Saturday 27 June 2015

The destruction of the 'basic instincts', common sense and human nature - reflections on the mutational meltdown of Man

It has been a fascinating, and I must admit horrifying, three-and-a-bit years since Michael Woodley and I first discovered the first objective evidence that there has been a very substantial decline in general intelligence ('g') over the past two hundred years - the evidence was posted on this blog just a few hours after we discovered it:

Since then, Michael has taken the lead in replicating this finding in multiple other forms of data, and in a variety of paradigms; and learning more about the magnitude of change and its timescale. His industry has been astonishing!  


We currently believe that general intelligence has declined by approximately two standard deviations (which is approximately 30 IQ points) since 1800 - that is, over about 8 generations

(Note added - I now regard 2 SD as overstating it, also that an SD is not of fixed size over generations. More correct would be to say intelligence has declined since 1800 by more-than-one modern SD.).

Such a decline is astonishing - at first sight. But its magnitude has been obscured by social and medical changes so that we underestimate intelligence in 1800 and over-estimate intelligence now.

On the other hand, magnitude and rapidity of decline in world class geniuses in the West (and of major innovations) does imply a decline of intelligence of at least 2 SDs - so from that perspective the rate and size of decline is pretty much as-expected.


Two hundred years ago, and for many decades afterwards, performance of the population in a wide range of tasks was substantially impaired by things like malnutrition and high rates of serious endemic infectious diseases. On any particular day, many or most people would have been ill, and their ability to do skilled activities (including examinations - or IQ tests, if they had been in existence) was significantly impaired.

Furthermore, two hundred years ago there was much less information around, and people had to think things through for themselves.

However, general intelligence is buffered against environmental change - it is hardly affected by disease, or even malnutrition - until these are of such severity as to result in death (under pre-modern conditions).

So even very sick and/or malnourished populations, who may be living in simple cultures at a subsistence level, or under conditions of multi-generational malnutrition and near starvation, may have high g - and this will become obvious in terms of high performance as soon as their environment becomes more favourable (for example the migrant Norsemen and the Chinese).


Wind-forward to today, and the general health and nutrition are much improved; and in a thousand ways it is easier for people to give a falsely high impression of their ability by deploying technology and 'parroting' the hard-won knowledge of other people. This does not represent g-driven intelligence, but a multitude of specialized, task-specific intelligences.

To caricature,  in 1800, the average Man (when we was not impaired by illness) had a very deep kind of abstract reasoning and problem solving ability which was spontaneous and almost independent of education - his intelligence rose-up powerfully and unstoppably from below, rather like a geyser.

By contrast, Modern Man has a much weaker subterranean spring of intelligence and instead a 'mosaic' of separate and trained abilities, superficially 'studded' onto him by culture and education.

Modern Man has relatively very poor abstract reasoning and problem solving abilities; but can be trained to learn and can quote (or parrot) the reasons and solutions across a wide range of things - but without understanding what he is saying.

(And, indeed, without even knowing that he does not understand - since he equates 'knowing the right answers' with intelligence.)


Michael and I immediately recognized that the rate of change in intelligence that we were observing was too fast to be accounted for my natural selection favouring lower intelligence; although this does have a significant role.

We soon began to recognize that the primary mechanism was likely to be mutation accumulation due to the decline in child mortality rates from more than half to about one percent - child mortality having, through human history, served as the main (but not only) selective 'sieve' to remove the spontaneous fitness-reducing mutations which occur with every generation.

We also discovered the biological concept of 'mutational meltdown' - which sometimes leads to the extinction of a species, especially when combined with a reducing population: mutational damage accumulates so fast in a population that organisms cease to reproduce and become extinct.

Michael has gone on to confirm the plausibility of this mechanism of mutation accumulation in rapidly reducing general intelligence, and to make the first steps in quantifying it.


But our story which had begun with declining general intelligence then began to take on a much larger scope.

Because if mutation accumulation was the main mechanism for declining intelligence, then this had implications for the total fitness, indeed the viability, of the human organism.

General intelligence can be regarded as an index of reproductive potential or 'fitness', because high g depend upon a highly efficient brain, which depends on multiple genes coding for multiple and complexly-interacting brain systems. Any randomly occurring mutation has a high probability of impairing brain efficiency, so intelligence will be expected to decline incrementally with accumulating mutations.

