James R. Flynn, Who Found We Are Getting Smarter, Dies at 86

Already a man of the left — Dr. Flynn joined the Socialist Party in college — after graduating he became involved in the civil rights movement. He met Emily Malkin at a protest against a segregated amusement park in the Washington suburbs, and they named their first child after Dr. Flynn’s hero, the American socialist Eugene Victor Debs.

He continued his activism as a professor at what is now Eastern Kentucky University, in the town of Richmond, about 30 miles south of Lexington. There he helped organize against the city’s segregated downtown businesses, drawing threats from the mayor and a reprimand from the college president. A lifelong competitive runner, he was removed as the track coach.

He left in 1961 for a job at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, then another at Lake Forest College, outside Chicago. But he came to believe that his left-wing politics had foreclosed the possibility of an academic career in the United States. He looked abroad, and in 1963 landed a job at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Four years later he moved to the University of Otago, in Dunedin, where he remained until his retirement in 2020.

Though Dr. Flynn was based in the university’s political studies department, his writings and interests ranged widely. In between books on liberalism, world history and political censorship, he advised Australia’s prime minister on foreign policy, organized against the war in Vietnam and, in the 1990s, founded two left-wing political parties. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament three times.

Though he was widely recognized for making one of the most significant psychological discoveries of the late 20th century, Dr. Flynn was modest about his contributions, as well as his standing in his adopted field. He had, he said, merely taken a “holiday” in psychology, then stuck around out of a sense of obligation to clean up the “mess” he had made.

He was always careful to qualify his claims: Despite his success in overturning the notion that genes are everything, he never dismissed it entirely. Genes played a large part in determining intelligence, he maintained, especially at the individual level, but so did environment and what he called “chance factors,” like accidents and life decisions — in other words, free will. And environment made all the difference in explaining the gaps between different groups within a society, whether racial, gender, class or otherwise.

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