Were the Victorians Really Smarter than Us?

by Jonathan Hobratsch

In November 2013, the journal Intelligence published a study entitled, “Were the Victorians cleverer than us? The decline in general intelligence estimated from a meta-analysis of the slowing of simple reaction time.”

In it they re-evaluate the Flynn Effect, a sort of bell curve for modern IQ test-takers, because as the abstract states:

The Victorian era was marked by an explosion of innovation and genius, per capita rates of which appear to have declined subsequently. The presence of dysgenic fertility for IQ amongst Western nations, starting in the 19th century, suggests that these trends might be related to declining IQ. This is because high-IQ people are more productive and more creative. We tested the hypothesis that the Victorians were cleverer than modern populations, using high-quality instruments, namely measures of simple visual reaction time in a meta-analytic study. Simple reaction time measures correlate substantially with measures of general intelligence (g) and are considered elementary measures of cognition. In this study we used the data on the secular slowing of simple reaction time described in a meta-analysis of 14 age-matched studies from Western countries conducted between 1889 and 2004 to estimate the decline in g that may have resulted from the presence of dysgenic fertility. Using psychometric meta-analysis we computed the true correlation between simple reaction time and g, yielding a decline of − 1.16 IQ points per decade or − 13.35 IQ points since Victorian times. These findings strongly indicate that with respect to g the Victorians were substantially cleverer than modern Western populations.

However, I’m wondering if, since 1889, for whatever reason, it’s become much more difficult to produce, create and innovate. Certainly innovation in the medical and technological fields are booming, but what about elsewhere? Perhaps the recent industrial revolution, combined with democracy-inspired political revolutions, laid open the field for such a variety of untapped ideas that latecomers in the 20th century were born with fewer outlets for their genius.

With this statement, I am not trying to necessarily counter the study, since this sort of research isn’t my area of expertise, but I do find think what I say is worth considering. I’d like to hear other excuses for the lack of cleverness in modern Western civilization.

Estimated IQs of Selected Victorian Age Figures

To finish off this blog, I thought it would be fun to post the estimated IQs of some selected Victorian, which I’ve gathered from a 1926 study by Catharine M. Cox found in Genetic Studies of Genius, which lists geniuses going back to 1450. Cox looked at anecdotes and writings of historical figures up until they reach 26 years of age. For whatever reason, this was the cut off age for analyzing genius.

I’ll list both the adult IQ and the IQ with the Flynn Effect for the geniuses that lived as adults anytime between 1840-1900:

IQ 190/168

Friedrich Schelling, German philosopher

IQ 185/163

Auguste Comte, French philosopher

Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist & explorer

IQ 180/158

Francois Arago, French mathematician, physicist & prime minister

Henry Brougham, British Lord Chancellor & scientist

Victor Cousin, French philosopher

Charles Dickens, English author

Victor Hugo, French author

Justus von Liebig, German chemist

John Stuart Mill, English philosopher

Alfred de Musset, French author

Hans Christian Oersted, Danish physicist & chemist

Sir Robert Peel, British prime minister

IQ 175/153

John Quincy Adams, American president

Louis Agassiz, Swiss-American naturalist

Robert Bunsen, German chemist

J. L. Gay-Lussac, French chemist & physicist

Wilhelm von Humboldt, German philosopher & diplomat

Hughes de Lemennais, French theologian & philosopher

Thomas Macauley, British politician & historian

Robert Southey, English author

IQ 170/148

Thomas Chalmers, Scottish theologian

Alexandre Dumas, French author

Michael Faraday, English scientist

Washington Irving, American author

David Livingstone, Scottish explorer

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet

Ernest Renan, French philologist & philosopher

Johann Strauss the Younger, Austrian composer

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, English poet

Richard Wagner, German composer

IQ 165/143

Charlotte Bronte, American author

George Canning, British prime minister

Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher, essayist & author

Charles Darwin, English naturalist

Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister

Francois Guizot, French prime minister & historian

Thomas Hastings, British admiral and artist

Heinrich Heine, German poet and essayist

Giuseppe Mazzini, Italian politician and activist

Felix Mendelssohn, German composer

John Henry Newman,  English theologian

Thomas Robertson, English dramatist & stage director

Charles Sainte-Beuve, French literary critic

Ludwig Tieck, German author

Max Weber, German sociologist & philosopher

Noah Webster, American lexicographer & author

William Wordsworth, English poet

IQ 160/138

J. J. Berzelius, Swedish chemist

Count Covour, Italian statesman

William Channing, American theologian & philosopher

Francois de Chateaubriand, French politician, author & diplomat

Charles Dupin, French mathematician & economist

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), English author

Charles Etienne, French dramatist

Elizabeth Gaskell, English author

Jacob Grimm, German philologist & author

George Grote, English political activist & historian

Alphonse de Lamartine, French author & politician

Harriet Martineau, English sociologist

George Sand (Amantine Dupin), French author

Charles Sumner, American politician

Adolphe Thiers, French prime minister, president & historian

IQ 155/133

Honore de Balzac, French author

Pierre de Beranger, French poet & songwriter

Edward Bulwer, English author & politician

Richard Cobden, manufacturer & political activist

Ralph Waldo Emerson, author & essayist

Leon Gambetta, French prime minister

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American author

Hugh Miller, Scottish geologist & author

Daniel O’Connell, Irish politician

William H. Prescott, American historian

William Seward, American statesman

IQ 150/128

Henry Blake, British colonial administrator

Richard Bright, English physician

John Franklin, British admiral & explorer

Abraham Lincoln, American president

Auguste Marmont, French military leader

Nicolas Soult, French prime minister & military leader

William Thackeray, English author

IQ 145/123

Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author

William Lloyd Garrison, American social activist

Andrew Jackson, American president

Mehmed Ali (Ludwig Detroit), German-born Ottoman military leader

Gioachino Rossini, Italian composer

William Tecumseh Sherman, American military leader

IQ 140/118

Charles IV John (Jean Bernadotte) Swedish king & French military leader

Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italian military leader, politician & political activist

Robert E. Lee, American military leader

IQ 135/113

David Farragut, American admiral

Philip Sheridan, American military leader

IQ 130/108

Ulysses S. Grant, American military leader, president & author


This list compiled by Dr. Cox  in 1926 has overlooked numerous people. However, it should be noted that she wasn’t focusing solely on the Victorian Age. Canadian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian and Eastern Europeans have been ignored.

Robert E. Lee is the sole representative of the South for the United States. For the North, almost all of these Americans are from Massachusetts or lived there.

My own great-great grandfather, Charles Johnson Maynard, a Massachusetts naturalist of this generation, was friends with two of the individuals on this list: Louis Agassiz & Henry Blake. In fact, when researching his life, it seems he was consistently running into people in Massachusetts that could make this list.

Have we, in fact, decreased in per capita rates of innovation and genius as the article suggests? Does the 21st century make it harder for some people to express their genius? Have we mastered the art of distraction so much that no amount of genius can ignore it? There seems to be countless questions, some rhetorical, in trying to figure out this answer.

What do you think?












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