Here is a common myth: Intelligence has evolved over the centuries of recorded history, so we’re smarter than people were a thousand years ago. Just look at the remarkable advances in the sciences and especially technology, and it’s clear that our current generation is more intelligent than those of the past, right? I hear it all the time, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, but hardly a day passes that I don’t detect it in the background of people’s presuppositions. Think of the frequency of comparisons with the past that run along these lines – “Well once upon a time people used to think that (insert any number of prevailing views from bygone eras), but now we know better.” And much of the time the thing “people used to think” isn’t even accurate. I continue to hear, for example, about how all of the Europeans thought the world was flat right up until Columbus’ voyage.
There’s no disputing that people across history held wrong beliefs about lots of specific things at various times. That’s as obvious as anything I could say about any time period, including our own. The myth is that we now are better than everyone in bygone generations because we have somehow ‘evolved’ past their ignorance and cognitive limitations. Their age was dark, ours is enlightened; their time was harsh and cruel, ours is nice and friendly; their intelligence was not quite up to the task, but now we’ve arrived and know what it’s all about. They had biases and blind spots they did not realize, but we have overcome that and replaced their shortcomings with openness, tolerance, unbiased neutrality and understanding.
This is an especially beloved part of the received wisdom among contemporary anti-religionists whose motivation for propagating the mantra is rather obvious. After all, if nearly everyone in Western history’s past generations was more spiritual and theological in orientation toward the world (including their ethics, politics, family life, etc.), and if those same people from the past were not as ‘evolved’ in their thinking as we are, then it must follow that having a more religious worldview equals being less evolved. Very simple and very tidy. To be truly intellectually advanced must mean to be distanced from the old traditional ways of thinking such that you are largely ignorant of the Scriptures, the arguments, the theological categories and even basic terminology that were so familiar and important for so long. Full secularization is the trademark of progress.
Just ask the ‘sheeple’ who sit in Bill Maher’s audiences and cheer when he describes as stupid and outdated the kinds of beliefs held by the majority of important thinkers whose ideas formed the foundation of our whole civilization. I suspect they haven’t paused to consider that so many of the great poets (like Milton, Wordsworth, etc.), philosophers (like Aquinas, Locke, etc.), scientists (like Copernicus, Newton, etc.), Renaissance humanists (like Erasmus, More, etc.), political leaders (like Washington, Adams, etc.) theologians (like Calvin, Edwards, etc.) and social reformers (like Wilberforce, MLK, Jr., etc.) were adherents and advocates of the very sorts of beliefs being scoffed at by a pretentious comedian whose clever cynicism apparently convinces his dimwitted viewers that he’s super-smart, when in fact he is hardly worthy, intellectually speaking, to clean the latrines of any of these men.
Worse yet, when I talk about the impressive legacy of those long since gone, so many people today still suppose, without any knowledge about it, of course, that all of those people – no matter their contributions in whatever fields – still must have been nevertheless hampered by the deficiency of living in a time before ours. If this seems like blind prejudice, that’s because it is. C. S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy how his friend and Oxford colleague Owen Barfield helped to cure him of what he called “chronological snobbery,” which Lewis defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” I’ve also heard it called “presentism” and “provincialism in time”, but I like the use of the word “snobbery.”
The thing people despise about snobs is that they look down their noses at other people for the shallowest of reasons. A snob, for example, will think himself better than other people on the basis of the clothes he wears. A snob will assume she should get preferential treatment in life on the basis of the zip code in which she resides. Lewis believed this to be at work in himself as a young, intellectually arrogant 20th Century man. He took it for granted that the prevailing attitudes of elite academics of his day were automatically to be favored above all who had gone before since, after all, those unfortunates did not live in contemporary (and thus superior) times.
How ironic, then, that Lewis went on to spend his entire Oxford and Cambridge career focused on past centuries, his favorite philosophers being long dead and his primary academic expertise centering on literature from the Middle Ages. He became convinced of the direct opposite view than the one he’d held in his younger days, for he came to value the treasures of wisdom and the depths of insight contained in the great volumes from the past. In his inaugural address to the Cambridge student body, he admitted to them that by that time in his life he belonged more to the old world than to theirs. He advised his readers regularly to live in the pages of history enough to gain perspective and not grow myopic and parochial. “It is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us,” he told the Cambridge students. In an introduction he wrote to an ancient work of Athanasius, Lewis advised, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. … Keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through your mind.”
Again, this must sound like ancient Ugaritic to people today. Our lives have been shaped and guided by technology above all else, and in that realm, newer is always better, and older is quickly obsolete. We can punctuate the periods of our lives by rapid technological transitions, always from worse to better to better still. Little wonder, then, that we’ve come to see everything else in the same way. Add to that the vague notion people have of universal progress via “evolution” (which of course has nothing even to do with the much discussed biological theory by the same name), and the uncritical conviction that we’re simply smarter comes to rest securely in the presuppositions of an entire generation.