So, declining g due to mutation accumulation only represents the tip of an iceberg of genetic damage to the fitness of an organism, or a population of organisms.


In a sense, the reduction of intelligence may be one of the lesser concerns about this world of what looks increasingly like a mutational meltdown. Because mutations will also damage what might be termed the 'basic instincts' of the population or species.

In particular, mutation accumulation will be expected to affect social and sexual instincts of the kind we used to call 'common sense' and 'human nature'.

So, common sense could be considered the normal, standard behaviours which enabled humans to function in groups, and to survive; while sexual instincts refer to the basic sexual orientation and attraction of humans; and the suite of adaptations that lead to 'pair bonding', fertile matings, raising of offspring etc.

These basic instincts used to be taken for granted; but in fact they are highly complex adaptations, and represent the product of multiple generations of natural selection. Indeed, social and sexual instincts are perhaps the most sensitive of all human traits to damage of any kind - it is change in social and sexual behaviour which is most sensitive to any form of disease or disorder affecting the brain.

This applies to genetic and chromosomal disease, which always show-up in social and sexual differences; but also to trauma. For instance the residual effect of a stroke is much more evident in terms of subtle psychological changes to social and sexual behaviour (personality) than in terms of physical function. And, even small amounts of many drugs - such as alcohol; or hormones - such as testosterone or oestrogen; will observably change, and derange, social and sexual behaviour.


In conclusion, since there has been considerable mutation accumulation over the past two hundred years - enough to cause a very large reduction in general intelligence - this must also have caused considerable damage to human social and sexual adaptations.

Therefore, both common sense and sexual instincts are impaired in modern Man.

Our basic instincts have been damaged.


Once that is realized as being necessarily entailed, then the evidence for such impairment is all around us.

The most fundamental measure is fitness, i.e. reproductive potential - and it is probably the most remarkable fact about modernity that it leads to impaired reproductive success - indeed to below-replacement fertility.

The 'demographic transition', interpreted as plain biology, is therefore strong prima facie evidence of mutation accumulation; indeed it points to incipient mutational meltdown, since the (age-adjusted) post-industrial Western population has been declining for several decades.

Mutation accumulation would also be likely to lead to the lack of common sense, the lack of basic self-preservation, the lack of what would be expected as normal and adaptive social behaviours that are so striking a feature of the West.

And, even more significantly, the lack of any concern about this lack of common sense - damage to social mechanisms has been so profound that the Western population has lost the ability to notice or feel that there is damage - that our situation is pathological.

Indeed, the obvious pathology resulting from damaged instincts is vehemently denied - and to point it out is punished. This is exactly what would be expected when the lunatics have taken-over the asylum, when disease is endemic. Disease is the new health.

Look around. We live in a profoundly weird world socio-sexual , yet there is near zero response to the fact - just a kind of bland, bewildered, vague approval that socio-sexual change means 'progress'.


The same applies to sexual instincts. What is striking is not so much the high levels of disordered sexual behaviour; but the widespread loss of the ability to notice and feel that sexual behaviour is disordered.

Past generations did not need to depend on education and were immune to propaganda when it came to sexual instincts - but modern attitudes reveal that these basic instincts have been severely damaged - so that sexual attraction, evaluations, and motivations are all - very generally - disordered.

The Western populations have suffered such extremity of damage to their evolved human nature, that they have lost even the innate sense that there was any such things as human nature to begin with.

To be in the situation of arguing about the necessity of 'common sense', or the reality of sexual instincts and other attributes of human nature, is itself strong evidence that human nature has been substantially destroyed - as would be entailed by two centuries of mutation accumulation.


And more of the same is to be expected - because it is not clear that anything substantive could be done about this problem except over a multi-generational timescale - even if there were an understanding that there is a problem, and any motivation to do anything about it; neither of which is the case.


Some extra reading and references:


Albrecht said...

Your write: "Look around. We live in a profoundly weird world socio-sexual , yet there is near zero response to the fact - just a kind of bland, bewildered, vague approval that socio-sexual change means 'progress'."

Just yesterday my daughter and I were discussing the numerous instances of vulgarity and blasphemy in a hit movie from the 1980s that we had recently watched (part of). I explained that until the mid-1960s movie audiences would have been shocked by such things and that this would have been true of nearly all earlier generations. She then noted that our family's sensitivity to these matters made us something of an anomaly. I emphasized that the freakishness and obscenity that surround us makes it hard to see that it is, in fact, contemporary society that is anomalous and that we, by viewing this culture critically, are, by historical standards, comparatively normal.

