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Appreciating Our Moral and Mental Development

By Arnold Kling - January 12, 2007 12:00 AM

"In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."

As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence."
-- Steven Pinker

Recently, intellectual impresario John Brockman asked various scientists and pundits to answer the question: what are you optimistic about? Psychology professor Steven Pinker was among several who cited improvements in the cognitive abilities or moral performance of human beings. Pinker goes on to write,

as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags).

Another Harvard psychologist, Stephen M. Kosslyn, says,

I am optimistic that human intelligence can be increased, and can be increased dramatically in the near future.

...training involves having people perform tasks that are designed to exercise very specific abilities, which grow out of distinct neural networks. Just as a body builder can do curls to build up biceps and dips on parallel bars to build up triceps, we can design computer-game-like tasks that exercise specific parts of the brain—mental muscles, if you will.

Human Evolution and Economic Growth

Thirty years ago, I took a required graduate course on economic growth from the dapper, ascot-sporting Avinash Dixit. The course consisted entirely of mathematical descriptions of the accumulation of physical capital--meaning plant and equipment. Until very recently, all economists were Marxists in the sense that they tended to equate economic development with steel mills, railroads, and other tangible assets.

Over the past 25 years, attention has shifted away from tangible capital and toward ideas and institutions. Science and innovation create potential improvements in productivity, and countries with favorable institutions are able to incorporate new products and processes, raising their standard of living. (The transition to this idea-centric view of economic growth is the subject of David Warsh's book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations.)

But perhaps the focus on scientific ideas still misses a key component of economic growth: improvements in the human species. As we get wealthier, we also become enhanced physically, cognitively, and morally, leading to a virtuous cycle of improvements to the standard of living. As the economy improves, human cognitive ability and moral reasoning improves, which helps markets to work better and makes the process of innovation more productive, leading to greater wealth, more mental and moral development, and so on.

Evidence for Human Evolution

Our intuition tells us that the human race is static. We think of ourselves as being like our ancestors. The idea that our children and grandchildren will be qualitatively different from us strikes most people as repulsive, as reflected in the concerns about biotechnology expressed by many bioethicists (see Beyond Therapy, a report produced by the Presidential Commission on Bioethics).

In reality, the human race is changing. The physical improvements in humans have been emphasized by Robert Fogel in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death. He coined the term "technophysio evolution" to describe the phenomenon. He points out, for example, that people have become so much larger and active over the past three hundred years that today's human could not survive on the diet of our recent ancestors.

I would argue that the increases in human longevity, size, and health have been paralleled by increases in cognitive and moral reasoning. One of the most dramatic illustrations of the cognitive improvement is the Flynn Effect, which demonstrates that average IQ has been rising steadily in many countries for most of this century. Average IQ's in Britain may be more than two standard deviations higher than they were a hundred years ago, which says that the average citizen today would have been in the top 5 percent of intelligence early in the 20th century.

(The Flynn effect suggests that IQ is subject to long-term environmental influences. A recent study suggests that it also responds to short-term influences. In a news story, the study's author, Sally McGregor, is quoted as saying, "We have done play programs in Bangladesh where the children are severely malnourished and we have produced up to a nine-point improvement in the IQ of these kids -- just with play.")

Further support for the hypothesis that cognitive skills are improving is the increase in the average number of school years completed. More young people than ever are qualified to go to college--although I also feel that we have overdone it on higher education and are enrolling too many students who are not qualified.

The hypothesis that we have seen improvements in moral reasoning is more speculative. On the one hand, as Pinker points out, statisticians have documented a decline in the rate of violent death, in spite of the horrific wars of the last century. I would argue that we also see improved moral reasoning in the increased ability of people to trade with strangers, improvements in conditions of women, and--in some countries--more rights accorded to members of minority ethnic groups.

On the other hand, there is also plenty of evidence that is inconsistent with moral improvement. Examples that come to mind include vulgarity and violence portrayed in movies and video games. Clearly, the abuse of civilians by terrorists is not a sign of moral improvement.

Still, I suspect that if one could examine every human interaction and attach a measure of the moral reasoning involved in that interaction, the average moral "score" would be rising. To put it another way, I would conjecture that on average we see a higher proportion of interactions that follow the Golden Rule today than we did 20 years ago, which in turn is higher than the proportion 50 years ago, and so on.

I suggested several years ago that a prosperous society requires a work ethic, a public service ethic, and a learning ethic. If that view is correct, then the increase in prosperity since World War II, particularly recently in China and India, implies that these ethics have improved, also.

The Future Outlook

In the future, we are likely to see much more rapid change in human cognition and moral reasoning. We seem to be on the verge of operating directly on the human brain to a far greater extent than was true in the past. A number of technologies will be employed.

We are growing increasingly accustomed to using drugs to treat psychiatric illnesses and enhance mental performance. Depression and attention-deficit disorder are much more broadly diagnosed and treated today than was the case 30 years ago.

Scientists are working very hard on treatments for age-related mental illnesses, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. It seems likely that cures will emerge within the next decade.

The potential of neuromedicine is enormous. Imagine nursing homes being emptied, with their former patients instead living normal, productive lives. Think of what the elimination of severe mental illness and substance abuse would mean for poverty.

Bioengineers are learning to create neurological interfaces between computers and humans. The cochlear implant is perhaps the most advanced working example of this.

Brain-imaging technology is leading to advances in neuroscience. In a recent talk, neurotechnology expert Zack Lynch argued that we have learned more in the past five years about how the brain works than we learned in the previous fifty years.

Lynch suggested that performance-enhancing neurotechnology will be a competitive tool for individuals and businesses in this century. For example, a securities trader might be constantly brain-scanned, with trading inhibited when the brain scan identifies activity in the brain that is correlated with past bad decisions.

Genetic selection and genetic engineering also are on the horizon. Scientists are likely to discover ways to prevent or cure crippling mental or emotional diseases that would otherwise affect children. Once solutions are found, they are certain to be embraced and employed by parents.

Once obvious illnesses can be cured, the enhancement of "normal" soon follows. For example, research into ways to prevent age-related mental degeneration is bound to produce insights into how to enhance memory and reaction time for healthy individuals.

My guess is that the line between cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement will be blurry. As we treat mental disorders, we will be altering people's emotions and behavior patterns as well as their thought processes. It seems possible, indeed likely, that we will increase the ability of humans to interact with one another peacefully and constructively.

In the study of history, the importance of mankind's mental and moral development has often been overlooked. My guess is that the rate of mental and moral development will accelerate sharply over the next few decades, and the phenomenon will be more widely noticed and its significance better appreciated.


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