The following is transcribed from a recent interview of our editor, Marian L. Tupy, on the Mikhaila Peterson podcast. The full video interview can be found here.
Mikhaila Peterson: Welcome to the Mikhaila Peterson Podcast. This is episode 37 with Marian Tupy. Marian Tupy is co-author of this delightfully positive book, 10 Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know. He’s a senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and the lead editor at the incredibly popular HumanProgress.org. If you haven’t followed Human Progress on Twitter you should. It’s a positive account devoted to the accurate representation of global trends. For instance, global happiness is rising. It’s a very cool tabletop living room book. I would recommend it.
MP: Marian Tupy, welcome to my podcast.
Marian Tupy: Thank you very much for having me.
MP: I have been perusing through your book, 10 Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know and I love it. It was actually under my dad’s recommendation that I have you on the show. He’s been following and I’ve been following Human Progress on Twitter for a very long time. It’s a very positive Twitter account, unlike most Twitter accounts, so it’s kind of cool and now you have this book which is completely full of positive things happening in the world, which is something we desperately need right now, given the circumstances. So I’m looking forward to talking about some positive things hopefully.
MT: Thank you.
MP: Could we start or could you start just by giving a brief background about who you are and what it is that you do?
MT: Sure. I was born behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia and I grew up in South Africa. I was educated in Britain, I moved to the United States in 2002 where I started working at the Cato Institute, which is a libertarian think tank and I’ve been with the Cato Institute ever since that time and I really started working on economic development for the Cato Institute. I was working on transitioning of economies from communism to capitalism and also economic development in sub-Saharan Africa, because of great interest to me were the great differences in wealth between different countries, the big question that always fascinated me, partly because I grew up in a number of different cultures and I’ve seen poverty as well as great wealth. The big question that I was always interested in is why are some countries rich and why are some countries poor and that’s really what occupied me for the first decade at Cato.
And then in about 2011-2012, I started thinking about establishing this website, HumanProgress.org, which is really devoted to spreading, not so much a positive as a realistic message about the state of the world, because once you start really looking at these international statistics, you conclude that the world is in a much better place than most people appreciate. We are filled with these negativity biases which make us think that the world is in a much worse shape than it really is but once you look at the data you realize that a lot of things in the world are going well and the website has been running for about eight years and it’s gone through different permutations but ultimately, it’s been a success in a sense that anecdotal evidence suggests that people are reading it, people are following us and some people even feel better, both about the state of the world and about their own lives than they used to.
MP: Yeah. So the goal is to spread accurate information about what’s going on in the world.
MT: That’s correct.
MP: So why do you think what we hear is generally negative about what’s going on in the world?
MT: I think a lot of it has to do with human evolution. Our species, homo sapiens, has been around for about 300,000 years at the most but for most of that time life was actually incredibly difficult, incredibly dangerous and incredibly short, which meant that being a pessimist or rather expecting bad things to happen was actually a very good survival strategy. If you heard a noise and you overreacted to it by jumping away from a bush behind which you heard this noise…
If you overreacted and there was nothing there except for the wind, then you carried on doing your business but if there was a lion or a tiger hiding behind that bush making the noise and you under-reacted to the potential threat and you said, “Well, it’s probably nothing.” and you got eaten, then you got weeded out of the gene pool, which is to say that overreaction to threats, expectation of bad things to happen, we were selected for that and the optimists and people who under-reacted to threats were weeded out of the gene pool, so that’s just natural evolution.
But there are all sorts of negativity biases which have crept into our minds over the millennia of evolution, such as, for example, that bad is stronger than good. We fear losses much more than we appreciate gains. Good things and bad things happen on different timelines. It takes a long time to get rid the world of absolute poverty but it takes a very short time to plunge hundreds of millions of people into poverty as they may as a result of COVID pandemic.
Also, there is such a thing as availability heuristic, which is that our minds pull from the memory file with greater frequency the most traumatic events such as, for example, seeing airplane flying into a skyscraper in New York in 2001 but they don’t pull out of the memory file things like, for example, slipping on a wet bathroom floor and dying because we never see anybody slipping on a bathroom floor and dying. Whereas in fact, the data is clear, your likelihood of dying by slipping on a bathroom floor is much higher than actually dying from terrorism. So the human mind is on the look out for things to fear and that really prevents us from having a realistic picture of the world, a realistic sense of what the world and life is like.