Brandon said...

And yet, there are those of us who have clear instincts. I remember as a young boy feeling that something was horribly wrong and 'off' about modern life. The ugliness and sickness of the modern West has always appalled me and continues to do so every day. But, in this I've always felt alone. Nobody else I've known (including my own family) feels the outrage that I do. Everyone tends toward apathy and indifference to the present situation.

ajb said...

"The most fundamental measure is fitness, i.e. reproductive potential - and it is probably the most remarkable fact about modernity that it leads to impaired reproductive success - indeed to below-replacement fertility."

What is the history of child mortality rates relative to, say, Iceland, in places like Iran, China, or Thailand? All these countries have below-replacement fertility, and all are significantly lower than Iceland's. Thailand's TFR would be low *for Europe*.

Is mutational load in Namibia (3.11), South Africa (2.41), Lesotho (3.09), and Botswana (2.66) way lower than in Nigeria (6.0) or Cameroon (4.86)?

Furthermore, the link between falling child mortality and lowering TFR seems *way too quick* for accumulating mutational load to be the cause, and better accounted for by other factors. Similarly, TFRs have leveled out in many countries that experienced initial, rapid drops (such as China) - has mutational load stopped increasing in those countries?

Demographers talk a lot about a link between falling child mortality and TFR, but give (obviously) different reasons - for myself, anyway, a detailed look at work done in that field and response would remove some of my objections to the argument you're making.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brandon - Well I feel the same, but I am a bit of a wreck in other respects! - very frequent migraines, osteoarthritis of the knees, duodenal ulcer tendency etc - so I probably carry a lot of deleterious mutations of some kinds.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I can't answer all these questions in a comment - you need to look at my psychology blog

and do word searches for the particular questions.

"the link between falling child mortality and lowering TFR seems *way too quick* for accumulating mutational load to be the cause, and better accounted for by other factors. "

I don't think so - but I am not saying it is the *only* cause - rather that it may be a necessary cause, amplified by other factors. It really is quite extraordinary how indifferent people are about reproducing, or or the extinction of their extended family. Mutational load would be expected to increase very rapidly immediately the selection was relaxed, the very first generation - as I say, social and sexual behaviour would be the *first* thing to be affected - plus we have no idea whether the damage to fitness from mutation damage is linear, exponential, plateauing - or what, on a generation by generation basis (until extinction supervenes).

I am familiar with the standard demographic explanations, of which there are several competing versions. But these break down when mass sub-replacement fertility plus indifference/ approval of the fact supervenes - this is uncharted territory.

It apparently used to be commonplace in the 19th century to assume that average women instinctively wanted to have as many children as possible, or at least a large number. Either people were *completely* wrong about that - or human nature has changed, and a lot.

Bill said...

One laments the loss of commonsense human nature and how far we seem from our smarter ancestors. Would they even call us human?

ajb said...

"It apparently used to be commonplace in the 19th century to assume that average women instinctively wanted to have as many children as possible, or at least a large number."

Reading Stark's description of ancient Romans, it seems they were *trying* to reduce their fertility - birth control, abortifacients, abortions, infanticide, and so on, were common. There were repeated decrees by the government in an attempt to raise birth rates.

Indeed, a lot of other things we see nowadays were happening back then.

In this context, Christianity arose in part because it *did* value fertility, and out-bred the non-Christians.

I would say raising kids is difficult, requires self-sacrifice, and people naturally are wired for sex - not raising kids. If people have an alternative (hedonism, 'careers', and so on), people tend to opt for that.

England in the 19th century is not 'human nature' - it was a (still) deeply Christian society, informed by the idea that fertility is good, hedonism is bad, and so on.

Having said that, my guess is that women's instincts *are* being worked against, but the obvious mechanism for this is various aspects of media (the world is a bad place, the world is too crowded, the environment is too precarious for more people, you ought to want to spend your life's focus on a career instead of family, and so on).

Bruce Charlton said...

ajb - You would need to argue from my premises in order to evaluate them - of course there are other explanations already in existence for the phenomena; but this may the the true one, or the main one. Perhaps the Roman elite who tried to limit their fertility (and engaged in a wide range of deranged sexuality) were themselves a product of mutation accumulation?