But what if we were to approach the question on purely empirical grounds? Is there hard evidence to suggest a steady advance of intellectual growth on the part of the human race over the centuries leading up to our own? Not according to Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, the one-time Dir. of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. He wrote in his 2009 book The Dumbest Generation that the age of hyper-entertainment and the internet has steadily “stupefied” young Americans and thus jeopardized our future. Citing copious amounts of data from the last decade or so on the part of numerous organizations like the National Assessment of Education Progress, Bauerlein demonstrates the startling results that one government analyst called “abysmal.”
Bauerlein’s fear regarding the future does not mean that he thinks there is a literal “de-evolution” taking place. His view is not the equally erroneous inverse of the common ‘newer is smarter’ idea. The intellectual deficit today is not intrinsic or inherent; human nature has not changed. The future he worries about is not exactly like the one pictured in the wacky cynical comedy Idiocracy, where the generations that come after us get steadily and hopelessly stupider until the world is filled with complete morons. But the future may well consist of people too distracted, too entertained, maybe too lazy to care about the truth. People may end up living far beneath their potential simply because they never developed their capacity for critical thinking, for careful reasoning, for discernment, problem-solving, creativity, spiritual depth and contemplation, wisdom and the communication of serious philosophical ideas.
People are basically the same, across time and across cultures. Just as European explorers once assumed they were fundamentally superior to the more tribal peoples they found in other parts of the world, so we tend to think we are superior to those who lived without electricity long ago. But many Europeans came to see in time that the “primitive” peoples they met in those faraway places were in possession of the same intellectual capacity as Westerners. Their technological disadvantages were owing to many factors stretching back through time, but one of those factors was not their being inferior by nature. Being less advanced in sciences and technology is not the same as (and does not entail) being less ‘evolved’ as human beings.
Anyone today who fancies contemporary people as smarter than our ancestors probably has not read much of what they wrote or taken careful note of what they accomplished. Are we, after all, better engineers than the Romans, considering the materials to which they had access? Are we more astute observers of the natural world than the ancient Greek astronomers, who carefully mapped the entire night sky and, using precise mathematics and uncanny insights in the absence of telescopes, theorized with impressive accuracy the workings of celestial bodies? Does anyone dare to claim that he or she employs “reason” more effectively than Plato & Aristotle? Who among you is prepared to measure your inherent mathematical prowess against that of Euclid? If you suppose that ancient people were earthy simpletons rather than abstract and existential questioners, have you ever read Ecclesiastes?
What we need to remember is that the great advances of which we have been the very fortunate recipients were a long, long time in coming. The foolish thesis about us being more intelligent than people of the past is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how and why progress in the sciences has come to pass over many generations. It has never been a matter of increasing intelligence over time on the part of individuals (as if IQs slowly climbed to the point where someone could finally “see” things better). Advances in the natural sciences and in technology are the result of records kept and passed down. Since life-spans do not allow the best and brightest in a generation to spend 300 years working in a given field, someone in a future generation gets the opportunity to pick up where the previous genius left off. Newton is still considered by many the greatest scientist (and some even say the greatest mind) in history. His famous line that he had “stood on the shoulders of giants” was a reference to something echoed by others since at least the Middle Ages, where we find it expressed by theologians and philosophers like Bernard of Chartres and John of Salisbury. The most noted version from these men reads:
We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.
The irony is amusing when you think about it. Centuries of great thinkers bequeath to us a world with so many more comforts, with less physical pain, with less daily inconvenience, with a rich intellectual tradition, with technological breakthroughs, with libraries of brilliant works in every area of human thought; and our response to all of this – from our easy chairs – is to virtually write them off while we consider ourselves so much smarter than they were. It’s as if a relay team had a weak runner anchoring the foursome, but the previous runners put him so far ahead that he couldn’t help but win, only to see him then boast to the world about his athletic greatness. Progress in sciences & technology is a step-by-step group effort across generations, with the baton being handed off repeatedly. The unthinking nitwits who repeat the self-inflated theory that we are the smartest people who have ever lived only make themselves seem dumber than if they had remained silent on the issue.
And one last thing for the anti-religionist propagandists: It might not be advantageous to continue fostering the implied if not overt argument that because people in past ages were more spiritual and religious in their worldviews, and because people have gotten smarter over time, therefore to become less spiritual (more secular) means to become smarter. In light of the statistical trends today regarding the attention spans, historical literacy, critical thinking skills, and ability to put a coherent sentence together, the argument may end up running in the other direction. Our culture has moved increasingly away from the biblical categories of thought that framed our worldview for so long, and the collective mind has not exactly flourished as a result.