California Literary Review

What is intelligence? by James R. Flynn

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November 1st, 2007 at 10:27 am

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What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect
by James R. Flynn
Cambridge University Press, 226 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆

How To Measure Intelligence

‘The Flynn Effect’ was the phrase Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray coined in their book The Bell Curve, to describe the enormous gains in IQ scores in the 20th century from one generation to the next, which James R Flynn, Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago, did so much to measure and document. What is Intelligence?, written for the general reader as well as the specialist, seeks to come to terms with the implications of those gains. It also attempts to analyse the evolution of intelligence, to ‘solve the problem of defining (it)’ and to discuss a new approach to the subject based on treating ‘the brain, individual differences, and social trends as having equal integrity.’

In the early 1980s Flynn began a survey to see what data existed on IQ gains throughout the developed world. What he discovered astonished him. He was ‘bombarded’ with data showing huge gains in thirteen nations. Since that time, data has been collected from over thirty countries, in both the developed and developing world. The existence of such gains ‘creates a crisis of confidence,’ Flynn says. ‘Either the children of today (are) far brighter than their parents or, at least in some circumstances, IQ tests (are) not good measures of intelligence.’

Flynn discusses many possible explanations for the gains, from ‘growing test sophistication’ to increased social mobility and better nutrition. He examines genetic and environmental factors, and, at each step, is at pains to point out that far from being trivial, these gains ‘represent nothing less than a liberation of the human mind. The scientific ethos, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial people.’ However, he believes that it is imperative that a new approach to the study of intelligence be instituted, one which ‘breaks the steel chain of ideas,’ and takes account of the fact that ‘there are other intellectual qualities, namely critical acumen and wisdom, that IQ tests were not designed to measure (which) are equally worthy of our attention.’

The book begins with a crisp, witty and down-to-business tone. As a layman, I imagined myself at a lecture delivered by someone who understands that to those of us outside the academy walls, much of what passes for scholarly discourse seems inscrutable, tedious, and willfully arcane. If, like me, you find the idea of people talking to one another about the minutiae of their field in a closed, insulated world, glad to be distant from concrete reality, something that raises your blood pressure, then you will find much of Flynn’s book refreshing. He says that he has ‘tried to avoid the dead-stick prose so beloved by journal editors,’ and although the book loses its way in its final third, an engaging jauntiness is never far from the surface.

I was most engaged by Flynn’s book when the tables and statistics were put to one side and the author began to discuss the various ways in which people have attempted to define intelligence. At those moments I had a very real sense of the divisions and controversies within this subject, and just how crucial a greater understanding of it is to all of us. However, there is not enough by the way of a contextual framework here. I wanted far more on the history of IQ tests and changes in attitudes towards them. Flynn fails to go into sufficient depth on theories of emotional, analytic, practical, cultural, critical and multiple intelligence, and thus offers the general reader, perhaps unfamiliar with the significant names and arguments, a road without directions.

At times, Flynn’s book has an off the cuff feel, inevitable given that the author is setting out ‘a pre-theory concept of intelligence.’ Whilst it is the case that the air of considered extemporaneity is part of the book’s charm, it also reveals its shortcomings. By the end we are into the realm of conjecture and contention. The last couple of chapters are rushed and slight on substance; ideas are suggested, picked up and dropped, only to be taken up a few pages later. It all begins to resemble something of an impassioned ramble, in marked contrast to the self-assured and efficient tone at the outset. That is not to say that I did not learn much, which, to someone outside of a professional interest in this subject, is the primary reason for reading. However, I was still left feeling dissatisfied. Near the end of the book, Flynn says that ‘(he) cannot say (he) enjoyed the task of trying to make sense of massive IQ gains over time.’ I cannot say that I always enjoyed reading the fruits of his labour either.

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