Idiocracy and the Decline of Intelligence

Of the endless possibilities that lay before us, mankind’s future seems destined to ever increasing social and technological complexity coupled with a declining ability to deal with that complexity.

Why does western society glorify and reward stupidity?  I am constantly amazed by an apparently complete lack of common sense among my peers and neighbours.  Information that seems to be trivially common to me inevitably comes as a surprise life lesson to those around me.  People seem to revel in their own ignorance, as though there is a secret competition to achieve the most success with the least wisdom.  In point of fact, that seems to be precisely what our higher learning institutions are about these days; over specialisation, elitist admissions and zero real world accountability.

It seems my experience in this regard is quickly becoming the norm too, as is evidenced by a recent rash of best selling books on this very subject.  ‘Empire of Illusions’ and ‘The Watchman’s Rattle’ come to mind quickly[1], though so too do the many, many books being published on the emerging science of Memetics, which, if anything else, is the study of common knowledge.

I’m reminded, constantly, of Mike Judge’s 2006 movie Idiocracy, as though Judge and his writers were prophets akin to Nostradamus or Cayce.[2] It seems real, it seems as though we’re headed, collectively, toward a precipice marked by our own steady and steep decline into ignorance.  Blank stares, mumbled expletives, questioning grunts and an all around disinterest in anything resembling the slightest prospect of increasing a person’s intelligence…this is what surrounds me.

If we follow Judge’s logic, which seems sound on the surface of it, we might find ourselves in Private Joe Bauer’s future-world.  A world where indulgent instant gratification has completely overtaken the power of reason, where systems crash around the ankles of a people who scarcely notice a problem, where commercialism and corporatism run rampant without chaperone and without even a rudimentary understanding of how or why they work (or don’t work as the case may be).  In fact, that description seems to work quite well for our current world.  A world where illiteracy is raging, where the vast majority of the population are permanently disadvantaged against the success for which they believe they’re working toward, a world that harbours a distorted idea of success that is sold to them by those same social vehicles that do constant harm to our economies and our social evolution – corporatism and commercialism.  A world that is being held hostage by a few wealthy elites who, by most indications, don’t even know they’re doing anything wrong.  But is this the inevitable outcome of the war on wisdom?

Speaking strictly about the fantasy world of Idiocracy, Judge’s interpretation of the decline in collective intelligence fails to account for a few key points in the argument.  Chiefly, that evolution favours intelligence, and more subtly, that IQ is the prize of a successful resolution of the nature vs. nurture debate.  Right off the bat, one can counter any argument for a future of culturally profound ignorance by realising that the process of evolution will always make available in the population, individuals who, despite social disadvantages, are prone to intellectual achievement.  Savants, if you will, though that term could easily be misunderstood.[3]

But I’m getting ahead of the discussion.  Is intelligence the inevitable outcome of evolution, and are we somehow diluting that evolutionary advantage, say through artificially eliminating the consequences of bad decision making?  Have we, through medical science and nutritionism, the insurance industry and through the instant gratification networks of corporatism and commercialism, sidestepped the powerful influence of Natural Selection?  It might seem so on the surface.

Possibly the most basic component of the process of biological evolution is the idea that the competition between species, between organisms, and more accurately between genes, is essentially a race to sexual maturity and procreation.  Medical science – including germ theory and advanced surgical techniques – and nutritionism have, in the last 100 years or so, virtually guaranteed that every viable human infant has an equally high chance of developing to sexual maturity and of successfully mating.  There are exceptions – some obvious – though on the whole, the human population benefits from these medical advancements to equal share, and then enters insurance, the rule of law and our ever present evil C twins (commercialism and corporatism).