Nicholas Fulford said...

Success is not socially defined by having a large number of children in the modern age, and in fact an excessive number of children is seen as irresponsible.

High infant mortality rates would cull many sub-optimal people from reaching reproductive age and quite a few who were optimal. I do, however, accept that the bias would be towards culling more who were sub-optimal, and that without this form of natural selection a mutational load will pass through the more relaxed filter - realized through medical means to reduce infant mortality. As has been pointed out on this blog before, modern Western social behaviour - not unlike a Mouse Utopia - exists and supports lower reproductive rates amongst the most fit while encouraging higher reproductive rates amongst the least fit.

This brings up three points:
1) Are we now so compromised that a population crash is close at hand and inevitable?
2) If 1) is false, what measures would be required to prevent it from manifesting, and are people able to be made open to it?
3) If 1) is true, what is likely to emerge from the crash?

George said...

Bruce - if true, we can't really reverse It? I mean, theoretically there would need to be a small group with minimal mutation load who simply outbred the rest?

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF & G. As I understand the phenomenon, it has already happened everywhere, and it is not reversible by breeding - and even some kind of theoretical genetic engineering is probably not practical. This is not really my *personal* opinion because I took it from WD Hamilton, who thought a lot about mutation accumulation and was warning about it from the early 1960s until his death in 2000. In his collected papers is an extended discussion of whether it would be possible to repair the damage of mutation accumulation, and he explores this in detail before concluding he cannot see a way that it could be done.

What I didn't mention above is that humans - and especially human brains- are probably exceptionally vulnerable to mutation accumulation, due to the brain's extreme complexity and inter-dependence (so many things to go wrong!); so humans perhaps relied *more than any other animal* on the mutation-sieving effect of high pre-reproduction mortality.

I am not saying that extinction from mutational meltdown is inevitable! There are, after all, 7 billion people. But what remains of the species after a population collapse may well be much less 'fit' than humans have been for a very long time - because mutation accumulation causes (in effect) an absolute, not a relative, decline in fitness. Deleterious mutations are bad for fitness in 'all' environments.

So the species would not be returning to -say - the capability level of paleolithic hunter gatherers; but to a *lower* level than that (because the population is carrying a heavy mutation load) - presumably meaning that the density of population, probably its range, would be lower than at any time since the human species emerged,

This really isn't a very cheerful subject, is it! Especially because the only way it could have been prevented, would have included the premature death of huge numbers of children.

Still, Christians have always 'known' that the species time was limited, and this earth's life span is limited - they are a means to an eternal end. And there is - or would be, I think, something rather noble about the species destroying itself by means of massively-reducing child mortality. Better than some of the alternatives.

I think the test of mutation accumulation is how we deal with it; whether it is dealt with honestly, and ethically. We should - as always - truth-fully try to do the right thing, and accept the consequences.

pyrrhus said...

An excellent and courageous piece of work by you and Dr. Woodley! Two thoughts. Could this be a cycle, perhaps in connection with glacial periods, in which humans periodically go nearly extinct for millennia, followed by a buildup of genetic potential during the long Malthusian period? Second, is this a mechanism that explains much of Fermi's Paradox?

Nicholas Fulford said...

You demonstrate an ethical nobility with that response Bruce.

Anonymous said...

>Still, Christians have always 'known' that the species time was limited, and this earth's life span is limited - they are a means to an eternal end. And there is - or would be, I think, something rather noble about the species destroying itself by means of massively-reducing child mortality

No need for pessimism: it's a problem, and problems are soluble! In particular, solving a problem needn't entail eliminating or reversing its historical causes.

e.g. how's this for a sketch of a solution:

(1) Within a few years the cost of whole genome sequencing will be less than $100. (It's already down to $1000 I believe.)

(2) Once millions of people have their sequence data lodged with 'Google Genome' or wherever, it will be easier to sift and identify mutations associated with susceptibility to diseases, lack of intelligence, etc. This step will also serve to make the public aware of the problem and remove political opposition to step (3).

(3) Maybe then a future wife could receive enhanced versions of her husband's sperm from a biotech company for artificial insemination? 'Enhanced' for motility as well as lack of known mutations. This technology does not exist OFC but it seems plausible to me over a time scale of a decade. After all, we've started to mass produce other types of cells such a white blood cells.

