Nature, Nurture, and Human Autonomy with James Flynn

by Scott Barry Kaufman, August 16, 2018

“When you turn your back on reality you lose the ability to manipulate reality. One would think that is self-evident. I didn’t go into this to not try to find the truth.” — James Flynn*

Today it is an honor to have Dr. James Flynn on the podcast. Dr. Flynn is Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago and recipient of the University’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Career Research. In 2007, the International Society for Intelligence Research named him its Distinguished Contributor. His TED talk on cognitive and moral progress has received over 3.5 million visits. His long list of books include Are We Getting Smarter?, What is Intelligence?, Where Have All the Liberals Gone?, Fate and PhilosophyHow to Improve Your Mind, and most recently, Does Your Family Make You Smarter?: Nature, Nurture, and Human Autonomy.

In this episode we cover a wide range of topics relating to intelligence and its determinants, including:

  • Flynn’s attempts to clarify intelligence and its causes
  • The g factor, and what gives rise to it
  • The validity of multiple intelligences theory
  • Intergenerational trends (the “Flynn effect”) vs. Within-generation trends
  • The “social multiplier” model of intergenerational trends in intelligence
  • Individual multipliers vs. social multipliers
  • The multiple causes of black-white differences in IQ
  • Charley Murray and the meritocracy thesis
  • Transcending the politics of intelligence research
  • The dangers of suppressing ideas and research
  • The 20% wiggle room of autonomy on IQ tests
  • The difference between internal and external environment
  • The impact of having a “family handicap” on SAT scores
  • What we can learn from astronomy about human intelligence
  • Toward a meta-theory of intelligence
  • Toward a more humane society


Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents [TED Talk]

Reflection about intelligence over 40 years

Heritability Estimates Versus Large Environmental Effects”: The IQ Paradox Resolved

IQ Bashing, Breadkdancing, the Flynn Effect, and Genes

Men, Women, and IQ: Setting the Record Straight 

The Flynn Effect and IQ Disparities Among Races, Ethnicities, and Nations: Are There Common Links?

The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized 

Twitter Q & A with James Flynn

  1. “Would a 100 IQ person today be a genius if transported to the year 1918? If not, why not.”

Flynn: No, they would just be better adapted in their ability to meet educational demands.

  1. “Are you concerned with the growing misuse of genetic causal fallacies in heritability research, and what can be done to make sure that researchers do not assert implications that are not supported by the data? Is this a question of education?”

Flynn: Whenever I catch them I am disturbed by both bad genetic hypotheses and bad environmental ones.

3. “What has caused the Flynn reversal in Nordic and some other rich countries? Markus Jokela suggested it could be health related.”

Flynn: See this article in Intelligence by myself and Shayer on IQ decline.

  1. “Prof. Flynn has written about the increase in non-verbal reasoning on IQ tests that is attributed to the exposure to analytical/sequential/logical reasoning through technology. What should we do, then, to increase the verbal side of our reasoning, or have we reached the peak?”

Flynn: Read good literature and stand out against the trend to read less and less (see Flynn, The Torchlight List  and The New Torchlight List.

5. “Could the Flynn effect be based at least partially on a trade off, meaning that with change in culture promoting development of skills associated with higher IQ scores, this rise is at a cost of eg working memory?”

Flynn: I don’t think there is a downward trend in working memory – see Does Your Family Make You Smarter?

6. “Do the intelligence gains the Flynn effect reveals show an in increase in the g factor?”

Flynn: No – see “Reflection about intelligence over 40 years” just posted on the net.

7. “What do you make of American SAT/ACT trends, that is the Asian scores increases and the Native-American scores declines?”

Flynn: Sorry I have only looked at black and white.

8. “Does you ever think there will come a time when rational, non-bigoted people can publicly discuss race and gender topics relating to your research?”

Flynn: Well I hope so – but there is no trend in that direction.

* Quote taken from a lecture Flynn gave at the University of Cambridge on July 20, 2012.

7 Responses to “Nature, Nurture, and Human Autonomy with James Flynn”

  1. Terri says:

    Fascinating man! That was the most enjoyable and informative episode in quite a while, thank you!

    PS: I have a grade 8 education (I did go to college later in life, so you can technically add on 3 more years) and I assure you I’m not profoundly mentally retarded. I have ADHD, and didn’t know it until relatively recently, but I believe that was the largest contributing factor for why I didn’t do very well with school; I didn’t fit into their idea of learning. It wasn’t even that I did poorly, I did well when I went and when I made the effort, I just gave up in my first year of high school. ADHD was the biggest reason, but not the only reason – and as James so eloquently pointed out the possibilities, I mitigated my bad family and life circumstances by making choices. I went ahead and sought learning elsewhere, and still do to this day and every day – one of my favourite places to learn is your podcast. In the years between however, I read voraciously, explored and learned in every place I could, I took the odd course, and the odd discourse; I really don’t believe my IQ suffered any for my lack of formal schooling. While I know what Dr. Flynn meant when he said that someone these days that only has a grade 8 education would be profoundly mentally retarded, I couldn’t help being momentarily offended. Some of us just don’t fit very well in standard school and do much better with self-guided, interest-based learning. My eldest son who inherited my ADHD was identified gifted at age 9, and dropped out in grade 10, and opted for self-guided, interest-based learning as well, every standardized test he’s ever taken, he’s blown out of the water. When he signed up for the military and gave him the standard aptitude and IQ tests, they said his test results were “phenomenal”. Unfortunately society doesn’t recognize us, but we are here among you, smart people who sought learning in places other than the education systems.

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  3. Sonali Sengupta says:

    Obtained a lot of insights regarding intelligence . One of the most interesting interviews regarding nature and nurture replete with examples. I have read the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and was searching for something more regarding the topic. I found it here.

  4. Andrew says:

    When this popped up in my feed I had no idea what to expect. The name – James Flynn – didn’t ring a bell at all. As soon as you introudced him I realised you were talking shout Jim Flynn! I don’t remember anyone at Otago University calling him James 😉

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