Mobilising collective intelligence by leaving traces of good practices

This article was published in Top1000funds.

At a global population level, the pure genetic component of intelligence has been estimated to have declined over the last 100 years[1]; while the trend in average intelligence ability scores (measured by the well-known IQ test) has been observed to be rising across generations[2] (education has improved).

What is the net effect of these two trends? A number of recent large-cohort studies suggest the education component peaked a while ago, and so individual intelligence scores started falling from the mid-1970s[3]. It would appear that we are getting dumber[4]  –  just when we most need an intelligence boost amidst an unprecedented climate emergency.

This provocative and overly simplistic start simply aims to be a gateway to a thought: whether or not we may have peaked in individual intelligence, collective intelligence could be much less bounded.

Global governance is the way forward, but it doesn’t exist

When we think of climate change, we desire global collective action and governance. It is such a complex and interconnected problem that “we” thinking is intuitively more appealing and more powerful than “me” thinking.

With the exception of the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments do not appear to behave as predicted by the collective action framework (we thinking). Rather their climate policies are as much, if not more, influenced by their national politics and various interest groups (eg businesses, politicians, activists, etc).

For example, the recent US Inflation Reduction Act is expected to bring higher employment, green subsidy benefits, and emissions reduction. This breakthrough climate policy has successfully passed via pleasing powerful domestic interests – note that the name of the legislation gives no clue as to its climate credentials. Things seem to be working better at a local level than at a global level.

This doesn’t imply that systems leadership and global governance are of no significance. There is nothing wrong with global collective actions in the face of climate change. However, the top-down approach doesn’t appear so effective in our present reality.

Building the case for a more distributive leadership approach

We should therefore think about distributive leadership which, arguably, is a more natural fit in a complex network-based system like ours. Systems leaders must understand and solve the real local issues. When they do so they leave traces of good practice.

Like ants do. When a foraging ant in a colony discovers a rich food source, it leaves a trail of pheromones as it returns to the nest. Other ants follow and reinforce the pheromone trail, making it stronger and more attractive, leading even more ants to the food source. This is an example of a highly efficient and self-organised collective behaviour without central leadership, in the insect kingdom.

Using this as an analogy, we can explain the human love of case studies. A case study is effectively a pheromone trail – “I went here, and did this; you may want to copy me”. This allows for more instinctive and indirect behaviours of distributive followership and emulation.

Last summer, Ecuadorians voted to halt oil drilling in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, the Amazon[5]. One of their indigenous leaders and environmental champions seems to resonate a distant echo of this leadership model: “It took us thousands of years to get to know the Amazon rainforest. To understand her ways, her secrets, to learn how to survive and thrive with her. […] we are the closest to the land, and the first to hear her cries.”

With the decision and action to stop oil drilling, local traces of best practices have now been left. What needs to be built now is a trail behind them.


[1] Richard Lynn, John Harvey, The decline of the world’s IQ, Intelligence, Volume 36, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 112-120, ISSN 0160-2896, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2007.03.004

Global IQ: 1950 – 2050

[2] Commonly referred to as the Flynn effect

[3] Edward Dutton, Dimitri van der Linden, Richard Lynn, The negative Flynn Effect: A systematic literature review, Intelligence, Volume 59, 2016, Pages 163-169, ISSN 0160-2896, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2016.10.002.

Teasdale, T.W., & Owen, D.R. (2005). A long-term rise and recent decline in intelligence test performance: The Flynn Effect in reverse. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 837-843.

Sundet, J.M., Barlaug, D., & Torjussen, T.M. (2004). The end of the Flynn effect?: A study of secular trends in mean intelligence test scores of Norwegian conscripts during half a century. Intelligence, 32, 349-362.

[4] Dumb and dumber: why we’re getting less intelligent

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/21/ecuador-votes-to-halt-oil-drilling-in-amazonian-biodiversity-hotspot