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Three ways your environment affects your intelligence
You can be born with good genes and study hard and still not meet your potential. Your environment has a lot to do with how smart you are.
- Euthenics refers to the practice of improving humanity's environment in order to maximize its potential.
- Throughout history, we've tweaked our surroundings in such a way as to directly enhance our intelligence.
- These examples underscore the importance of environmental regulation and policies; otherwise, we might just be throwing away our potential.
Every few years, researchers administer IQ tests to a sample of test subjects, take the median score, and declare that to be the new "100," the score that means you're of perfectly average intelligence. This begs the question: Why do they need to update the average score? Simply put, we've been getting smarter. Every time the test is re-administered, the median score has almost always gone up. In fact, if we were to administer today's IQ tests to people from 100 years ago, they'd score somewhere around a 70; researchers estimate that our IQ scores jump about 3 points every decade. This is called the Flynn effect, named after the researcher who discovered it.
There are several proposed reasons for the Flynn effect. It could be that more people are attending school than they were before or that we do a better job of teaching students the skills directly related to IQ tests. These may be true, but there is one domain that has unquestionably increased our smarts: euthenics.
Where eugenics deals with improving humanity by selectively breeding allegedly "superior" groups of people — an idea that would ultimately sow considerable discord and decidedly not improve humanity's condition — euthenics focuses on improving humanity by improving our environment. Here are three examples of how tweaking our environment can make us smarter.
The US Government tinkers with salt
In the early 20th century, people living in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions were particularly susceptible to acquiring goiters, which are swollen lumps in the neck associated with a dysfunctional thyroid gland. David Murray Cowie, a professor of pediatrics, knew that this was due to iodine deficiency, a critical micronutrient that the thyroid needs in order for it to function properly. Cowie also knew that the Swiss incorporated sodium iodide in table salt to prevent this condition, so he persuaded the US government to implement the practice as well.
In the fall of 1924, the Morton Salt Company began distributing iodized salt at a national level. As expected, the number of goiters dropped precipitously.
Nearly 100 years later, researchers discovered that introducing iodized salt had some significant ancillary benefits as well. In iodine-deficient regions, IQ scores jumped by 15 points, and they increased by 3 points nationally. What's more, incomes in those iodine-deficient regions grew by 11 percent. How did this happen?
Iodine is easiest to gain from seafood and seaweeds, but it can also be gained from plants and animals so long as those plants and animals were raised on soil rich in iodine. In the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions, floods and ancient glaciers had scrubbed all the iodine from the soil. This made goiters more common, but it also had a major impact on pregnant women. If a pregnant woman has an iodine deficiency (and therefore a dysfunctional thyroid gland), their child will be mentally impaired. A huge chunk of the US population had grown up with iodine-deficient mothers, negatively impacting their potential.
Making gasoline even more toxic
Photo: David Brodbeck via Flickr
In 1922, GM discovered that a chemical called tetraethyl lead worked fantastically as an anti-knock compound in automobiles — essentially, it prevented the early combustion of fuel. Ethanol would have worked just as well, but this substance could not be patented despite being considerably less toxic than lead. So, GM worked with oil companies to introduce lead into gasoline rather than the safer but less profitable ethanol. GM, Du Pont, and the general public were all aware that tetraethyl lead was poisonous. Rather than refer to this additive by its true name, they called it "ethyl."
Unfortunately, leaded gasoline remained a fact of life far after the public became aware of it. It was only in the mid-1970s with the passage of the Clean Air Act that its use was banned. And once we scrubbed the lead out of our gasoline, the terrible impact of this decades-long poisoning became clear.
The generation born after the Clean Air Act gained 6 points in their IQ scores. What's more, researchers argue that kids who grew up during the period between lead's introduction to gasoline in the 1920s and its elimination in the 1970s drove up to 90 percent of the variation in violent crime. Crime in cities like Los Angeles and New York reached dizzying heights in the '80s and '90s and then dropped continuously as the last leaded generation died, became incarcerated, or escaped their criminal lifestyle. Politicians were eager to attribute this to police practices, such as the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement, but some researchers assert that it had more to do with the smarter, healthier, and better-adjusted crop of citizens who grew up in a lead-free environment.
The link between smog and brain fog
While the previous items on this list discussed things that we have done, humanity still has a long way to go before pollution is significantly reduced. Every year, the State of Global Air project releases a report [PDF] assessing the severity of air pollution around the world. The most recent report found that 92 percent of the world's population is living in an area that exceeds healthy guidelines for small, particulate air pollution as set out by the World Health Organization. Not only is this bad for local ecosystems, climate change, and the human body, air pollution has been linked to major decrements in intelligence.
One study, for instance, analyzed a dataset of nearly 32,000 observations of standardized test scores and the daily air pollution index throughout China. The researchers found that the longer a study participant was exposed to high levels of pollution, the more their intelligence dropped. In particular, linguistic ability was affected the most, and men were more affected than women. Overall, the average effect of pollution reduced the study participants' intelligence to a similar degree as missing a year of school, roughly the equivalent of 5 IQ points.
Small particles from air pollution enter the body through the lungs, and from there, they travel throughout the body, including to the brain. The researchers from this study speculated that these particles were likely inflaming the brain and thereby damaging its white matter at an accelerated rate.
We like to think that our intellect is a resource we're born with, one that we can exercise or let go to waste. This isn't exactly true. Intelligence is a dynamic phenomenon that depends on the quality of our environment to a considerable degree. That's why smart regulations and policies are important. Without them, we might not get smart enough to implement them in the first place.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.