(4) There is a taboo around the historical legacy of Eugenics. And no doubt paranoia and conspiracy theories will arise to reduce early adoption, but (in addition to sound argument) there could be tax incentives or similar to counteract these.

This leaves out mutations in mitochondrial DNA. What else have I missed?

-- Tom

David said...

"In conclusion, since there has been considerable mutation accumulation over the past two hundred years - enough to cause a very large reduction in general intelligence - this must also have caused considerable damage to human social and sexual adaptations.

Therefore, both common sense and sexual instincts are impaired in modern Man.

Our basic instincts have been damaged."

The main question that arises for me after reading the above is how can this view be compatable with a Christian position? How can a large population of genetically damaged humans be held accountable for 'sinful' behaviours (sexual,social and otherwise) that is, as you clearly argue, the legacy of extensive genetic damage and plain harsh biological reality/chance? "Forgive them father for they know not what they do" seems to take a new light in the context of what is being described here; it seems you are suggesting that many humans are now biologically impaired in their ability to act as effective moral agents? It seems to follow logically that if we consider the case of the presumably more intelligent biblical era human living in a religiously saturated time with common sense at their disposal and less all round genetic damage,that moral behaviour would be more instinctive, obvious, no shades of grey or confusion, and also more heavily policed with taboos and draconian punishments for transgressions e.g. public stonings for blasphemy, infidelity or sexual misconduct. A set of circumstances much more conducive to following a shared set of moral imperatives. This contacts quite starkly with modern conditions, where the average human is less intelligent, has no common sense at all and lives in a secular\pemissive society which actively encourages as habitual every day behaviour, what was regarded as justifying a death sentence by stoning, say, only a few millenia ago. There is a striking contrast here. Assuming this biological fitness agreement to be correct
I am left baffled to see how modern humans can be held accountable for their behaviour in the same way, since presumably a genetic mutant is so demented and far gone,the nuances of social and sexual behaviour and a moral set of codes to determine appropriate behaviour are now relatively speaking, archeo-biological genetic artefacts.

To illustrate: I am a biological mutant in so far as I require contact lenses to correct my myopia. It would be ludicrous to hold me personally responsible for this; I hope! It's just unfortunately the genetic cards I have been dealt; fortunately there is a modern remedy. By extension can we blame those damaged in ways that impairs moral judgement and reasoning?or do they have legitimate grounds for diminished responsibility? Is a biblical apostate more culpable than a modern (because they were biologically and culturally better equipped to live morally)? The two reasoning systems of biological thinking and Christian thought seem to make nonsense of each other. Perhaps you can help me make sense of this?

Nathaniel said...

@David - I believe scripture implies that we all are prone to sin or problematic behavior, but that everything hinges on repentance for sin and acceptance of Christ.

Heavenly Father cares for us each personally and is aware of our personal situation.

Nathaniel said...

I don't think it's possible to disprove your theory. If we accept: 1) High historic child mortality rates (generally accepted), 2) Natural selection is a process of random mutations, most of which are - of course! - harmful. and 3) A situation where no natural selection pressures are present (indisputable, though no one wants to think about the consequences of this).

Also, no parent wants to see their child suffer or die, and will use every means possible to preserve that life.


I find it hard to integrate as a mental model. It's so foreign and puts a spin on a lot of things, but also makes sense of so much! Sort of like initially trying to recognize group differences, or that maybe class is somewhat biologically based, etc.

as said...

Past generations did not need to depend on education and were immune to propaganda when it came to sexual instincts

Was there propaganda in the past?

I thought in the past society always advocated chastity, and the bad consequences of a lack of chastity were obvious.

Arakawa said...

I get the sense of this bit of news as being rather like what Denethor saw in the Palantir: accurate information that, without additional context, amounts to a despair-inducing half-truth. (Bruce has a level-er head than Denethor, I would think, but some of his readers seem to be taking it this way!)

Denethor only sees what Sauron wants him to see and concludes (correctly) that Sauron is completely undefeatable, in military terms. Yes, and he is not supposed to be defeated in military terms, but on completely different terms.


@David is confused how the claim of mutation accumulation fits into a Christian worldview.

