Has society made us less intelligent? Are we now making it worse?

Society and its technology has likely made us less intelligent. Is our educational policy making this worse?

I have long asserted that society has contributed to a reversal of natural selection for humans. I am not saying this is bad, or good, just noticing that it seems to be so. For example, lacking the protections of society, a person with poor eyesight or poor hearing, or a poor runner or climber would be an easy target for large predators. Because of that, natural selection would result in culling out those detrimental characteristics, and those with superior skills and senses would be favored. This, of course applies to intelligence, as well. People in modern societies do not need superior skills or intelligence to survive and procreate.

If you are of the mindset that people with college degrees are smarter than those with fewer years of schooling, you still have to agree that, on average, people are less intelligent now. After all, college-educated people have fewer children. I don’t agree with that proposition; there are plenty of people without access to schools, or who have chosen not to go to college, that are just as smart as those who have a Ph.D. Notice here that I am using schooling to differentiate from education in general; the latter includes learning from parents or others and from life experience.

Many years ago I read about other types of intelligence that are not measured by our standard IQ testing. I remember particularly about the abilities of early Polynesians to navigate over thousands of miles to get to their destination islands. Modern humans, Polynesians included, do not have this ability. Another example that comes to my mind is how African Bushmen track animals. They can tell by the smell of dung how long ago the animal was at a particular location. If they had wounded the animal using poisoned spears, they could tell by the smell which dung was from the poisoned animal. People from so-called advanced societies do not have this ability, although I guess it could be learned.

If you could take identical twins, separated at birth, and have one raised in a privileged environment where he or she went to the best schools, and the other raised in the wild, free to roam and explore the world, which would be smarter? The privileged twin would have a more limited and focused set of experiences. The other twin would have a greater variety of experiences from which to learn, and would have skills in many things. You could liken this to someone who had gotten a graduate degree in some specialty versus someone who learned many trades, perhaps not as deeply, but sufficient for a working proficiency in each. Their innate in-born intelligence should be the same. But, considering their experience, would you say one is smarter?

In my mind, intelligence (or smartness) does not refer to what one knows, but how well they can learn and creatively figure things out. And you can learn from all experiences, not just what is taught in school.

sapiens neanderthal skulls
Comparison of skull sizes of modern human (l.) and Neanderthal (r.).

When I first read that Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans, I wondered if they were smarter than we are. I believe, as I argue in the first paragraph, that they must have been smarter (on average) in order to survive the harsh environment they lived in, and without technology. I am sure that this was also true of early modern humans who lived during the same time period as Neanderthals, but did not have larger brains than we do. People in modern societies do not need to be smart; society and its technology bring them along whether they are smart or not.

If we are using less than 100 percent of our brains, then that may be the best evidence that we are not as intelligent as our ancestors. Why is our brain so large? There would be no selective advantage in an increasing brain size, were it not being put to use. So maybe we have effectively turned off abilities that we once had but no longer need. And maybe our society is what has allowed this to happen. What brain percentage do apes use (they do have fairly advanced societies)?

How about other mammals? What about birds? With their very small birdbrains they navigate great distances, figure out how to obtain food, build nests and raise and protect their young (and some even use tools). What about reptiles, fish and bugs? It seems they are all pushing the limits of their very small brains. But we are not.

Is there some other purpose to the hidden capabilities of the brain that we could unlock, if we only knew how? What part do we use when we dream? Are there other abilities, such as mental telepathy, that we don’t believe in, and perhaps have unlearned? Twins, even those separated from birth or at a young age seem to have capabilities that some believe border on telepathy. Or is that just because they are genetically wired to think a certain way?

For some reason, as humans we have selectively focused on certain parts of the brain that we need for our modern society. Creative people use different parts of their brain that are less used by people who focus on logical processes. More recently, as a society we have selectively focused on skills that we think we need for our modern society.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” As we push early education, are we preventing the development of creativity that typifies young children? And, as we push STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curricula in our schools, what are we losing?

I believe that Americans have excelled in the world, in large part because we have maintained a creativity born from our historical connection with our ancestral cultures, and because of the needs of building and expanding our nation far from traditional sources of materials. In recent decades, other nations, notably the eastern nations, have pushed technological skills at the expense of the arts. Will we, in our present push to maintain our competitive advantage, actually lose the creative edge that we have had over those countries?

Skulls photo from evolution-institute.org via Google Images.


Everyone loves a hero -> Everyone wants to be loved -> Everyone wants to be a hero

Postulate: Everyone loves a hero. Corollary: Everyone wants to be a hero. Climate change is the current “disaster” – or is it?

Postulate – Everyone loves a hero
Corollary – Everyone wants to be a hero

What drives so many to join the military? Do they really want to “serve their country?” There are surely a lot of other, safer ways to do that. Do they want to prove that they’re tough or brave? Or, one of a “few good men?” My son was lamenting the fact that he could not be in the military, because if he was, he could be a hero, like his grandfather was. Which gets to my point – everyone wants to be a hero. Just not all of them are willing to die for the privilege.

Politicians want to be heroes too – or at least be seen as heroes – because we all like leaders who are heroes. Of our 44 [now 45] presidents, 31 were in the military. About half were considered war heroes in their day. I think we can add Lincoln to the list, not for his short military time but in his role as commander-in-chief. When was the last time we had a President who was a war hero?

Dwight Eisenhower was a hero, for leading the European war effort for the Allies. John Kennedy was a wartime hero. Some would also add that he was a hero for standing up to the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis. George H.W. Bush was the last, only tallying one term.

Despite the fact that the electorate is less enamored with war heroes since the Viet Nam era, politicians, like others, want to be remembered as heroes.

Gee, what can I do to be heroic? Well, maybe I can knock off some dictator that is killing off his people. Hmm, well really that is leaving all the heroic work to my pawns – or drones. Then, maybe I can save the world from some really big disaster. That’s got to be super-heroic. Well, I obviously can’t stop hurricanes. And, I certainly can’t prevent earthquakes. What about saving the planet from environmental destruction? That’s been a big thing for the last, oh, 50 years!

But, what can I do to prove I am a hero? Maybe I don’t really need to prove it. If we can define a big enough disaster, and do something really big, that will at least look heroic.

Thus is born the unholy alliance between politicians and climate scientists. Politicians are always looking for something really scary so they can look really heroic. Climate scientists want to be heroes too. And, it doesn’t hurt that it can be quite lucrative – or at least finance their career. The problem with climate change is that it is not scaring very many people. Perhaps it is that change is so slow that it is not really noticeable. Or, perhaps people remember that 40 years ago, the alarm was a runaway snowball earth. Now it’s runaway greenhouse? Yeah, wake me up when you have something that affects my daily life.

Featured image is Captain Planet, a 1990’s cartoon hero, who materializes to save the Earth from pollution when summoned by his teenage followers.