We're Witnessing Our Own 20th-century Renaissance
Average IQ scores rose during the twentieth century. Are people getting more intelligent? James R. Flynn, a professor of political science at the University of Otago in New Zealand noticed this phenomenon, which is now called the Flynn effect. Flynn himself does not see this as evidence of increasing intelligence. People are probably just getting better at taking IQ tests. In a profile in Scientific American, Flynn asked the rhetorical questions: "why aren't we undergoing a renaissance unparalleled in human history? . . . why aren't we duplicating the golden days of Athens or the Italian Renaissance?" (Scientific American, January 1999, p. 37) <> His views are shared by many.
When the sensitive person thinks of the past century and first thirteen years of this century, their inclination is to see the horrors. Two world wars that destroyed generations of people. We remember the ovens of Treblinka, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the mass starvation of Stalin's terror, and the many cases of ethnic cleansing, from Armenia and India, to Bosnia and Rwanda. Past centuries have seen such atrocities, just not on the same scale or so well documented.
In 1900, our planet supported 1.7 billion people; in 2013, the biosphere strains under seven billion people. Of those seven billion, perhaps a third live in relative comfort. Far too many live in the squalor of poverty with little if any hope for a better future.
We now live on the edge of ecological catastrophe. While the growth of population and technology have degraded our environment, science and technology also offer the only realistic hope for understanding and coping with such a problem; that is, short of a worldwide plague that eliminates most of the people on the planet.
The Italian Renaissance was a "rebirth" of cultural vigor based on the rediscovery of ancient Greco-Roman learning. Self-proclaimed humanists learned to savor their individuality and found glory in art styles patterned after Greco-Roman sculptures and paintings. The Italian Renaissance spawned renaissances in other European countries, especially France and England.
Part of the Renaissance was a renewed appreciation for the value of the individual. At the beginning, this valuation was reserved for white males. The twentieth century witnessed the successful beginnings of women's rights and civil rights for racial minorities. Despite the road that still must be followed, women and racial minorities enjoy greater opportunities in western nations than ever before. The twentieth century has seen the triumph of the ideals of liberal democracy, moving from a European and American oddity to a more global aspiration.
The Renaissance created the intellectual environment necessary for the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The growth of science is a continuing saga of gaining ever greater understanding of and control over our natural environment.
The twentieth century was revolutionized with Einstein's theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, the discovery of genetics, and plate tectonics. In 1900, we thought that the Milky Way galaxy was the universe; now we know that our galaxy is one of many and not unique in any way other than that we live here. We now have a science of ecology, showing us the complex relationships within the environment.
Medical advances have reduced the need for people to have so many children as insurance that some would make it past the gauntlet of infant and childhood diseases. Certain types of mental illness are now treatable with drugs and therapy, giving hope where none existed in 1900.
Twentieth-century science has fueled technological growth. Computers have allowed us to tackle problems that pencil and paper never could. Telephone and telegraph provided long distance communication in 1900. Now we send enormous amounts of data and video around the world by satellite and optical fibers. Furthermore, we have the technological base to collate and interpret the resulting flood of data.
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a event that riveted hundreds of millions of viewers and will stand as one of the greatest events in human history. While the space program has faltered in fulfilling the fondest ambitions of its advocates, satellites now provide a web of telecommunications knitting the world closer together.
In its own way, the Space Shuttle was as impressive as Michelangelo's murals in the Sistine Chapel. The shuttle was such a complex piece of machinery that the first real complete systems test came when John Young and Robert Crippen sat on top of almost ten million pounds of thrust in 1981 during the shuttle's first launch. The Challenger and Columbia disasters and other deaths in the American and Russian space programs are sobering reminders of the cost of reaching beyond our planet, but are also a testament to the many successful returns of humans from the unforgiving vacuum of space
Five hundred years from now, when historians look back at the twentieth century, they will remember Einstein, the advances in genetics, computers, and our tentative reaching out from our earthly cradle. Furthermore, the late twentieth century also saw the birth of the Internet, a web of network connections that has revolutionized commerce, learning, and social relationships.
To return to Flynn's rhetorical questions. When people idolize the Italian Renaissance, they tend to forget the reality of that time. Shifting alliances of Italian city-states, fueled by mercenaries, frequently warred with each other. The vast majority of the population lived short, harsh lives, unprotected from disease and entirely oblivious to the creative ferment in elite, literate society.
Flynn also mentioned the golden days of Athens as a time that the twentieth century does not compare to. Even though Athens practiced a form of democracy, they were known by their Greek neighbors as tyrants. Athens fueled the awful twenty-seven year long Peloponnesian War, which ended with the complete defeat of the city of Athena. We inherited the beginnings of science and mathematics from the Greeks, but those sages were not inclined to take the next step toward practical implementation.
The accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance and ancient Greeks were carried out by a few and known by only a few. Accomplishments today are carried out by the combined efforts of millions and billions more can appreciate them. In my study are thousands of books and hundreds of musical compact discs, combined with the millions of books and musical compositions digitally available at the click of a button, all which bring the wisdom and pleasure of many cultures to my room. The telephone, television, and Internet allow me to live in a community that defies geography.
Having sung the praises of the twentieth century, we must not forget that these Western pleasures and privileges are not available to the majority of people on our planet. Perhaps the twentieth-first century will solve that problem and bring even greater equality.
While Flynn's misgivings about IQ tests are well-regarded and certainly accurate, not seeing the accomplishments of the twentieth century is blindness. We may not be more intelligent than our ancestors, but we have witnessed a modern-day renaissance.
(Updated and modified from an Op-Ed piece published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, 12 May 1999.)
Posted: 4 December 2013