First of all, the maladaptive behaviour, while possibly making people less moral in behaviour, cannot be said to make them any less of moral agents, choosing between good and evil inclinations according to what they understand (no different in that sense from what people did 400 years ago). What @Bill said about people in this day and age 'no longer being human' (according to the putative commonsense evaluation of our ancestors?) is an example of a fallacy that denies this. People don't get more or less human as their mental capacities and inclinations become more or less disordered. The degree of moral behaviour which is reasonable to expect from them might change, and this will affect society, because society is based not on what people ought to do but on what people reasonably can do. (This varies according to time, place and circumstance, whence different societies appear to have different standards of good and evil, but these are merely different compromises with evil on account of being incapable of operating purely according to good.)

But arguably, the baseline moral measure of Christianity is a degree of sanctity or perfection which is equally unattainable whether you're starting from the depths of Sodom or from a well-ordered 'traditional society'. To attain sanctity is basically the same thing as to overcome death and abolish the law of entropy. Thus sanctity was never a reasonable demand nor a 'biologically possible' one, and thus mutation accumulation is irrelevant to the success of Christianity.

Jeff said...

I do not see how it is possible that people 200 years ago had the IQ equivalent of 130 today. Here is the metric: did not travelers to China marvel at Chinese talent even prior to 1800? (Steve Hsu had a blog post about this.)

I believe there is a measure that reveals people associate with other people within 1 SD of their own IQ. Thus, for you to remark on someone's high intelligence, they likely would be 1 SD above your own, or pushing in that direction. That would mean, the average Chinese, about whom the travelers commented on, would have a 140-145 modern IQ, or their top 2% would be around 175. I don't believe that is plausible.

menaquinone4 said...

How do you reconcile this idea of a secular rise in mutational load with the following study?

Bruce Charlton said...

@as "Was there propaganda in the past? I thought in the past society always advocated chastity, and the bad consequences of a lack of chastity were obvious. "

Yes, there is always propaganda - however, never so much as now (since the mass media occupies more time and attention than anything ever). The difference is that modern propaganda is net insane, evil and destructive, and benefits nobody (in the long term). (This is most apparent with the unfolding sexual revolution.) Yet this objective fact is seemingly not obvious to most people, indeed most people deny it and agree with the insanity. Therefore, it seems that most people must have something seriously wrong with them.

The main alternative view, which is also true, is that the powerful elite are working actively and strategically with evil purposes, that they are servants of Satan. This is true, to a significant extent; yet it seems that the mass of people do not notice what is happening, but just go along with it.

It's rather as if Caligula was regarded with a shrug of the shoulders, and his moral 'principles' were adopted by the state, and imposed and enforced on the plebs - and nobody noticed anything wrong, nobody batted an eyelid.

Bruce Charlton said...

@pyrrhus - Fermi's paradox is defined by Wikipedia as "the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization and humanity's lack of contact with, or evidence for, such civilizations."

So, your question is whether mutation accumulation would tend to cause the destruction of any high civilization before it could contact other planets.

Well, maybe - but I don't really have any instinct for such matters - and I don't really think much along these lines.

My sense of modern society is that the mass of people would now be almost-completely unexcited by the earth contacting an alien civilization. This is an aspect of the kind of bovine insensibility I am talking about.

I don't tend to think cyclically - because my understanding of history is framed by Christianity; which has a direction, a beginning and an end. Within that, there are cycles in some things, but they are not of the essence; and fundamentally nothing ever repeats, and every new day is unprecedented.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jeff - Well, my various writings on this subject are supposed to demonstrate that it *is* a possibility!

You must bear in mind that IQ is an ordinal scale, with arbitrary points of unknown and varying magnitude. Underneath it lies some kind of interval, ratio scale which gives a proper impression of magnitudes - something more like simple reaction times - but a more comprehensive measure of processing speed and efficiency.

I think of IQ differences as being imprecise, approximate measures - two standard deviations of difference in measured IQ is clearly significantly more than one SD, but much more than that cannot be said!

wrt China, etc - it should not be assumed that Chinese 'g' has remained stable, nor should it be assumed that the situation is identical in different races - different populations would probably have different baselines, mutations rates, different experiences of demographic changes etc.

Certainly there is no reason to assume that changes in general intelligence are linear with time - indeed we would not even recognize linearity in IQ change.

