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A good friend of mine made the following claim:

If we would have a time machine and use it to gather newborns from different eras of human history and would put them in normal and nurturing families they would have the same chances to succeed in today's world as normally born children.

I would really like that to be true. I think it would be a very humbling fact and would make an astounding argument in favor of education and free access to information. At the same time it's the first time I heard that argument and it seems hard to proof.

Is there any research done on this subject?

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This is a difficult question to answer because you need to cover DNA (not changed that much), prenatal malnutrition (affects newborns) and possibly malnutrition during the infant years (which wouldn't matter in this precise case). –  MSalters Sep 19 '11 at 10:14
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I find it hard to imagine any factual way how to answer this without having access to time machine (perhaps reconstruction of our ancestors from their DNA might work as well). –  Suma Sep 19 '11 at 10:18
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I’ve often heard a hard version of this claim: our ancestors were in fact much smarter than we. A prominent version of this claim can be found in Thilo Sarrazin’s book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (~ “Germany abandons itself”), a pseudo-scientific diatribe about foreign cultures, written by a prominent politician. He repeats the claim that we’re getting dumber by the generation since uneducated people breed faster. Perhaps the question could actually be updated to reflect this (notable!) stronger claim? – Or is this a different question? –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 19 '11 at 11:07
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I think we have to consider the contraposition: Are humans today less stupid than they were 2000 or 10,000 years ago? TV programs like Jackass or Jersey Shore lead me to believe that we are more stupid than our 10,000 years-ago ancestors. –  oosterwal Sep 19 '11 at 20:31
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My own experience with uneducated farmers in the south is that they have a huge knowledge on plants and animals, but often lack skills that we find obvious, like calculating 23+5. Their intelligence is different from what we usually consider as intelligence. –  johanvdw Sep 21 '11 at 12:05

1 Answer 1

No, because of epigenetic effects it's unlikely that a child that spent 9 month in the womb of an average mother who lived thousand years ago would be well adapted for today's world.

Over most of human history, people didn't have enough to eat.

If you randomly take a child from history there is a good chance that food for its mother wasn't plentiful.

After the Dutch famine of 1944 we saw that the children of mothers who carried them during that time were more likely to get diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, microalbuminuria and other health problems.

Viral antibodies that a child gathers during pregnancy are also important to allow the child to deal with the illnesses of their environment.

Despite this, given the nature of viral evolution, it's unlikely that the child from history would suffer any worse in that regard than a modern child.

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The question was specifically about intelligence. –  AIB Jul 19 '12 at 14:45
    
@AIB Things that make you unhealthy are also likely to reduce your intelligence. –  Christian Jan 17 '13 at 17:03

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