scores, there are only the befuddlements of brain science dogmas—the ones that have been turning our inquiries outside in. The Flynn effect compels us to remove intelligence from out of our brain and place it in surroundings where it more rightly belongs, place it in the structured landscapes we humans have been building all around us and will continue to build for a considerable time to come. A world increasingly more spatial, more temporal. An environment always more patterned, more frenzied. And what wonder can it be that we require newer generations to absorb each change afresh, and leave all the ancestors behind?

It is not the Flynn effect that should be frightening us, but rather its end.

The Flynn effect has been shadowing the path of the human journey, it has measured the pace of our considerable progress, it has taken us all the way from savannah-bound primate to questing knight of a massive universe. Do not seek intelligence in packets of scores alone; do not confine intelligence to the prison of the human brain. Cast your eye wider, cast your eye across historyís entire vista—from horse-drawn buggies to rockets in flight, from ground-hugging hovels to skyscrapers knifing air, from flints and shovels and axes to computers and networks and drones. Cast your eye across that entire scene, then say with conviction that the show is about to end. No, the sudden halt would jolt us right out of our skin; the end of the Flynn effect can only mean the death knell of all mankind. Allow me to save my fright for that possibility alone, for humanityís darkest age indeed.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Griswold
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