MP: Okay, that makes sense. In your book you talk about 10 global trends every smart person should know, so what would you say the main misconceptions are that we could try and right during this conversation?
MT: Well, there are 78 different trends but the 10 most important ones are things like, for example, life expectancy. People under-appreciate just how recent the… How great life expectancy has been. You know in 1900, which is only 120 years ago, life expectancy in the richest places in the world, places like the United States and the United Kingdom, was only 50 years or just under 50 years. Today, global average is 72 years. So that gives you a sense of how much longer we are living, partly because fewer babies die in childbirth but also because our healthcare has gotten much, much better. Income, very few people understand that until very recently the world was very poor.
What we need to explain is not so much poverty because poverty was always with us. What we need to explain as scholars and researchers is why are we so wealthy today because until 1800, pretty much 90% of humanity lived on $2 dollars per person per day and today globally, people live on about $40 per person per day. That’s adjusted for inflation. So that’s another trend which is of interest.
MP: Is that $2 adjusted for inflation?
MT: Correct. So let me just repeat that. So $2 per person per day is the level that the World Bank, the IMF and just about anybody in the world, the United Nations, we estimate absolute poverty at $2 per person per day. If you make much less than $2 per person per day, you are probably starving to death, so that $2 per person per day is the minimum, that’s absolute poverty, that is really the boundary between surviving and seeing the next day and being on the edge, having a 50-50 chance that you are not going to survive to the next day and 90% of humanity lived like that until about 1800 and then obviously as a result of the Industrial Revolution, The West, Western Europe and North America took off and then later other countries have caught up and today the global average, which is to say that somebody living in maybe a place like Malaysia, today global average is $40 per person per day and that’s adjusted for inflation, yeah.
MP: That is impressive. Okay. Wow! I didn’t realize it was that bad. You said just before 1900?
MT: This was in about 1800s, that would be $2 per person per day. Yeah. I mean the big change really that happens in the world comes in the 19th century, the late 18th century, early 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution. It really changes life beyond all comprehension. Modernity and the level of abundance which we enjoy is really a question of the last 200 years. So if you think about our species as being on Earth for the last 300,000 years, modernity and abundance is really only 0.08% of our time on Earth so it’s very recent and perhaps one reason why so many people keep on complaining, are ungrateful and are constantly looking for flaws in the world that we’re living today is because modern life is such a recent thing. As I said, 0.08% of our time on Earth.
MP: Yeah, my great-grandma told me a story about how she could remember seeing a car the first time. She lived in Northern Canada but she described it as this giant monster coming through the forest ’cause they’d never seen a car before. So just… I guess all of this we experience now that is new…
MT: Grandparents have their uses. One of my grandmothers grew up during the Second World War and they didn’t have any food so she would insist that I eat everything because she constantly expected another war to come. She remembered starvation in Europe within her own lifetime. My other grandmother insisted that I learn how to sew because it was inconceivable for her to throw away socks if they had a hole in them. Our grandmothers just simply fixed those things, they wouldn’t think about throwing away clothes just because it had holes in it.
MP: Yeah and I suppose in, especially in certain parts of Europe, that kind of life is more recent than say North America, although it’s not that much more recent but it’s fairly recent, especially if you were behind the wall, right?
MT: Well, thankfully in North America we didn’t have the sort of slaughter that Europe has gone through during the 20th century.
MP: Yeah. Okay. One of the things we hear about all the time about how the world is doomed is climate change. What’s your opinion on climate change? I know there was a bit in your book about forests, which I was very surprised about, so I thought you could talk a little bit about that.
MT: Sure. Let’s start with the trends that we have identified, which we call the greening of the planet. CO2 is plant food, anybody who’s gone to a high school and has learned about plants and CO2 and how plants survive and how they grow understands that that CO2 is plant food and so more CO2 in the atmosphere also means that vegetation is growing, there is vegetation, it is more luscious, we have more greening of the planet, more trees and so forth. So between 1982 and 2016, the planet has greened, added greenery, the size of Alaska and Montana combined. So that’s a cool trend, it means that the worries that we had in the 1980s, for example, I remember there were worries that Sahara was going to continue to grow until it was going to consume the entire African continent, so that obviously hasn’t happened.
