Bits of Books - Books by Title

Does Your Family Make You Smarter?

Nature, nurture, and human autonomy

James R. Flynn

(New Scientist)

JAMES FLYNN has changed the way the world thinks about one of the things we care most about.

Back in the 1980s, it was accepted that there was powerful evidence for a factor called intelligence, IQ or 'g', which seemed to be largely determined by our genes. That left us with the pessimistic view that human intelligence would only ever grow at the glacial pace at which evolution changes our genetic make-up. Worse, it led to bitter public debates over race, class and intelligence.

Flynn drew our attention to a trend hidden in past data: IQ had been rising rapidly over the previous century or so in Western nations - about three points a decade. This rise should simply not have been possible. It is now known as 'the Flynn effect'.

Since then, Flynn, now 82 years old and an emeritus professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has continued to provide controversial insights into IQ - including in his latest book, Does Your Family Make You Smarter? Thanks to his fresh thinking, we no longer believe that IQ measures some unchanging and unchangeable pure characteristic, free from the social demands of societies.

So much so, in fact, that I wonder just how long IQ tests will remain a popular measure of 'intelligence'. We are entering an era where diversity of thinking is prized and networking skills are essential. Before long, machines that think will be a natural part of our social environment. In the future, will IQ tests still measure what is needed from our minds?

That question leads to a bigger, more optimistic view of ourselves: that our minds have come a long way, constantly changing, and that as we build new worlds to challenge them, new ways of thinking will emerge, beyond those measured by IQ tests.

I don't know whether Flynn would agree with such speculation, but he certainly helped liberate the world from a view of intelligence that left little room for human autonomy. 'I have tried to break a steel chain of ideas that circumscribed our ability to see what was happening all around us and to appreciate what was possible,' he wrote in an earlier book entitled What is Intelligence?

In his new book, he looks deeper into our ability to influence our own IQ. Once again, behind his arguments is an imaginative new method of seeing patterns in IQ data that others have missed.

To appreciate the book, it is important to see how far our understanding has progressed. Long ago, studies showed that identical twins had very similar IQs in adulthood, even when they had been separated and brought up in very different families. The conclusion that genes ruled and environment had a weak impact on IQ seemed unshakeable.

Now we know that although twin data is valid, its interpretation was not, and that the arguments that stemmed from it do not hold. Looking back, we can see that there were misconceptions about what genes are, how they interact with the environment and about the nature of IQ.

If IQ provided a unitary measure of intelligence, and given the fact that average IQ has risen by 30 points over the 20th century, we might think that past generations were rather dumb. But reading the works of our great-grandparents suggested that was not the case.

Our ancestors were no less smart than us, Flynn argues, but lived in a world that placed less value on the abstract and hypothetical thinking that IQ scores stress, and that society began to demand from us as modernisation gained pace. We can thus think of IQ less as a witness to a unitary 'intelligence' fixed in the genes and more as a 'barometer of cognitive progress over time', Flynn writes.

Still, the Flynn effect would seem to leave a huge conundrum. Over the course of generations, environment has a powerful effect on IQ, but twin studies showed conclusively that the differences in the IQ of people of the same generation were largely due to differences in their genes. How could the impact of environment on IQ be simultaneously strong and weak?

A powerful solution (albeit one that awaits definitive test) came in 2001 from economist William Dickens, then at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, working with Flynn.

The heart of the argument is that once people grow up and choose their own lives, they are drawn to environments that suit their genes: in other words, genes select environments.

To repeat Dickens and Flynn's sports analogy, if you happen to be tall then you are more likely to make it onto the basketball team and to receive coaching, play in competitive games and find your basketball skills racing ahead of a friend who was a little shorter. The new environment you have moved into amplifies a small genetic difference.

We can think of intelligence in the same way: a child who has natural cognitive skills will delight in more cognitively difficult tasks and make friends with those who feel the same. The brain is more like a muscle that can get stronger in a workout than suggested by the older view. Genetic differences between individuals appear dominant 'only because they have hitched powerful environmental factors to their star', Flynn writes.

That does not mean anyone can be an Einstein if they hang out with the right people (the mind is not a blank slate) any more than you can train every day and expect to beat Usain Bolt. But you can go faster and beat your couch potato friends.

Flynn's book continues this theme, showing that the right family can make you smarter - to answer the question posed in the title. Family environment really can make a difference, certainly up to the late teens when many young people are applying for college and a little cognitive edge is especially important. Unfortunately, the wrong family (try Homer Simpson for a dad) can make you dumber, too.

Contrary to popular belief, family environment does not leave an 'indelible mark on your intelligence throughout life'. Later on, the environments we choose for ourselves continually influence our IQs, Flynn writes. A demanding job can boost IQ, but early retirement may send it plunging. Of course, some of us have been lucky to be born with genes that give us the potential to be smarter than others. But, in Flynn's view, whatever you have been born with, you can find environments that will help boost your brainpower - or dumb it down - throughout your life.

He provides some insightful advice (spelled out in full in his 2012 book How to Improve Your Mind) and makes one big point. The best way to keep in good mental shape long-term is to fall in love with activities that stretch you: reading intellectual books or solving puzzles, perhaps.

There may be something more to learn from Flynn, which he doesn't mention. In all his books, he highlights his mistakes and wrong turns. 'At one time, I was blind..', 'I went astray..', 'Until recently I was deceived..' are phrases that leap from the page. Seeing your blunders may be as important in growing your mind as celebrating your successes.

This book is not for everyone - although lucid and wise, it is geared more towards those with a particular interest in IQ. A third of it is devoted to appendices explaining Flynn's new method. Another third provides a deep discussion of what is needed for a good theory of intelligence. Author and psychologist Howard Gardner's plea for a much wider view of 'seven intelligences' doesn't win much approval. But Flynn does welcome sociologist Georg Oesterdiekhoff's lesser-known work on the 'cognitive transformations' that underlie big changes in society.

The remaining third contains insights into nature, nurture and autonomy. Flynn, a self-confessed liberal, is also honest enough to warn his readers that he has critics who would 'caution me against encouraging naive beliefs about the potency of family environment and choice'.

There is still much to do to straighten out our thinking about the role of genes in our lives (see page 28). Every one of us is the result of a genetic lottery over which we had no control. We might wish that we had been born smarter or more attractive or, on a bad day, wish that we had been born someone else altogether.

But our genes are always with us. We have to accept that self-motivation, and the capacity for self-control, which is a much better predictor of school grades than IQ, are also influenced by our genes. As Flynn writes 'what could make you more uniquely yourself than your particular set of genes'. Finding the place where you can flourish remains the really tricky part of life.

Flynn reminds us that we do have choices, and after many decades of the great IQ debate, he returns us to well-grounded common sense.

More books on Mind

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress