Intelligence then and now.
June 7, 2005 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Do you think you are a smarter person than the average upper-middle class person of 300 years ago?

The question is deliberately vague . . . I'm curious to see what people have to say.
posted by ashbury to Society & Culture (37 answers total)
Smarter? I dunno. I may be more well-read, but I can't identify most of the birds I see. Since you use the word "smart" instead of "intelligent," I'm going to have to say no, I doubt that I am.
posted by tr33hggr at 11:52 AM on June 7, 2005

I think I'm smarter than the average person now, so I think I would've been smarter than the average person then. I don't necessarily think that the average intelligence level has changed.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:55 AM on June 7, 2005

Hmm..the age old conundrum of what exactly is intelligence and how does one measure it eh? Do we accord the great swag of information at our disposal now any weighting whatsoever, or what about the advances in nutrition, education and society in general?

I say....not.

I daresay I will have been just as stupid then as well as now.

Or...smarter? Maybe I've answered a different question. Smart is clever is being able to solve things with less energy in less time. With those criteria, then yes, I'm smarter because of the advancements in health etc as above, that have taken my own fumblings out of the equation in assimilating the cleverest practises in reading or calculations or problem solving. Is it inherent? No.
posted by peacay at 11:57 AM on June 7, 2005

Define smart.

I would have a ridiculously difficult time negotiating through the world 300 years ago. Working a musket? Playing a concertina or something? Studying the classics? My speech and written language would seem crude, if not alien. They'd think I was a dolt the way I do math and need a calculator for big numbers. I wouldn't know any borders or countries. I have no idea how to lace up a corset. I wouldn't even know what to do with a chamber pot even if I did get over the ick factor.

However, sit me and the average upper-middle class person of 300 years ago at an SAT scantron and I'd whoop their ass because that's what I've been trained to do.
posted by Gucky at 11:59 AM on June 7, 2005

An interesting thing to note is that intelligence was defined quite differently in the past. To be 'intelligent' then, you had to be able to remember lots of stuff, whereas today more emphasis is placed on reasoning and insight.
posted by koenie at 12:00 PM on June 7, 2005

This is metafilter - we think we are smarter than the average upper-middleclass person of today.
posted by jmgorman at 12:11 PM on June 7, 2005

Big difference between "unintelligent" and "ignorant"...
posted by Specklet at 12:13 PM on June 7, 2005

I'm blown away by the scope of knowledge of well educated upper class gentlemen back in the day. You know, the ones that had the means to become world experts on tectonic plates, a weird species of butterfly and flute making. Or something.
posted by gaspode at 12:15 PM on June 7, 2005

Intelligence is all about context and so this one is really impossible to answer definitively.
posted by orange swan at 12:20 PM on June 7, 2005

posted by Kwantsar at 12:42 PM on June 7, 2005

300 years ago?
No, looking at astrology's use in navigating and calendaring events. As calculus and trigonometry knowledge are seen here. Heck, the American Indians used it too which is seen in the recent structures found in US’s southwest regions.

Also, could you survive in the wild or start and maintain a farm? “Your answer here may be the question’s true answer for self.” What is the reason for education? maybe self preservation.

If you ever found yourself lost and then needed the help finding your way back (not asking for a map but them taking you there), you may also use this to make a comparison, imho. Because the modern world has more resources that a first grader could find their way back home.

I bet most men in my spot would know how to survey the land, especially an owner. So I’m less looking at my test here.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:56 PM on June 7, 2005

Was there much of a middle class 300 years ago?
I'm pretty weak in this area, I labour under the impression that merchant and trade wealth was forming a class that wasn't nobility and wasn't poverty, but was it a middle class as we would recognise one today?

/If the test is who knows the most about the middle-class 300 years ago, I think the middle-class dude from 300 years ago just beat me.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:15 PM on June 7, 2005

This is metafilter - we think we are smarter than the average upper-middleclass person of today.

Do you expect that no metafilter members are smarter than today's average upper-middle class person?

Also, could you survive in the wild or start and maintain a farm?

No, but I'm sure I could learn how. The question struck me as one about intelligence, not knowledge.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:25 PM on June 7, 2005

I haven't read it, but I gather Steve Johnson argues we are smarter in Everything Bad Is Good for You.
posted by glibhamdreck at 1:37 PM on June 7, 2005

If the question is about intelligence, why is class relevant?

If the question is about knowledge, then I don't see how you can do the comparison either.
posted by rdr at 1:41 PM on June 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I don't know if there is really any objective way to compare "smartness" among people. I do believe that I have access to far more data, easier travel, and better living conditions than just about anyone 100 years ago, much less an upper middle class person 300 years ago.

I can walk from my house to restaurants that serve Indian food, Thai food, Italian food or steaks. I can probably get a meal from any of them for less than US$10. At the moment, I'm having a near-real-time conversation with someone 3000 miles away from me.

However, I haven't discovered any new laws of physics. Newton seemed to do just fine without the Thai food.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:45 PM on June 7, 2005

Are me more intelligent? I'd say yes, because our parents are generally healthier and we had better prenatal care and better nutrition while growing up. However, adjusting for those factors, I doubt there are any real differences in innate intelligence.
posted by blm at 1:51 PM on June 7, 2005

Kwantsar mentions the Flynn effect, which I agree with. A recent Wired article explains that this effect shows that humans are getting increasingly better at problem solving. The reason? User Interfaces, games, logic puzzles (e.g. video games, gui's, computer programming, interacting with your vcr and/or tivo, yes, even pokemon) exercise and stretch our brain in ways that not many people 300 years ago had available.
posted by zenorbital at 1:52 PM on June 7, 2005

Are me more intelligent? I'd say yes

Of course, I could be wrong...
posted by blm at 1:54 PM on June 7, 2005

That is an interesting question. I would say that I suspect we would be by most measures more intelligent, but only because we have built from the accomplishments of our forerunners.

To use a poor example, I don't know whether Newton or Hawking would be more intelligent if they were raised together in the same time period, but I don't think there is any doubt that Hawking in 2005 can understand everything Newton could in his time, while Newton in the 17th century would probably not be able to wrap his mind around what is being developed in physics these days, even if you gave him a library of journal papers to read.

That is, the progress of science and culture from elementary and narrow to specialized and global has set the normal at a much higher level today than it was 300 years ago.
posted by Hildago at 2:00 PM on June 7, 2005

300 years ago, I would be able to survive in the wild on my own. Not now. Interpret that as you wish.
posted by eas98 at 2:00 PM on June 7, 2005

while Newton in the 17th century would probably not be able to wrap his mind around what is being developed in physics these days, even if you gave him a library of journal papers to read.

hm. I don't think Hawking is a good example, because at this stage it isn't really clear if he'll leave us with definitive knowledge - a lot of quantum physics stuff is being reevaluated and reinterpreted so that it is more in line with einstein after all. We'll see if that works out, but at the moment at least, newton isn't the only one who would question 'what's being developed in physics these days' - a lot of physicists disagree about what the data mean.

However, everyone working now agrees with einstein's work; do you think newton wouldn't have been able to understand that?
posted by mdn at 2:25 PM on June 7, 2005

-harlequin- : yes, there were people whom we would recognise as a sort of middle class between nobility and the peasantry (most of whom were not in "poverty", even if we think their living conditions were poor, since poverty is relative) even bad into the middle ages, the Roman period, earlier - maybe even to the beginning of social economic specialization. It is the size, influence and conciousness of this class that has changed, though the details are always under debate. In England in 1700, they would have been more likely to be known as the "middling sort" and included a large range of people from small shop owners and craftsmen to the large merchants and businessmen.

However, the question was about "upper middle class" - and the closest analogy to that in early eighteenth century English society, at least, would not have been really the middling sort per se, but the professions, and richer middling sort (sometimes called "pseudo-gentry" by historians, because many were from branch families of the gentry and intermarried with the gentry), as well as the lesser gentry (aka the type of family in a Jane Austen novel).

As for the question, no, I'm not. Have you read what they read? It's difficult stuff.
posted by jb at 3:03 PM on June 7, 2005

Sorry - that should be "even back into the middle ages..."
posted by jb at 3:04 PM on June 7, 2005

I agree with Gucky: they'd think we were dumb as posts if they could meet us, basing their judgment on factors that we no longer give so much weight to (not to mention that they'd be appalled at the mess we've made of the world, and they'd have a point). We would judge them negatively based on factors they would find pointless. There's no way to judge the matter objectively. (And the Flynn effect doesn't solve anything; Flynn himself doesn't think it means people are getting smarter.)
posted by languagehat at 3:19 PM on June 7, 2005

Yes. The average (assuming you mean the "mean") smartness (assuming you mean "learnedness") of an upper-middle-class (assuming you mean "rich or noble European or American") person (assuming you mean "man or woman") in 1705 would have been dragged way down by the minimal educational opportunities available to women.

And if we extend "smart" to include native intelligence, or if we extend "upper-middle-class" to include tradesmen and educated craftsmen, or if we include other societies than Euro-American, or if we exclude women from the historical average, then yes anyway, just because I'm wicked smart.
posted by nicwolff at 3:45 PM on June 7, 2005

300 years ago I would have died at age 2 due to a marked lack of CPR.