That is why I am sticking to broad brush, 'in principle' arguments.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ menaquinone4

My work in this field is *built-up* from work of scientists I trust and regard as competent, that is, from a relatively very small number of authors and papers plus a basis in older science, before corruption had become normal - and my assumption is that the vast bulk of research in the scientific literature is incompetent and dishonest (see my book Not Even Trying -

So, I find it unhelpful to respond to particular individual papers in the modern mainstream literature unless or until I can be reasonably confident that they are written honestly and done by competent people who are genuinely pursuing the truth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@anon Tom

i am strongly influenced by the argument of WD Hamilton in Chapter 12 The Hospitals are Coming, from Volume 2 (Evolution of Sex) of The Narrow Roads of Gene Land.

Hamilton was a genius of biology, and thought about these matters for longer than anyone else - and he argued that, although he would like to be proved wrong, there was not really scope for technological repair of mutational damage (even if there was a recognition of the problem and a will to do something about it - which, of course, there isn't).

It could be argued that there has been a fundamental change in understanding of the scope of genetic engineering since Hamilton wrote this in 2000, but I don't believe it - and I think the opposite is true.

ie There is significantly *less* understanding of the topic now than in 2000 - not least because Hamilton died at that time. But also because even larger numbers of ignorant lying idiots have come to dominate bio-medical research than was the case 15 years ago.

My basic position is that real science is uncommon; and real science can only be built upon real science. The vast bulk of published research over the past generation has not even been trying to be real science, and is worse than irrelevant - because of its tendency to mislead.

Certainly, I can't see any validity in assuming that a problem of this kind can be solved and it is just a matter of finding that solution. The first step is to get a deeper understanding of what the nature of the problem is - in particular, what role selection has on purging each generation of new mutations.

I now believe that this role of selection is biologically primary in the sustaining of life itself; so I am not optimistic that there can be a technical substitute:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the reference. The book is pricey, but is this a fair summary of his views:


Apparently Hamilton shared your distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.

>Certainly, I can't see any validity in assuming that a problem of this kind can be solved and it is just a matter of finding that solution.

I follow David Deutsch in these matters. It's rational to assume that a problem is soluble where no law of physics is contradicted.

A 'deeper understanding of what the nature of the problem is' is precisely what you get when you do try to solve it. But the directions your attempts will lead you are unknowable in advance. (No doubt there are lots of thing we don't understand about smallpox. And no doubt there was plenty of human corruption around back then. But we still managed to eradicate it.)

The plummeting cost of sequencing at least implies that it will be possible to discover and eliminate many single gene mutations in the near future. I wonder if Hamilton underestimated the growth of technology, especially if he was a pessimist?

Beyond this we can catalogue genomes both from the present and from pre-1800 and bring to bear new techniques of data analysis.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - I don't think you could elicit Hamilton's arguments from that link. As I said, I trust Hamilton's honesty, competence and insight on this matter about which he was thinking for some thirty years - and I believe he was correct.

Anonymous said...

You should be able to calculate the mutation decline a priori with only a few pieces of information.

1) Correlation between IQ (proxy for general fitness), and surviving offspring.
2) Death rate per surviving offspring (~1/2?)
3) Assumption of normality. (not a strong assumption).
4) Assumption of equilibrium IQ in nature (not a strong assumption).

In essence, you are finding out the natural rate of mutation by setting the IQ level of the population to static, and then finding out what mutation rate given the above variables would achieve that (just math). Then you will know what the decline will be per generation without selection since you know the selection rate that was neccesary to prevent there from being any IQ decline. This could be done for any species.

In addition, you have massively underestimated entropy because you have not considered cultural entropy. For example, how can morality be maintained if being moral does not increase the survival rate of children. How can people even know what ideas are good or bad if there is no ultimate arbiter of winner or loser. I have been working out a framework of how this works, which I plan to write a paper on. The Theory of Entropy. Interestingly, capitalism, evolution, neural networks, statistical physics, even intermittent fasting can all fit under the umbrella 'anti-entropy machines'. Happy to discuss more.

Separately, do you have an estimate of the costs of rerunning the mouse utopia experiment? I would be interested in funding this research / helping to raise funds. I also have some thoughts on this.

Edward said...

Intelligence is not an infinite linear scale, it can only ever be proportional to a mean, and the local society defines what that mean is.
We may not have quite the same kind of thought processes as we did 200 years ago, but maybe what we have today is more suited to our present environment.

