Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Are People Getting Dumber?

The brain capacity of modern humans is about 15% lower than the brain capacity of the humans of 30,000 to 40,000 years ago (roughly 1,200 cc today vs. 1,400 cc in the Paleolithic). Although there are many variables that affect intelligence, brain size is one of them. A 15% difference between one person and the next may not tell us anything about their individual intelligence. But one must wonder whether such a large overall drop indicates that people are becoming dumber.

It's not hard to guess why brain size would decrease. Organs atrophy if the need for them diminishes. One might think that with all the technological advance of the last five centuries, the need for human brain capacity would have increased. But technology makes people less competent. The Welsh long bow, a fearsome weapon that could send a arrow through the heavy plate armor of French knights, required years of training before the archers became proficient. The gun--the heavy, clumsy, slow-firing matchlock musket of the 1500s--replaced the long bow because it was much easier to use and large numbers of men could be easily trained in its use. The exceptional proficiency required to shoot the long bow accurately was lost. Fast forward 500 years. How many people today can do simple multiplication and division in their heads? Indeed, how many people can do simple addition and subtraction in their heads? With the advent of the calculator and then the personal computer, arithmetic skills that were commonplace in 1950 are largely lost today.

The large brains of the Paleolithic allowed humans to become proficient hunters and survive in very hostile environments. Then, these really smart people figured out how seeds worked (think about what an incredible insight that was), and then develop agriculture. Farming provided humans with a much steadier food supply than hunting. (Do you know of any licensed hunters today who don't have a day job?) With food becoming much more readily available, people had time to develop written languages and recordkeeping systems. That reduced the need for keen memories.

Agriculture demanded stable, rich, well-watered fields, and flood plains were attractive places to grow. But they were vulnerable to floods. The best agricultural areas required large numbers of people to work together to control the floods. Thus, the development of large social structures in flood plains (think Egypt, Mesopotamia and China's Yellow River Valley). In a large society, there are small numbers of leaders and large numbers of followers. The followers don't have to individually think as hard; they just need to do what they are told. Obedience becomes a valued trait. There is less of an advantage to thinking for oneself.

What does all of this mean today? First, let us consider the 20th century, which is fresh in our memories. It was the most destructive century in human history, with over 100 million people being killed in wars. World War I started for the most ridiculous of reasons--childish ambitions of an insular aristocracy coupled with misguided notions of honor and allegiance that can only be described as idiotic--and swept destructively through a continent that prides itself on sophistication and knowledge. World War II, which was really a continuation of World War I, was triggered by fascist ideologies adopted by entire nations that abandoned all effort at thought and intelligence, and indulged in the basest of emotions. Cro-Magnons probably would have been aghast at what was wrought by their 20th century descendants.

The current financial and economic crisis is an updated version of speculative bubbles and financial panics that have occurred repeatedly over the centuries. These crises are the product, not of intelligence or thoughtfulness, but of unvarnished greed and the cunning use of fraud and financial innovation to fleece investors too eager to believe that they can get rich without risk or effort. The reason we are in a severe recession today is that we can't control our emotions or our willingness to believe people who say what we want to hear. The Cro-Magnon hunters of 40,000 years ago couldn't feed their families by indulging in food fantasies. They had to deal with reality, climb to high elevations or wade into dense, thorn-filled marshes, track down elusive animals, bring their game down with primitive, short range weapons, and then haul the food perhaps miles back to where their families waited. Their success suggests that they may have been better people than many alive today.

While there's much talk of reforming governmental regulation of the financial sector, there has been little discussion of reforming the human tendencies that created the problem. Of course, the government can't make people better. They have to make themselves better. Americans have always embraced risk. The first colonists to land on the James River and on Cape Cod took bigger risks than any hedge fund manager has ever taken. There's nothing wrong per se with a culture that, unlike Europe, favors risk taking and entrepreneurship. But uncontrolled, reckless risk taking and entrepreneurship brought us the 1929 stock market crash, the late 1990s tech bubble and crash, and now today's financial crisis. Corporate executives, board members, asset managers, investors and ordinary citizens are all guilty of believing that they could get rich without really having to work for it, that they're such good drivers they could skip wearing a seat belt. Perhaps we are collectively dumber than our ancestors. There is substantial evidence to that effect. Our hope lies in the fact that the process of evolution hasn't necessarily stopped.

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