And that brings me to the second part of your question, which was climate change. Before I talk about climate change I just want to mention that climate change is not the first global concern that humanity has had. I remember things like concern over the ozone layer, concern over acidic rain or acid rain. I remember concerns about desertification, concern about running out of water, or running out of oil. Concerns over things like sex-change fish and sperm counts falling and God knows what else and one by one they have all gone away. Some of it happened because those were not worries in the first place, the things just weren’t happening that people thought were happening but other things have happened because humanity has come up with solutions to problems and I think that when it comes to climate change, what used to be called until yesterday “global warming”, we are going to hopefully… We are going to come up with solutions to it. This is a large subject but I do want to say a few things on that.
I think that the debate has moved on dramatically from say, 10 years ago. Very few people now doubt that some form of global warming is happening, that the world is warming a little bit. Most people accept that climate change is happening, in fact, climate has been changing since the planet was born and will continue to go changing until the sun explodes and fries all of us. So climate change is happening and there are two ways in which humanity is proposing to address climate change. On the one hand are people who are saying that we should limit population growth and we should limit consumption of resources, which is to say that prosperity and economic growth and more people who can afford things and use things and consume things is bad because it will destroy the planet. So these are what I would call “restrictionists”, they want to restrict global growth, they want to restrict global consumption in hope that as a result of that decrease in consumption you are going to have less climate change and in fact, you could see on CNN and the BBC and many other places people basically saying that, “Look what COVID has resulted in, COVID has resulted in dramatic declines in CO2 emissions, it has… This is the way to go.”
I don’t think this is the way to go. I think that much of humanity is at a the breaking point as a result of the lockdowns and I don’t think that many people, except for Greta Thunberg, think that human future should consist of being locked up in your apartment for six months of the year, not being able to travel, visit your family and so on and so forth. So what I’m a part of is that second half of humans who believes that climate change should be addressed through technological change and adaptation. Let’s take adaptation first.
One-third of Holland is under water, meaning lies under water or on under the water level, which is to say that for the last 500 years the Dutch have been drying the Atlantic and carving out of the Atlantic of the North Sea more and more territory to expand the Netherlands and they have done so when they were extraordinarily poor by today’s standards. There’s absolutely no reason why rich countries today cannot cope with rising sea levels, which will happen in incremental bits of the next number of decades. There is no reason why they couldn’t do what the Dutch have done for of 500 years ago so that’s adaptation and then comes a technological change and here I would say that it would be beneficial probably on balance if we switched to non-CO2 fuels.
The most important one of which we have known about for 75 years and that’s nuclear, which produces plenty of energy without spewing any CO2 into the atmosphere and which can power the entire humanity and that should be our next step, or rather the immediate step, more nuclear power and in the medium to long-term future, maybe we can really find a fusion reactor. So currently nuclear power is fission. It breaks up atoms but if we can create nuclear fusion which combines atoms, it will be even safer and that could be an answer to producing energy without CO2.
MP: We need to get a nuclear physicist or someone who does nuclear energy on the podcast ’cause I had Bjorn Lomborg on a couple of months ago and he talked about nuclear power a little bit and how that was the way to go. He also mentioned that if the water rises, people probably won’t be standing at the edge slowly drowning while that happens…
MT: Well, there’s just one more thing I want to say about nuclear and that is that I do realize, of course, that nuclear is not 100% safe. Nothing in life is 100% safe but if you compare how many people around the world die due to indoor smoke when they don’t have electricity but they have to burn coal and dung in Africa, for example, in order to cook their food and they get lung cancer, or what have you and they die. Millions of people die because they don’t have access to plentiful energy every year and just because the communists were so completely inept and produced the disaster in Chernobyl doesn’t mean that every single nuclear power station out there is as badly built and poorly run as Chernobyl was. So we keep on improving our technology all the time and nuclear really is, in my view, the answer to our immediate problems.
MP: With the more recent disaster in Japan, they found out there were a bunch of mistakes made there too, right?
MT: That’s correct. First thing to remember about Fukushima, that to my knowledge, nobody has died from radiation in Fukushima. I think the fatality is still zero. So that’s something to remember, that even though it was a massive disaster, it did not result in the kind of Chernobyl-style irradiation and that Belorussia and Ukraine had experienced in 1980s and the 1990s. Second thing is, yes, there were design flaws. If memory serves so right, the power system to power the coolant was actually not secure. I think the fuel for the auxiliary power, which would have powered… Which would have enabled water to cool down these reactors was actually not properly secure and was then wiped out during the tsunami but of course, one silver lining of the Fukushima disaster is that now we know that in future designs of nuclear reactors we have to make sure that the power source for the water coolant has to be secure. In many ways, of course, humanity improves its technical ability, it’s technical understanding, precisely because it encounters problems.
