Until a few years ago I had been of the opinion that the current iteration of the human race is by far the smartest the world has ever seen. After all, look at all the marvelous engineering projects the smartest humans have built: Airplanes, submarines, spaceships! Within the last generation we have been to the moon! Incredible when you come to think about it. But this kind of thinking can gloss over the many achievements of our forebears. Astounding inventions such as the wheel, the compass, paper and the printing press (more about the latter two later).
Mozart, Pythagoras, Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Sun Tzu, Da Vinci etc etc. I could probably go through every epoch and name plenty of great minds, strategists, thinkers that lived in each segment of humanity’s timeline. In today’s day and age you have people like Alan Touring or even more recently Stephen Hawking. The latter is arguably one of the smartest humans alive. However, I doubt that there truly has ever been a time period which didn’t have a great mind such as the above. I’m referring to times when there was written and oral communication.
If you want to compare humans of different epochs, how do you do that? How do you measure the average intelligence of humans at any given point in time? IQ tests were only developed approximately a hundred and fifty years ago and likely only capture certain aspect of a human’s intelligence. Do you measure intelligence via innovation? But then how do you keep track of the innovations that have occurred earlier in our history and that were then slowly forgotten about? One could also look at measuring increases in life expectancy. But measuring life expectancy of your average Joe in 200 B.C. accurately (something that would be expensive and would require a large dataset to be statistically relevant) is tricky. There’s also the added issue that intelligence does not always equate to increases in life expectancy. After all, we knew the Romans were a clever bunch, yet they used lead pipes. Any decent increase in life expectancy would likely have been negated by the adverse impacts of lead poisoning.
It seems we have to fall back to a rather crude method of analysing. At the same time is my favourite way of coming to conclusions: guestimating and discussing!
I actually don’t believe that today’s humans are more intelligent than people who previously graced the earth. Apart from us having the bias of knowing and living in the present day (thereby thinking we are superior), there are too many examples of great innovations having occurred in the past. There are too many great people who composed, wrote and theorised about many aspects of the world for us to be able to bat them off as anomalies.
My hypothesis is that we have, broadly speaking, been equally clever throughout the ages. What may be happening nowadays is that the pace of innovation is accelerating. And this is largely due to a few key points and has little to do with our intelligence increasing:
The written word
Humans have been talking to each other for thousands of years. It is probably safe to say that they have also been writing and recording for thousands of years. Be it hacking words into stone or using ink and parchment/paper. I think there have been two innovations which have helped humanity kick off several important innovations since:
The first is the printing press which enabled knowledge to be mass reproduced and be read by many more people than previously had been possible. This way knowledge was distilled throughout the populace that could read or write and copies of important books were not left locked up in monasteries or libraries (in Europe that is). But perhaps even more importantly the mass production of paper (which took over 1,000 years to travel from China to Europe) enabled Gutenberg to invent the press. The mass production of paper enabled people to ditch brittle and expensive parchment and allowed for innovations such as the printing press to take hold and spread knowledge.
Long story short, humanity has since benefitted massively from having knowledge recorded, stored and be accessible for many generations to come, allowing humanity to build upon previous knowledge rather than let it be forgotten.
Arguably, there’s been a lot more stability in the past 50 years than there has been over similar periods of time. What happens when young men and woman are not drafted into the military? They get to partake in the pursuit of knowledge by joining an academic institution, advance and innovate at a business level etc. It helps society if humans aren’t blowing each other to smithereens.
Over the last 250 years, humanity has seen a growth in population that has been gigantic. With a larger population you get a higher amount of brain capacity to advance humanity and innovate. Of course, if you think of a bell curve, you also have a higher absolute quantity of people in the top percentile of intelligent humans. We are only now approaching an inflection point in the next 50 years or so (bar a catastrophe of course) where this mega trend in population growth is expected to stop. Will our rate of innovation decrease as well? I believe so. Less people in the world means less people that will be there to innovate and create awesome things.
So all in all, I think humanity is (and has been) seeing an unprecendented rate of innovation that will probably last a few more decades before demographics take an inevitable turn. But we are not the smartest humans to have lived on the planet at any point in time. I think the geniuses nowadays are just as capable and brilliant as the geniuses of a couple of hundred and thousand years ago.