"I daresay, that small child has stopped breathing."
"Oh, there goes another one. That's my third gone this week."

Yeah, I wouldn't have been any smarter than I am now, just a lot dead-er.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:56 PM on June 7, 2005

I read Samuel Pepys daily diary entries on the internet (RSS). They were written roughly 300 years ago (currently in the 1660's). The similarity it has to a blog is fascinating. My impression is that people are much the same today as they were then. We're still basically nothing more than shaved chimps in ill-fitting clothing.

Personally, however, I am a genius the likes of which the world has never seen :)
posted by Kattullus at 5:05 PM on June 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

As said upthread - this really can't be definitively answered. Intelligence/smarts/knowledge is objective and depends on context.

If I showed up in the early 1700s, I'd probably be burned as a witch.
posted by deborah at 5:15 PM on June 7, 2005

Well, here at Oxford taking the finals papers of 300 years ago I'd be on the verge of failing many of them horribly. Rhetoric and philosophy I might not have been humiliated by but logic, geometry and latin I'd be getting close to zero. Law and politics I'd be laughing at the professors.

I guess that I agree with those above who say that the perception of intelligence is contextual. What was important then is less so now and vice versa.

More intersting is the idea of projecting oneself backwards. I couldn't begin to imagime how diffrent a person I'd have turned out in 1705. A gentleman commoner perhaps but a truely different world.
posted by dmt at 5:50 PM on June 7, 2005

this is probably too hard to answer ... part of the problem is that we haven't recorded much of what the average upper middle class person wrote and thought in those times ... what we're aware of is what the exceptional people of those times wrote and thought

what i would say is that the average educated person was more knowledgable and smarter 100-150 years ago than the average is now ... i don't think the knowledge of 300 years ago was that vast or that good that mastering it was any more of an intellectual feat than getting along in today's world

i'm really not impressed with today's college graduates and i wasn't impressed 20 years ago ... and judging from the newspaper, if we as a species are acting smarter, i must have missed it ...

going from my ancestry, i would have to say that i would have been a semi-starved and somewhat illiterate "touched" irish peasant ... it wouldn't have been pleasant and i'd have probably died 8 years ago from intestinal problems
posted by pyramid termite at 6:01 PM on June 7, 2005

I think in terms of common sense and innate intelligence people are about the same now as then. An educated person (specifically, a man) would know more facts than I do now, but I would kick his ass at problem solving and synthesizing information. Since I equate "smarts" with seat-of-the-pants problem solving and because I have a high impression of my own abilities I would say that I'm smarter.

But I would've died at birth.
posted by cali at 7:44 PM on June 7, 2005

While not necessarily smarter, we have access to infinitely more information. This gives us a decided advantage in my opinion.
posted by hendrixson at 7:49 PM on June 7, 2005

Perhaps a better question is would this 300 year-old encino man be cooler than us? The answer is a definitive yes.
posted by hendrixson at 7:51 PM on June 7, 2005

I think folks back then were generally "brighter". They were better at thinking on their feet. Certainly their command of rhetoric was far superior. Their ordinary writings, as reflected in personal letters, were vastly more sophisticated.

I can't help but wonder, while certainly they had terrible problems with disease, they had much less exposure to chemicals, and more active lives. Maybe those that didn't die from disease enjoyed clearer heads.
posted by Goofyy at 8:39 PM on June 7, 2005

Interesting that almost nobody has said that we're dumber now. What does that say about us?
posted by yellowcandy at 2:59 AM on June 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

300 years ago = 1705.
Newton's theory of gravity is the most recent discovery of the scientific world. Newspapers are the newest form of media and they're taking the world by storm. The Salem trials were a few winters back and people still live in a climate of fear. The steam-engin has just been invented, although no one knew what impact that'll have on the world. Youngest son of 17 siblings, next year, Benjamin Franklin will be born in a small colonial town called Boston.
Overall, in the West, we would be born in a relatively stable world sans electricity, running water, education -- and die, reading a newspaper praising a new encyclopedia has been compiled by some radical thinkers that call themselves "the Enlightment" as the world simmers on the eve of two of the greatest social upheavals of all times: the french and the american revolution.

I think, in a historical context, I'd label "intelligent" some one that felt early on that the world was about to change, and did his/her best to go with the flow.
Like those back then who did their best to educate their daughters because they knew that just like the proletariat won't stand being ruled by kings much longer, women too will begin to emancipate.
Like those today that made the investment to get a computer, learn to type and to take advantage of the internet.
posted by ruelle at 3:24 AM on June 8, 2005

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