It is because what happened with COVID that we have discovered all the different ways in which western societies are not prepared for pandemics, all the different ways in which science and research were lagging behind and when the next pandemic happens 20, 30, 100 years from now, the lessons that we will learn through COVID will be applied to those things. It’s very difficult to think about anything in human life, any learning experience, which doesn’t come from adversity, which doesn’t come from some sort of a disaster. It’s usually some sort of a challenge, a disaster, a catastrophe from which people learn, otherwise, they wouldn’t really have an incentive to learn very much, would they?
MP: No, not at all. Maybe that’s why people who haven’t been through anything tough are somewhat annoying to be around.
MT: That’s very true.
MP: Okay, how about this over-population thing you hear about all the time, that we’re going to breed so much that we won’t have any food and we’ll over-populate the planet, destroy it that way. How much of that is true?
MT: Boy, that’s another very big subject. The first thing to remember is that total fertility rates are collapsing around the world. In order to keep population stable, an average woman in the world has to have 2.1 babies per lifetime. So 2.1 is the replacement scenario. In…
MP: Why isn’t it just two?
MT: Oh, because you assume that some babies will die before they reach adulthood or old age. Some will die in childhood then due to accidents and so forth. So 2.1 is the replacement and those are collapsing in most of the world except in Africa. So in places like the Czech Republic, or Slovakia, where I’m from, total fertility rate per woman is something like 1.4, 1.3. So Japan is below replacement level. Most countries without immigration are below replacement level in the developed world, which means that all the best research, including a recent study in Lancet that you will be familiar with, found that there will be a leveling off of population in about 2060, 2070 and then population will decline. So by 2100, in 80 years time, there will either be nine… Sorry. Right now, there are 7.8 billion people in the world. Today, there are 7.8 billion people in the world. By 2100, that is either going to be 8.8 or 6.8 billion people. So either we are going to have a slightly more or slightly less people in the world than today but there’s going to be that curve, we are going to peak at about 10 billion and then it’s going to decline to either nine billion or seven billion depending on…
It’s very difficult to prognosticate 80 years hence but there is no reason to suspect that total fertility rates for women around the world are going to skyrocket in the future, because what we observe is that as women get educated and as they enter the workplace, they have fewer and fewer babies and of course, the whole world is improving economically and more and more women are entering into the world of workplace, even in developing countries as a result of which their opportunity costs are rising, so that’s just a very fancy economics phrase for saying that if a woman stays at home, taking care of the children, her opportunity cost is… If the woman forgoes employment and making money, because she can, because she has job opportunities, her opportunity cost of staying at home increases.
In other words, when women are given a chance of going to employment and making money, they prefer it over staying at home, taking care of children. Now, of course, as your father would know when pointed out a number of times and I agree with that completely. If women do decide to stay at home and take care of children, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, all I’m saying is that there seems to be a general trend that as countries become richer and women get education, they start having fewer babies and they… Many of them go to work.
So the first thing to point out about population growth is that it’s not going to continue to extend indefinitely, there is going to be a peak in about 2060, 70 and then it’s going to decline. Secondly, it’s not necessarily clear that having fewer people around is a good thing and that’s because people are the only generators of ideas, which is to say that if you believe like I do, that ideas is what drives technological progress forward, then you want to have more people having those ideas. It is much easier to imagine a genius emerging from population of 10 billion people who will know how to cure cancer than from a population of 100 people. Simply the mathematics of it means that the larger population you have, the more likely you have the geniuses at the top end of the intellectual achievement who will be able to produce solutions to fusion and fission and the cancer and God knows what else. So having fewer people is not necessarily a good thing and I’m not particularly concerned about population, even though the trends are very clear.
And the final thing, let me talk about food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, on average people should consume about 2000 calories per person per day. Now, obviously there are huge differences between very active males say, I don’t know, somebody who is working in construction and an elderly woman in a retirement home who needs many fewer than 2000 calories but on average, you want your country to have access to at least 2000 calories per person per day. Today in Sub-Saharan Africa, supply of calories per person per day is almost 2500. So that means that famines have basically disappeared from the world outside of war zones or where countries are really badly managed, like Zimbabwe for example or where you have wars like Yemen but in normally run countries right now, as a general rule, there are more calories available than are strictly speaking necessary and that includes the world’s poorest continent, which is Africa.
