This is a slightly edited, slightly longer version of an unfortunately long comment I posted on an article from the Ace of Spades HQ website, regarding the recent “#humanity is getting stupider” meme. I thought I would give it it’s own post here just for kicks.
I have seen this reported on quite widely and like all conclusions drawn from evolutionary theory, I am very skeptical about this but I can see why it would appeal to many of a pessimistic nature. While I have as negative a perception of human beings as almost anyone, the argument that they are getting worse has not yet persuaded me.
Starting with the idea of humans having been such geniuses in the past because of the needs of hunter gatherer life: dogs, apes, monkeys and raccoons, even birds can demonstrate some pretty amazing problem solving skills. Anyone possessing survival skills will know that knowledge and mental skills are vital to survival but it doesn’t necessarily require Einsteinian level cognition or photographic memory, especially when you have the ability to learn from parents or others in the group. I think the proponent of the idea overestimates the chances of death in a hunter-gatherer life style from mistakes. Simply mixing caution with curiosity can protect from many instances of ignorance of potential risks.
I also think there is an underestimation of the evolutionary pressure left on humans who are stupid. The example of a Wall Street banker (for some reason) is used by those proposing that humans are getting stupider, to show that major mistakes can be made now without fatal consequences but all human culture can be said to do that to some degree, even that which less advanced human ancestors used. That didn’t stop further advancement. Other mistakes, like feuding with violent neighbours or failing to heed warning alarms are still likely to preferentially kill off people with poor social or cognitive skills and it doesn’t take a huge death rate to maintain or spread a trait in a population or to slowly eradicate it.
The strongest part of the stupid human proposal is that stupid people are more likely to become or stay poor (not saying poor people are more stupid individually). The poor have more offspring (at least in rural agricultural cultures) so poor people have a selective advantage and rich people have a disadvantage. This has not historically been the case if you look at all the successful rulers who have translated the power and wealth they accumulated into many wives and many children, some of which are married off to the elite in far off lands. But even if it were a universal principal, the slow breeding elite are not cut off from spreading their genes to the poor classes IYKWIMAITYD.
Poor people have more kids but they also have more selective pressures due to high death rates. Many of these deaths are more likely to strike people who have poor social and cognitive skills. Any social mobility will, over time periods too long to easily notice, allow movement of smarter people up the social hierarchy where death is less omnipresent and so survival of prodigies is more likely.
In fact, the interaction between birth and death rate on one hand and intelligence and wealth/status on the other seems to provide a distillation of higher intelligence within populations rather than a stagnation of it. We just miss the process because we see on the short term that people who are stupid sometimes are given more power than they should or smart people are killed. Longer term changes show that genes have been changing faster than they would be from simple drift during the course of the last 10,000 years. That would suggest selective pressures of civilization are working and it would be far more likely that they were favouring smart people than stupid people.
Even the most violent and slow-witted people can almost always be taught to read, write and perform other tasks which might seem ingenious to paleolithic people. They are only stupid in reference to the rest of us. Moreover, much of the difference between more and less intelligent people is a mixture of environment and epi-genetic factors (regulatory elements which can be passed on like genes but changed back and forth more rapidly than genetic changes can be–like having switches and breakers instead of rewriting your house every few years). Making judgements about a person’s or a population’s innate (genotypic) intelligence based on displayed (phenotypic) intelligence is risky. Claiming to know what direction innate intelligence is headed over thousands of years is even riskier.
To sum up, paleolithic people were clever but have no right to claim super genius status. Take that Captain Caveman. And selective pressures favouring smart and sociable people are not absent in modern society or in any time in history. If anything, people seem dumber these days because we are asking them to make more complex decisions & evaluations and function in more complex environments than ever before under far less than ideal conditions while forces far greater than themselves try to supply them with “fake but accurate” information and prefabricated opinions. Are you are your best and brightest on Friday afternoon while surrounded by needy whiners? Being intelligent sometimes makes it easier to see when people’s actions and words are not well thought out. It can be easy to get the impression that intelligence is decreasing in society when people vote for fools and crooks more than they used to but are they or are politicians better able to display their nature to intelligent people than those of the past were because there are more opportunities for them to do so. Are we so sure that today’s bad movies wouldn’t play just as well to our grandparents’ generation with equal marketing? Along with all those classic movies were lots of stinkers that probably at least broke even.
Anyway… We not stupid more gets!