Simon Carr: You need to be clever to spot the Flynn Effect

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Are we really cleverer than we used to be? James Flynn, a professor of IQ at Otago University in New Zealand says we are. We're smarter than our parents but outwitted by our children. He has measured this trend and suggested that average IQs in Britain have gone up more than 27 points since the Second World War.

He may be right. Experience conforms to the theory – my own IQ has risen by very much more than 27 points since the Second World War, and my children outwitted me to the tune of £1,200 over Christmas.

Nonetheless, one resists the Flynn Effect. Our forebears could do so many things that our children can't. Chant the perfect interrogative negative of se depecher, for instance. Today, 12-year-olds have never heard of the perfect interrogative negative of se depecher let alone what the principal parts of subfero are. They don't even know what principal parts are.

Book keepers can no longer run their finger down a column of six-digit numbers adding them up in their head. People don't hear a poem once and remember most of it. In his day, Dickens wasn't a demanding school text, he was a popular almost proletarian success.

And compare the reading lists of Queen Victoria with our own dear queen's. The 19th-century monarch knew six languages and had read 200 classical texts by the time she was 16.

So, when we compare these things with our pedestrianised high streets on Saturday mornings it's ever-harder to believe Professor Flynn's theory.

On the other hand, the nine-year-olds text messaging each other ("Du u shg?") represent a phenomenon, an aptitude, a capacity that didn't exist in 1945.

You may say that knowing the perfect interrogative negative of se depecher has nothing to do with IQ. IQ tests measure aptitude not abilities. They're not supposed to measure knowledge but what you are can do with the knowledge you have.

But because training can increase IQ, the opposite must also be true. My bet is that people were mentally more retentive in the age before recording machines, redrafting machines, instant communication machines. They were more attentive and retentive. At school, the penalties for inattention were full of drama, and because redrafting was so laborious there were benefits in getting things right first time out, benefits that don't exist today.

Professor Flynn suggests the complexity of modern life is responsible for this rise in intelligence levels.

Now, this is persuasive. Life in Britain has become endlessly more complex. We change jobs, we change houses, we change towns and countries. To survive these changes we need to develop a flexible mindset, we need to be able to look at other people's view points, if only to sell ourselves in.

The Flynn Effect, then, may correspond to the recent urbanisation of Britain. Living in the country, even the unpredictable is predictable – there will be floods, lightning storms, broken fences and a horse will have to be pulled out of a bog, nearly drowning you in the process. Umbilical cords will wrap themselves around the necks of your new-born animals. Chainsaws will nearly cut you open. Your quad bike will roll down a hillside and break your ribs.

Country life offers a familiarity with life and death, a connection with the land, a contact with the night sky, a sense of community and a settled sense of who you are. You also learn how to deal with cuts, cords, calves, horses, bogs and floods.

All these qualities – which Karl Marx summed up as 'the idiocy of rural life' – aren't measured by IQ tests.

So Professor Flynn may indeed be right: now that children live in cities, with recorders, computers and mobile phones, they need to know so little they have to be smarter, just to keep up.