MP: Wow, that’s great. So as long as it’s spread out properly and not hoarded by some, a dictator or something like that, then things are going pretty well.
MT: Yes and there can always be localized food shortages, maybe you have a village which has been struck by, I don’t know, a tornado or something like that, or a town but here again, thank God, we live in today’s world, in modernity, because those people can use their cell phones to call people for help and we can deliver help including food to any part of the world via fast and reliable transport systems, which wasn’t really available to people even as early as a 100 years ago.
MP: Yeah. So you’ve written this book about… And I would say it’s realistic but it is positive, about the positive changes in the world. What are the things we should actually be concerned about?
MT: Well, one of my big ones is actually the freedom of speech. One of the trends that we have in the book is called “freedom of the press.” And freedom of the press, freedom of speech, they’re in the same family of concerns and interestingly enough, freedom of the press in the world is lower than what it was… Was lower in two thousand and teens than it was in two thousand and aughts. Now, the reason why we included that trend in the book is because freedom of the press today is much higher than it was in the ’70s and the ’80s but the trend is… The trend was like this and now it’s the freedom of the press is decreasing, okay? So it has increased tremendously from the ’70s but now it’s on the decrease again and that’s something… So freedom of the press and freedom of speech is something that concerns me for a number of reasons. One is that if you don’t have freedom of the press and freedom of speech, it is very difficult to figure out when a society is going in the wrong direction. So the only way that you can know whether your society is doing something right is if people are allowed to criticize, if they are allowed to speak but if there is no criticism, if you are not allowed to criticize the orthodoxy, then of course, you cannot reverse your course and you are hurtling toward a precipice.
The second thing is that freedom of speech and freedom of press are absolutely necessary for technological, scientific and medical progress. If you’re not going to be able to come up with ideas, put those ideas down on paper, share those ideas, research those ideas, then you cannot have much progress and today, people may feel that freedom of speech is only disappearing from certain deeply political areas but that’s not true. Freedom of speech is also disappearing from a branch of sciences like Biology, like genetics and so on and so forth.
MP: What’s happening with genetics?
MT: Well, research on genetic differences between individuals, between groups of people is actually being consigned to the… Or rather is being frowned upon and is being restricted, because humanity does have a long and unfortunate history with racism. Unfortunately, genetics is also very important in identifying, for example, different receptors for drugs, which may be necessary in order to cure people. So we know that different groups of people have different prevalences of different diseases. There are certain diseases which are much more prevalent amongst the Jewish community. There are certain diseases which befall South Asians much more than they befall other people. Obesity is a much greater problem amongst Pacific Islanders than in other parts of the world and so we want to actually know about genetic differences between people, so that we can… In large part, so that we can tailor our medical research towards helping them. Not all drugs are going to be working in the same way for different people and that’s something that we really don’t want to get away from. That’s really not something that we want to lose just because research into genes and genetic differences is something which is right now politically incorrect and very politically sensitive.
MP: Okay, I didn’t… I haven’t thought about that a lot so that is concerning. Would you know whether or not in say the USSR, where there was… Political fragments was definitely there but they also had quite a bit of innovation. Did they ever limit scientific work based on kind of what we’re seeing here, now?
MT: Oh, certainly. During the Stalin era, which was a very long time between 1927 and 1953, when the world’s greatest mass murderer eventually died, the Soviets banned research into genetics. So instead of relying on genes as we understand them, they had their own pseudo-science of a man called Lysenko. Lysenko believed that genes were not necessarily passed down through generations but that you could affect performance of people but also crops through environmental changes.
And whilst it is true that the Soviet Union has accomplished some very big successes, especially military technology and with German help of missile technology, it is not true that the Soviet Union was anywhere close to the American or Western European production of technological progress. In fact, one of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed is precisely because it wasn’t technologically advanced, it was very clear to the soviet rulers by the 1970s and the 1980s that they were falling very deeply behind the West when it comes to technological advances and technological breakthrough and that was partly because they didn’t have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association but it was also partly because the incentives were misaligned, you couldn’t tap private capital in order to build a SpaceX or Microsoft or whatever it had to go through centrally planned allocation of capital and for a variety of reasons, the Soviet Union was actually not very good at producing technological research except for weaponry.
MP: Okay, okay, that makes sense if you’re not allowed to build things privately. I mean, how else would you.