You've got to be very careful of what you do to tweak the fundamental variables of reproduction, sometimes what goes up must also come down. as Charly Gorden learned to his cost.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Edward - You apparently mistake the modern method of putting a number to IQ - which is relative, with the underlying concept of general intelligence (g) which is an absolute number. I don't know what you mean by 'an infinite linear scale' except the nobody has every regarded g as that! If we could measure g directly, then it would be a ratio scale, as objective as measurements of length or mass - although not necessarily linear and certainly not (since it is biologically instantiated) infinite.

Edward said...

Ok that was a bit careless, yes IQ numbers are relative, whereas G measures what ratio? Information throughput?
I could do the towers of Hanoi right off, though some people find it tricky. I don't still have my times tables memorised, but I do know quite a lot of music by heart. I don't do any mental arithmetic any more, but I can understand lots of programming languages. Which is more or less intelligent? I know how computers work from the bits up to then operating system and networking protocols so I can diagnose problems. I can't write my own operating system, but then again not many people need to.

Kids today are continually demonstrating very high levels of problem solving ability and fast reaction speeds while playing computer games, they don't necessarily demonstrate those same abilities when applied towards more academic subjects. Their knowledge bases may be more full of social relationships and pop culture than they are with the classics, but they solve the problems they need to solve in their daily lives as well as they can, and leave the management of the larger scale components of the economy to those supposedly older and wiser and substantially better paid.
Intelligence isn't infinite, and there are different kinds of intelligence and different patterns of thought. We now maybe trade off working memory and executive function for more long term memories and non-linear pattern condensation. Different people are going to be good at different things, brains are different, no one is a perfect specimen.
It is kind of a shame that all the effort put into computer games does not go into something more useful to the outside world, but then again it keeps the kids safe from physical harm, and fully occupied, and who knows what they really get up to in there?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Edward, it is sometimes difficult to be precise about individuals; but at the group level intelligence measures are much more precise. And the point of the recent work done by Woodley et al is that we now know that average intelligence has gone down, objectively, and by a lot. This is exactly as predicted by biology, so it should not be a big surprise- the only confusing factor is that the Flynn effect (inflating raw scores in IQ tests - but focused on the least g-loaded items) has been so large, and misleadingly masked the underlying reality. But we are all familiar with longitudinal grade inflation in exams from multiple causes, the Flynn effect turns out to be mostly the same kind of phenomenon. After all, an IQ test is just a special kind of examination. But simple reaction time measurements (for example) are physiology.

Edward said...

I'm aware of the problems with the Flynn effect, I think this guy has the best handle on what's actually going on there
Put simply, the brain is just a pattern recognition machine, but a more complex physical environment experienced from an early age creates more complex stored patterns. The IQ score just captures our ability to retrieve the right patterned response to a problem, not to plan and solve large scale problems in complex abstract domains.

Our living conditions have changed drastically in the last couple of hundred years too. We don't do so much physical labour, we're not out hunting for food. The food we eat has probably shifted from more protein to more carbohydrates. Again I suspect it's a white matter / grey matter type trade-off.
Today's brains are different, and yes probably slower to respond, but they seem to have a much wider frame of reference, so those that can make novel creative inferences can probably do so on much larger scale problem domains, given enough data input and quiet percolation time. The perfectly right answer to a problem, even after a substantial delay, may be a better bet than the wrong answer right now, so long as you aren't flying a fighter plane or doing brain surgery.

This one is pretty cool too, Marvin has a very nice slant on the problem.
Massively parallel data processing, but only very narrow serial communication channels, that's the human condition all over..

Bruce Charlton said...

@Edward - "Today's brains are different, and yes probably slower to respond, but they seem to have a much wider frame of reference, so those that can make novel creative inferences can probably do so on much larger scale problem domains, given enough data input and quiet percolation time."

I think the opposite is true. There has been a collapse in the number of creative geniuses in multiple domains - especially noticeable over the past century, but beginning earlier; and indeed there are few creative geniuses now alive, a small fraction of what there used to be despite a massively increased population. Historical surveys of breakthroughs - by several methodologies - show a massive decline in per capita major innovations.

Everything points to the fact that people used to be much higher in general intelligence than they are now; and that nothing can compensate for the effect of this decline on major creative endeavors.