Are We Really Dumber Than the Victorians?

Get a Job, Tiny Tim!Why am I reminded of Newt Gingrich? He used to say that society was better in the Victorian Era. There was more morality. And workhouses for the undeserving poor. No government cheese for them, by God.

Maybe Scrooge shouldn’t have spared Tiny Tim after all. Those people grow up to breed, and look where we are now.

According to Yahoo News a scientific study shows that the average IQ in the Western World has dropped 14 points since the Victorian Era…

The Victorian era ran roughly from 1837 to 1901, coinciding with the reign of England’s Queen Victoria. Some have credited the Reform Act of 1832 with sparking an era of previously unprecedented peace and prosperity in the U.K.
The results were measured using data from 1889 to 2004 and were analyzed by Michael A. Woodley of Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Jan te Nijenhuis of the University of Amsterdam and Raegan Murphy of the University College Cork in Ireland.
So why has there been such a steady drop? As UPI notes, previous research studies have found that women of higher intelligence tend to have fewer children on average, meaning that population growth may be driven by those with a lower IQ. And over time, the abundance of less intelligent offspring would affect the overall IQ average.

“Were the Victorians cleverer than us? The decline in general intelligence estimated from a meta-analysis of the slowing of simple reaction time” Michael A. Woodley, Jan te Nijenhuis, Raegan Murphy
link to the original study here.

Dare we question the pronouncements of Men of Science? Well, yeah.

Thousands of studies are published in journals yearly, most of them never make the mainstream news. Those that do tend to be the ones that either reinforce cultural bias or are counter-intuitive.

For example, a study suggests elders who drink alcohol have less dementia than teetotalers. Scientists know that correlation is not causation. News writers not so much. Maybe the non-drinking group includes more people who feel too lousy to enjoy it. Maybe the moderate drinking group is eating more cheese. More study is needed before we tell Grandpa to put gin on his cornflakes to stay mentally sharp.

Another kind of study that makes the news is one that reinforces cultural prejudice.

Like the study that suggested that men who do less housework get to have more sex.

This got lots of press. It ‘proves’ that women are hot for men who keep them in their place. Take that, feminists. Maggie Gallagher blogged about it. Remember her? National Organization for Marriage? She used to crusade at the State House against same-sex marriage. Loser.

The housework study was done with questionnaires in the 1990’s. Did the researchers ask about children, I wonder? Babies wetting loads of diapers and crying at 3am? Could be a factor in more housework and less sex.

How do we know that people in the Victorian Era had higher IQ’s? People in the Victorian Era are all dead. The IQ test had not been invented yet.

The researchers used a substitute, measurements of visual reaction time from the 1880’s to the present. They concluded that visual reaction time is equivalent to IQ points and it’s not looking good for us moderns. We’re too dysgenic.

Before 1825 Western countries were in eugenic fertility, in that those with the highest levels of education and/or social status had the largest numbers of surviving offspring (Lynn, 2011; Skirbekk, 2008). The majority of these countries completed the transition into dysgenic fertility for these IQ proxies by around the middle of the 19th century

Notice the phrase ‘surviving offspring’. Short version– not enough infant mortality for poor people and smart women are slackers when it comes to making babies.

And the use of terms like eugenic and dysgenic are not coincidental. The study builds on the work of Francis Galton, one of the founders of eugenics. From his essay, Memories XXI…

It is known that a considerable part of the huge stream of British charity furthers by indirect and unsuspected ways the production of the Unfit; it is most desirable that money and other attention bestowed on harmful forms of charity should be diverted to the production and well-being of the Fit. For clearness of explanation we may divide newly married couples into three classes, with respect to the probable civic worth of their offspring. There would be a small class of “desirables,” a large class of “passables,” of whom nothing more will be said here, and a small class of “undesirables.” It would clearly be advantageous to the country if social and moral support as well as timely material help were extended to the desirables, and not monopolised as it is now apt to be by the undesirables.

You can see why Newt Gingrich loved the Victorians.

This study may stand up scientifically or not, time will tell. I’m concerned about the dumbed down version and how it will play out in a society conflicted about class, race and the role of society in the common good.

A quick read of Francis Galton turns up statements like this–

I think that stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble- mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism, but that is quite different from compulsory marriage. How to restrain ill-omened marriages is a question by itself, whether it should be effected by seclusion, or in other ways yet to be devised that are consistent with a humane and well-informed public opinion.

History shows that public opinion tolerated involuntary sterilization and imprisonment for many years, even here in the US.

I can think of some measures that might raise the collective IQ. Age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education as part of life skills training for children and adolescents. Teaching teenagers to think of how their own health and behavior will affect their future children. Making safe and effective birth control available to all women and men regardless of income. Investing in prenatal care and nutrition for all pregnant women regardless of income. Investing in maternal-child health, early childhood education, clean air, safe streets.

Or else we in the 99% will have to learn to respect our betters. Because inequality goes down easier when the poor are persuaded it’s their fault and the rich think they are different from you and me. An unequal Victorian society birthed the ideas, and much of the data that the IQ study uses. Its conclusions will be used to revive Victorian ideas of women’s place and the inferiority of the poor. I don’t think it will work this time, but it’s up to us to save Tiny Tim. Scrooge is mean when he’s scared.

Image of Tiny Tim from The Victorian Web

Just for a laugh, the dismal history of the Genius Sperm Bank. People are so darned hard to control.

And for you conspiracy theorists– note that the Yahoo article cites UPI. That is a formerly respected wire service that fell on hard times and was bought by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Like the Washington Times it’s a Moonie media outlet. We all know that the net is an echo chamber, but it’s pretty sad when newswriters do less sourcing than part-time bloggers.

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5 Responses to Are We Really Dumber Than the Victorians?

  1. Mark Gresens says:

    I love your blog. Very interesting and of course, great writing. I am going to have to pend some time going through your previous posts. I am definitely adding this to my blog list.

  2. There are so many holes in the study and reasoning that one cannot even begin to list them. We may not be dumber than the Victorians but its hard to have much respect for human intelligence when we tend to swallow crap like that study without so much as a further look over.

    Regardless, I enjoyed your post.

    • Ninjanurse says:

      Thanks. I’m not an expert, but I learned some general science and worked in clinical trials of HIV meds. I saw how the press runs away with study results– dumbing down the conclusions and failing to give context.

      • Yeah. I’m not an expert either, but I’ve yet to see a single study that makes headlines that isn’t badly misrepresented.

        There was an interesting study that the press ran away with a while back, and the media’s conclusions would be a nice counter to Woodley’s study: “Sex Makes You Smarter” :] so no need to worry about breeding intelligence when it’s simply having more sex that will boost up our modern IQ… lol.

  3. owlnut says:

    Great post :) Thank you.

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