MT: Well, the Soviet Union had the largest number of doctors per 1000 people and yet its life expectancy was over 10 years lower than in the United States, even though they had many more doctors. They had many more engineers than the United States and yet they weren’t able to build roads and railways to the same level of efficiency and speed and reliability as people in the West. They didn’t have any stockbrokers and yet, maybe that is what they should have had instead of all those numbers of engineers and doctors and so forth. They didn’t have any way to evaluate the price mechanism. They didn’t have any way to deal with the price system and they didn’t have capitals and they didn’t have free market. That’s why they collapsed.
MP: So you mentioned that the freedom of the press right now is similar to what it was here in the ’70s or ’80s that’s what you said right?
MT: No, no, no, no. What I meant to say was that freedom of the press today is lower than what it was in the 2000s meaning from 2000-2010, it’s lower but it is higher than it was in the ’70s and the ’80s, so we have seen an increase in freedom of the press from 1970 to about 2010 and now we are starting to see a decline but because the decline is not as big as where it was in the ’70s, we still included the trend, that’s what it meant.
MP: Do you think that decline is going to continue?
MT: Well, I suppose that very much depends on all of us and what do we do. I mean your father obviously was a great hero to many people for standing up against speech codes and I think that more and more people are fed up with political correctness. I think that we have probably seen peak political correctness around 2015-16 and now… Or at least that’s when we saw the greatest flourishing of it. I don’t know whether we have less political correctness today.
MP: Oh I don’t think so.
MT: I beg your pardon.
MP: I don’t think so. I think it’s the wayward.
MT: You think it’s gotten worse? Yeah, that may well be true but certainly, it’s not very helpful that some of the world’s greatest platforms for sharing of news and are now engaged in censorship. I suspect that what will happen is that alternatives to Twitter, Google and Facebook will emerge and that the monopoly power of these media platforms will actually decline. I remember in the early 2000s when Microsoft was being… Had to face a lawsuit because of its supposed monopoly position in the market and by the time the lawsuit came to an end, Microsoft had so many different competitors that the issue became moot and it is very difficult to imagine within a free market system that a monopoly position of Twitter and Facebook and Google will persist forever, so I’m hoping that there will be a technological solution to the monopoly power of these companies and I’m also hoping that more and more people will simply refuse to stay silent and will start speaking out. I mean your father obviously has inspired a lot of people to speak out and I hope that that continues but I can’t be sure.
MP: He’ll be back. He’ll come back hopefully, inspire some more people. Maybe that’ll help. I’m hoping it will help. Okay, back to more positive stuff. I told people this is gonna be positive and then I found out that I had a good chance of dying by slipping on my bathroom floor so how about IQ? You talk about IQ in your book and I think my dad had told me about this and I’d forgotten but I think it would be interesting to talk about. Or the trends in IQ.
MT: Trend number 21. There we go.
MT: By the way, the book is designed in this way for a reason. Is that on one side you have the charts which are very prettily designed and on the other side, you’ve got a little bit of text. 300 to 500 words describing and what is happening in that chart and so it’s supposed to be… That no matter where you open it, you’re going to learn something about one trend and in this particular case of what it shows that from 1909 to 2013, which is to say over a course of about 100 years, cumulatively, we have added about 30 IQ points.
MP: That’s a crazy amount. Two standard deviations.
MT: So that’s obviously a massive, massive improvement and some people call this the Flynn effect. In recent years, we have seen that the Flynn effect stopped happening in some advanced western European countries, in other words, they reached a certain level; they kept on adding to their IQ scores and then it leveled up but in other places in the world, IQs continued to increase now, the big question, obviously there is whether there is some sort of a hard limit on the average IQ and whether all countries as they improve their health and nutrition will eventually reach that plateau that Western European countries have reached and then it will level or whether it’s simply a pause or bad measurement and IQs continue to increase in Western Europe, as they have up to this point.
One of the things to remember about the increase in IQ points, which is to say 30 points between 1909 and 2013, is that it is global average so that doesn’t mean that in all countries around the world IQs have risen by 30 points, especially in countries where people already scored very high, that score would have in part reflected the fact that those people had very good nutrition, a very good education, access to all sorts of opportunities that people in other parts of the world didn’t.