If medical science affects natural selection as it applies to biological evolution, it can be said that insurance affects social evolution in much the same way, but overall, its effect is not limited to memetics.  The simple way of putting it is to say that these social institutions have worked hard to successfully achieve the eradication of all consequences for poor decision making.  It used to be, in our world, that making the wrong choice in any given situation could potentially have catastrophic results for the decision maker and those around him.  These days, even the most monumentally bad choice is successfully mitigated by these social and scientific institutions.  Insurance guarantees that our bad choices do the least financial harm possible, while medical science virtually guarantees that the effect of those same bad choices can be reversed, and at the most we suffer only mild discomfort and inconvenience as a result of choices that once would have eliminated us (individually) from the competition for resources and mates.

As has been discussed ad nauseum over the last several years in anthropological circles, the impact that agriculture has had on our species on the whole is such that the switch from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society has been the single largest mitigating factor in our continued evolution.  But the larger story is that all these things combined have the effect of all but completely shielding us from the power of natural selection.  This doesn’t mean that we’re no longer subject to evolution, just that the random nature of the genetic mutations we experience throughout the population are free to exert their changes without the guidance of natural selection.  It’s no longer a “survival of the fittest” scenario, now it’s “survival of all but the most severe”.

None of this speaks to the decline of intelligence though, at least not directly.  One common mistake or misinterpretation of evolutionary theory is that the end result of genetic evolution was inevitable, as though the current incarnation of a species was the initial goal of the process.  This easy mistake has profound implications for one’s overall understanding of the process.  Evolution has but one goal, and that is not found in the quality of any species characteristics, whether that be the speed of the cheetah, the size of an elephant or the intelligence of man.  That goal is simply genetic survival.  There is no grand plan or scheme, and the affect that any one or any combination of genetic mutations has on the characteristics of the host species is nothing more than a side effect, albeit a side effect that is favoured by natural selection.  If you think of human intelligence in those terms a realisation comes to bear; that the superiority we enjoy is an illusion.  Our intelligence is a happy side effect of a collection of genetic mutations.  What those mutations were is hotly debated among evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and neurologists, but all agree that our intelligence is nothing more than the product of a confluence of serendipitous genetic accidents.

But this is good news.  This means, among the idea that our self-righteous superiority is unjustified, that evolution still has our back, genetically speaking.  We still posses the genes for large brains and for intelligence, in spite of the fact that a great many people choose to squander that gift.  Our powerful disposition for abstract problem solving, for creativity and for language are going no where, but that isn’t to say that these elements of our society are immune to the own evolution.

Overall, the point of the above argument is simply that mankind still holds the genetic tools necessary for intelligence, or more accurately – increasing intelligence, and that we seem, simply, to be adverse to using those tools in the general population.  This, while it presents new problems for the big picture, is good news.  It means that this is a problem of motivation, not of inability.  It means that we can fix our education systems, and that we can inspire people to feats of intellectual greatness.  Wisdom is not lost, though it may be forgotten, and in the coming years, as that social and technological complexity plays out, we will be faced with problems that require a much more generalised genius, and as history has taught us, necessity is the mother of invention.  Great minds may be fewer and further between, but they still exist, and they are just as valuable today as they were in our earlier periods of enlightenment.  It may be that common sense is uncommon for a reason; it might serve to highlight true genius.

[1] Chris Hedges Empire of Illusions: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, ISBN 10: 0307398471 and Rebecca Costa The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, ISBN 10: 1593156057

[2] …In that both were little more than colourful conmen wrapped in mysticism and intrigue.

[3] Typical savants are individuals who excel in one area of expertise, usually without formal training or education, but who fail to achieve success in other areas of life, including socialisation, which could be called hyper-specialisation.  In this case, one could argue that what were talking about is exactly the opposite of a savant, or an asavant, in that an asavant, in a world of overspecialisation, which is essentially the characteristics of a classic savant – hyper-specialisation – is one who achieves a much more generalised understanding of the world around them without formalised education, in contrast to the citizens of Idiocracy’s future-world who have little understanding beyond their individual and limited vocational expertise.  In simpler terms I’m talking about people who, without education, just seem to get things on a broad scale and in contrast to those around them.

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