Thursday, 2 October 2014

Is Civilization making us (and our leaders) stupid?

I was most interested to see the article in The Atlantic with the title Is Goole making Students stupid? It suggests that the use of modern computer aids means that people are not having to be as imaginative as they would otherwise be . This would make their behaviour less intelligent when faced with unexpected and difficult problems.

But perhap the problem is far deeper that that, as there is some evidence that the human brain may have got smaller over the last few tens of thousands of years and I suspect that this is due to the similar effects cause by the whole process of civilization.

When all humans lived in small hunter-gatherer groups everyone needed to learn a whole raft of skills to keep themselves, and their family group, alive and well. However people started to develop specilist skills and trade so that for example, a skilled maker of early metal tools of bronze or later iron would not have to learn to hunt because he could get the food he needed by trading. As civilization advanced more and more people have become specialist, to the point where everyone has some very specialised skills (which depend on a stable society to be useful) and few general survival skills. The overall effect is, of course, that the collective knowledge and intelligence of society has increased enormously but, particularly on the most highly developed countries, everyone is dependant on the skills of thousands of other people simply to survive. Using all one's brain to lean to survive is no longer important and we have plenty of "spare capacity" to enjoy activities which have no real survival value - such as enjoying the works of Shakespeare or Mendelson, or even writing blogs.

This could have an evolutionary toll as there is no loner any evolutionary pressure to weed out people with minor disadvantageous brain mutations, and there would be a tendency for the brain's capacity to shrink very slowly over the generation because it is now "more powerful"  than is necessary to simply survive in a modern civilized society. After all the world population has exploded because the natural thinning out pressures of "evolution in the raw" no longer apply. We are likely to become even more dependent on "climbing on the shoulders of giants" and ever less able to look outside the establishment boxes set by our society mores and our leaders dictats.

So as civilization advances its members become more "domesticated" and more prone to practice "follow my leader" behaviours. But in the long run society can only survive if we have leaders with enough imagination and intelligence to tackle any challenges that may emerge - such as the effects of climate change. If we look at our current leaders and prospective leaders (I am particularly thinking of the coming UK general election) we see only unimaginative self interest and unintelligent short-termism. With our choice being restricted to such uninspiring prospective leaders the future looks bleak indeed.

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