Are people better today than in the past? The answer to that question, more often than not, says things about the person answering than anything else. The cosmopolitan globalists and their attendants will argue people are better today, overall. The cynical critics of the current arrangements will go the other way, pointing out that people are dumber. In other words, the answer usually has to do with your view of the neoliberal order, rather than any factual considerations. The winners are happy while the losers are unhappy.
There are practical ways to think of the question. Steve Pinker looked at interpersonal violence over the ages, using it as a proxy for human progress. His assumption is that coming to a violent end is bad. Therefore, if fewer people are coming a violent end, it means there are fewer violent people in society. His analysis shows that violence within western societies has been in steady decline. He also points out the decline in the celebration of violence in society. The conclusion is we are getting better.
The trouble with that sort of analysis is it starts with a subjective definition of better, when nature may have other ideas. The point of life for all creatures, including humans, is to reproduce. As the saying goes, life is built for speed. Get to sexual maturity as quickly as possible, reproduce and after that it is all gravy. It’s why humans evolved some brutal responses to diseases that strike the young. Malaria is the obvious example. The risk of an ugly death in adulthood is worth the risk in order to reach sexual maturity.
Therefore, fertility rates are a pretty good proxy for measuring the health of a species, which is why biologists use them all the time. If a type of finch stops laying eggs, biologists will assume something bad is happening to the species. Whites, the engine of human material progress, have seen their fertility rates collapse. The fertility rate for Africans is rocket high. A biologist would look at those realities and conclude that the former is in trouble, while the latter is flourishing. Better may not be better after all.
Another way of looking at the question is from the perspective of the emerging data from ancient DNA. Until recent, what we knew about the intelligence of people in the past was speculative. Aristotle was obviously a brilliant person, but how smart were the guys growing olives? Were they smarter than the people working at one of Amazons distribution centers? The SAT scores for Athenian farmers have been lost, so we have no way to compare their scores to those of their analogs in our society.
The assumption has been the modern people must smarter, as we live in technologically advanced societies. The data coming in from genetics says the opposite is most likely true and there is a very good chance the data from ancient DNA will confirm it. As Cochran says, we have known for a while that people are getting dumber, but no one has been able to point to hard evidence of it. Now there is hard evidence for a relatively recent decline in European IQ. We’ll soon know where moderns stand on the IQ scale.
Of course, this all leads to the question of what defines “better” when it comes to human capital. Those Africans breeding like bunnies are a bit smarter than previous Africans due to better nutrition and medicine. They are still a full standard deviation dumber than Europeans and Asians. From the perspective of biology, their fertility rates suggest they are more fit than their childless counterparts to the north. Maybe nature is telling us something about what really matters in the game of natural selection.
On the other hand, maybe the selection pressures in the post-scarcity world are different in ways not yet understood. If the correlation between education and low-fertility is what we’re told, it would have showed up a long time ago. It used to be smart people got rich and they had a bunch of kids. Now, rich people claim to be smart and they avoid having children at all. Perhaps in a highly automated, post-scarcity world, general intelligence is not much of an asset at either end of the social structure.
Interestingly, if this is even somewhat true, it supports the observation that cognitive abilities did not evolve equally around the globe. This would explain the differences in measured intelligence. In a place with lots of naturally available food, but lots of predators, being smart is not as big an edge as being quick. In a world of high-scarcity, low time preference and the ability to plan ahead are important. The post-scarcity, technological society is a grand experiment demonstrating this in real time.
That brings us back to the initial question. Is the human capital of today better than the human capital of the past? The answer is probably yes and no. The populations with low fertility could be obsolete, to be replaced with low-IQ Africans. Alternatively, they could be in the midst of a change to better equip them for the post-scarcity world. On the other hand, maybe the formerly high IQ populations unleashed environmental changes that will keep lowering intelligence unto this high tech society collapses.
Maybe what’s really going on is a weird race to the finish line. On the one hand, human intelligence is declining as automation takes over more and more tasks. On the other hand, the robots are getting smarter and will one day function as our caretakers. The race is to see if the robots get to that point before we run out of smart people able to create the artificial intelligence and super-intelligent robots. If we get too dumb too fast, the future may be primitives living in the wreckage of formerly high tech societies.