However, as previously a backward parts of the world, as under-developed countries, as very poor countries got better health and better education and better nutrition, they were able to then increase their IQ scores again on average to a level where they would have been if their nutrition, education and healthcare were better. So once again, when it comes to a discussion of intelligence and IQ points, it’s incredibly important to emphasize that we are not talking about… That we are talking about averages and in this particular trend, what we are talking about is a global average, where the increase in IQ points would have been disproportionately affected by countries that have gained some level of better life in the last 50, 60, 70 years.
MP: Okay. That completely makes sense. So places where people were starving I’d say, probably couldn’t afford to give as much nutrition to their brain as places that weren’t starving. That makes sense.
MP: Do you think, given the amount of opportunity now, it’s easier for people who are lucky enough to be hired to have a higher IQ? Do you think it’s easier for them to kind of show that they have a higher IQ or to produce more or to accomplish more than it was say 100 years ago.
MT: Yes. I think so because 100 years ago, if you were an intelligent child in say, Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, your chances of discovering something interesting, something worthwhile, your ability to improve your life and those of your fellow human beings was very limited by basic lack of opportunities. So 100 years ago, vast chunks of humanity, pretty much all of Africa, most of Latin America, pretty much all of Asia, people there didn’t have any opportunity so even children which would have been born with higher than average intelligence wouldn’t be able to do much with it.
Whereas today, if you have higher than average intelligence, there are all sorts of things which are open to you. You can work remotely, even in Africa, even in Asia, you can work remotely, you can apply yourself. You have access to the entirety of human knowledge on the internet, so that’s another bonus and of course, if you can show that you have above average intelligence, then you’re going to probably be hired by somebody in the United States or in China and you’re going to be a… You’re going to be an immigrant where you can apply your intelligence in a place which is more appreciative than your native land.
MP: Yeah, that’s something I think people really forget; how much opportunity there is, even just with the internet. You can learn almost… Not anything but you can learn more than you could possibly want to in a lifetime in any type of means just from going online and a lot of it is free, which is incredible compared to everything else humanity has experienced since we’ve been around and that kind of opportunity is insane.
MT: That’s right. We should be grateful for that.
MP: Yeah. It’s helped me a lot with autoimmune issues. I was able to go online and read free research papers, like thousands of them, So yeah, thank goodness for that. Even though the Internet has some downsides, the amount of information on there, it’s amazing. Okay, I had a couple of other ones I wanted to cover. Let me think. Okay, so this was a question actually. You mentioned it earlier, you said the lifespan of people who used to be 50, what year was that in?
MT: For the richest people in the world, it was 50 in 1900.
MP: Is the reason it was so much lower because there was so much infant mortality?
MT: To a lesser extent, then it used to be the case. So remember that throughout the history of our species, let’s say, the last… Well, let’s take it back to the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago. As far as we can tell, human life expectancy until 1800 was about 25 to 30 years but then…
MP: How do we know that? Just out of curiosity.
MT: Well, skeletons, we can date skeletons, for example and that was partly driven by… That was, in large part, driven by huge child mortality and infant mortality. It doesn’t mean… Average life expectancy doesn’t mean that once you reach 25 or 30, you’re just gonna drop dead. It just means that once you account for all the dead babies, life expectancy of people who were born alive, it was about 25 to 30 years but once you live to about five and longer, your likelihood of living to 50 or 60 improve dramatically. So let’s say, for the last 12,000 years, most of the low life expectancy was driven by a high infant mortality but by 1900, in Europe and in North America, which are the richest parts of the world, which were the richest parts of the world back then and still are, the life expectancy of 50 was not primarily impacted by the number of infants who died. Still a much higher number of infants died than is the case today but life expectancy was limited by a very primitive state of human healthcare, a very inferior understanding of science, pathogens and things like that.
Let me give you one example. Calvin Coolidge’s son, Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States and in my view, the greatest president of the United States between 1920 and 1928 and in 1927 or 26, he was playing tennis on the tennis court at the White House and he was playing bare-footed and he developed a blister, which got infected and an infection set in which killed the boy within days. Two years later, Fleming discovered antibiotics but here is the case of the president’s son who dies from an infected blister only 100 years ago.
MT: So in the early 1900s, what really kept human population at… Sorry, the richest people from living much longer than 50 on average was really the fact that medicine was still incredibly primitive and science was still very inferior. Again, as I said, we didn’t get antibiotics until Fleming’s discovery in 1928, so that’s something.
MP: Yeah, yeah, of course and there is… I talk a lot about the problems of having too much antibiotics and how that can be a problem but the fact that they’re around now and weren’t… Yeah, it means you can survive when you have an infected blister.
