“‘Pure’ science is seen as the highest form of enquiry, an idea that started with the Greek founding fathers of science when intellectual pursuits were made possible by the use of slave labour.” —Alister Scott, “Peer Review and the Relevance of Science”
I’ll probably come back to this quote in different posts, because it perfectly expresses (a) how creativity and innovation happen when you’re mentally unencumbered and (b) that being able to devote mental energy toward thought and innovation is a privilege—a luxury usually built on the labour of others.
Fortunately we don’t have to return to the days of slavery to be accomplished thinkers. In fact, as much as each generation loves to think that the next is going to hell, our IQ has been climbing by about 3 points a decade since the 1950s—a phenomenon dubbed “the Flynn effect.” Are we really smarter than our ancestors?
Problems with IQ as a measure of intelligence aside, from a mental burden perspective, these gains make sense, because over the decades the global population has seen (on average):
- better housing and nutrition,
- longer and better education, and
- more widely available technology.
Fulfilling a person’s basic needs like food and shelter relieve the mental burden of survival, freeing their minds for concerns higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Giving people better education lets them form schemata that makes them more efficient thinkers in the long term. Time-saving technologies—washing machines, clean tap water, central heating—frees our minds from thinking about daily chores.
On the flip side are studies showing that children in poverty have lower IQs than the average population. It’s not that people who live in poverty are inherently less intelligent, but when your working memory is taxed by uncertainty and questions about where you’ll find your next meal or where you’ll spend the night, you have less available to learn.
If we want to maximize innovation for the sake of the economy, one of our first goals should be to eliminate child poverty so that kids will have more security and less uncertainty. (See also the post on basic income.) The more mind space we can free up early on, when kids are building their schemata, the more likely we can keep the Flynn effect going for further generations.