MP: Wow! What a way to go. That must have not have been fun too. That’s rough.
MT: Absolutely horrific and human history is replete with tremendous amount of heartbreaks. Women seeing their children die left and right. It was not a pleasant life. Part of the reason why I suspect that people were much more religious in the past was precisely because they had to deal with the pain and were expecting to be rejoined with their little ones in the afterlife.
MP: My God! This is way less positive. Well, at least, that’s not around as much. Yeah, I can’t imagine me going through something like… I have a kid, going through a pregnancy, breastfeeding and then having something like that to your kids.
MT: Well, in 1750, the second half of the 18th century, infant mortality in Sweden was 50%. So that gives you a sense of where we were.
MP: Oh brutal and that was bacterial and viral. Yeah, right?
MT: All sorts of things. Of course, women died in childbirth much more frequently than they do now, for a variety of things. Have you seen… What was that series, that British series? Downton Abbey, the daughter of the Earl, dies from preeclampsia. Is it preeclampsia?
MT: Yeah. Of course, they had no idea what was happening around them. Again, how lucky we are, even in the middle of the COVID pandemic that within days of discovering this “pneumonia” in China, we were able to break down the genetic code of this virus and then name it and send samples all over the world. Until 200 years ago, people had no idea what they were dying of. They didn’t even have a name.
MP: Yeah, who was it? You actually might know this, there was some doctor who was… Who was wondering why there was such a high infection rate after pregnancy and he realized he hadn’t been washing… He was, I think he was a guy who came up with germ theory. I think but I could be wrong and he noticed he wasn’t washing his hands when he went in between patients and he was spreading infections.
MT: Yes, you’ve got it right. His name was Semmelweis, I think and he was a Hungarian and…
MP: Yeah, yeah, did he end up in an asylum?
MT: He did, partly because the world wouldn’t accept his discovery and he got tremendously discouraged by that, even though… So basically, what happened was that people generally were much filthier in the past and washing of hands was not the top of their priority, partly because they had no idea that germs, pathogens were spread through these tiny little invisible monsters, which live at the end of your fingertips.
MP: It is hard to believe, if you didn’t know it’s there.
MT: Yeah, well, precisely. Not only didn’t people didn’t have antiseptics and people didn’t have bacteria killing soap, people just didn’t wash their hands in the first place, which means that if you went to the toilet or if you worked your entire day in the fields with manure, you went home and you ate with those same hands, food, which then gave you gastrointestinal problems like you cannot possibly imagine. Well, anyway, there was another reason why doctors specifically didn’t wash their hands and their clothes and that was that the gorier and bloodier your clothes were, the more you are advertising to the world that you were a doctor in demand.
MT: So only a doctor was covered in blood and gore, was a really good doctor. So anyway, in this hospital that Semmelweis was at, Doctors would perform autopsies and then they would go deliver babies or check out women’s private parts and they would deliver all sorts of horrible things to the woman’s body, infecting the woman’s body and so on and so forth and Semmelweis realized that this didn’t have to be so and so he was a precursor to the Germ Theory which was then proved by Pasteur later, like 20 years later.
MP: Yeah, okay, I don’t know where I read that online but interesting. Okay, we’re out of time. Can you tell… That was really fun. Thank you very much for coming on. Can you let everyone know where they can find you?
MT: Well, I’m a senior fellow at The Cato Institute, which is a libertarian, non-partisan think-tank, non-profit think-tank in Washington, DC and I run a website called HumanProgress.org. We are an autonomous part of the Cato Institute and HumanProgress.org. You can see us online. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and goodness knows what else. So please do that and if you get a chance, do buy this book that we have just bought. I don’t just say it out of pecuniary reasons but if you want to spread a little bit of optimism, a little bit of joy and put an end to this miserable year in a more optimistic style, then get yourself a book, show it to your friends or just let it lie on the living room table and when people open it, your guests open it, it may spark an interesting conversation. So let’s hope for that.
MP: Hopefully. Well, I agree. It’s a very good coffee table book, specifically, because like you said, you can just open it and it gives you a story on one page, a graph and a little whatever statistic you’re looking at. So it’s a great coffee table book. It’s probably my favorite coffee table book.
MT: That’s very kind of you, thank you.
MP: Oh no, I know it is. It’s really cool. So thank you very much for coming on and I will talk to you later.
MT: Thank you very much.