February 5, 2009 – With peak everything else, maybe it’s time to consider the notion of peak human, not the peak of the human population, but the peak of human evolution.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Have we humans reached the zenith of our evolution and social advancement? That’s a question I often ponder, especially after being driven to the brink of insanity by some nearby abjectly poor kids who, for several days leading up to last Forth of July, blew up in the street what I estimated to be at least $50 worth of fireworks.
People may assume that evolution automatically produces steady improvement in every species, but that’s not how evolution works. Evolution produces “improvement” (improvement being a relative quality) only when it confers upon the species a survival advantage (actually a gene propagation advantage) in a particular environment. Mutations that do not confer such advantages either whither away or linger as benign characteristics, such as hair or eye color. Should the environment change, then organisms which possess or develop mutations complimentary to the new environment will then have an advantage over other organisms and fresh evolution will occur.
During the period of recorded history humans have for all intents and purposes mastered their environment to such a degree that the relatively minor environmental fluctuations we’ve witnessed – changes in climate, resources, food and population – are but inconveniences, insufficient to trigger true evolutionary changes in our species. We are capable of adapting our behavior to a changing environment or even altering the environment itself, so our genes don’t need to adapt for us to survive. Once a species epitomizes its ability to survive and thrive in its environment, as humans have done, there is no further environmental imperative for evolutionary improvement.
Historical observation of the repetitive, atavistic, malignant and self-destructive behavior of our species during the last few centuries quickly undermines any assertion that we’re steadily evolving for the better. It appears to me that without active intervention, such as through eugenics, the human species will not evolve any further. In fact, considering how many “defective” genetic and psychological traits we actively protect and preserve today, it seems likely that any authentic evolutionary improvements will be counterbalanced by the retention of these defective traits, meaning that at best, our evolutionary progress will be arrested. At worst, we may actually devolve!
I’ve never had any philosophical objection to eugenics. I don’t see anything wrong with trying to improve our species, especially when certain improvements, such as the elimination of our proclivity to destroy, are desperately needed. The word eugenics is often associated with the word extermination, as of putatively “inferior” people. I certainly don’t advocate any such thing! But why can’t we intervene in our own evolution to preserve and accentuate our positive traits while allowing our negative traits to wither away and disappear through attrition? In any case, this essay does not seek to advocate eugenics, but to ask the question, “Can we expect further spontaneous improvement in our species without active intervention?” If the answer to that question is “No,” then we can consider eugenics as one means to effect that active intervention, provided it could be carried out ethically.
Some of what I want to talk about below is delicate. Please don’t think that I think I’m better than anybody else or harbor ill will toward anybody for any “deficiencies” they may harbor, or that I perceive them to harbor. If one wishes to attain true understanding, they cannot shy away from topics just because they are sensitive. In a perfect world, discussing sensitive topics topples the barricades impeding free thought, opening peoples’ minds to identify and embrace genuine solutions instead of tap dancing around a minefield of political correctness, failing to actually solve anything.
IQ test scores, while not a perfect or complete measure of intelligence, do provide some insight into intelligence and possibly evolutionary progress in that area. According to this research, which strikes me as relatively sound, mean global IQ is forecast to drop steadily from about 92 in 1950 to about 86 in 2050.
World Population and Mean IQ, 1950–2050 (source: Fourmilab)
Some of what we commonly designate “intelligence,” and part of what goes into an IQ test is actually knowledge. But if we accept that assertion, then the case that humans are becoming less “intelligent” is even stronger, because they seem to be becoming less knowledgeable too.
People long ago, even those not formally educated, seemed to harbor more knowledge than people today. Ancient people knew how to grow food, fabricate tools and furnishings and clothing by hand, take advantage of basic physics, using wind, water and gravity to operate mechanical devices. People today know how to send e-mails, push buttons on TV remotes, hook up bluetooth earpieces to their cell phones and fill up their car’s gas tank, but how truly valuable is such knowledge in the realm of evolutionary progress?
What’s interesting is that while a tiny sliver of humanity possesses fantastical amounts of specialized knowledge, we claim that knowledge as belonging to all of us collectively. We all claim to possess superior knowledge compared to our ancestors, when, in fact, only a tiny minority of us can credibly make that claim. The majority of us are just as uncritical, superstitious and easily misled as our ancestors, and worse, we lack even the basic, practical knowledge that our ancestors possessed! So are we truly more knowledgeable than they were? If not, and since knowledge is a component of what we call intelligence, then we may well be less intelligent than even our most distant ancestors.
SAT test scores are another useful measure of intelligence, in the same vein and possessing similar caveats as IQ tests.
U.S. SAT Scores, 1972–2007 (source: Wikipedia)
While the SAT scores shown above don’t represent conclusive evidence that we’re getting stupider, they are trending in that direction. At the very least, the SAT scores shown above do not appear to be rising. At best they’ve plateaued, which is the principal point of this essay, that the human species has peaked.
Of course, one could argue that these are U.S. test scores, and we know that U.S. students are increasingly being left behind by their foreign peers. Perhaps foreign SAT scores or their equivalents paint a different picture.
One particularly interesting observation is that the scores shown above have fallen from the time I have long regarded as the peak of economic affluence in the United States, the mid-1970s. I also made the observation to a friend recently that the peak of U.S. affluence seemed to coincide with the peak of U.S. domestic oil production, and that the peak of the world economy seemed to coincide with the peak of global oil production. Could all these things really be related?
Anti-intellectualism is one of today’s fashionable buzzwords. While it accurately describes the mentality of a growing segment of our population, it’s hardly anything to extol. I recently ran across a comment on a blog, a portion of which succinctly portrays this new mentality:
I had a guy last Friday tell me to stop making sense. He said that every time he heard me talking, I was telling the truth and making sense. And it pissed him off. He was annoyed. I was amazed. Thats where we're at.
Has anybody seen the movie Idiocracy, one of my favorite movies? The comment above could have been lifted right out of that fictional movie, in which “intellectuals” are ridiculed as “gay.” Unfortunately, the comment above isn’t fiction, it’s the modern reality!
I recently watched a stunning video (who knows, perhaps it’s a fake) in which people who voted for Mr. Obama were interviewed and asked the simplest questions about modern politics. These were truly simple questions, like, do the interviewees recognize the names of the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority leader and so forth. Very few could answer these questions, but they were certain that Mr. Obama was their man. How could they be so ignorant of our political system and yet be so certain of their choice for President? This is evidence of a society gravitating away from reason and toward faith. Of course, that’s been going on for a long time. After all, not only have our politicians advocated “faith-based” initiatives, but the declining quality of a public education has increasingly left people with little alternative but to rely on “faith” to make decisions.
While politics and sociology may not be directly correlated with our genetic development, they are at least indirect reflections of our evolutionary progress. In that context, then, we have clearly ceased to evolve, because, as I asserted in a previous post titled What Is Progress?, our political and social structures have been stagnant for thousands of years. In fact, we may even be regressing, thanks to our deteriorating ability to think. Nearly a century ago, the peerless curmudgeon, H.L. Mencken said:
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. (Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920) [My emphasis]
“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” – I think we can now all agree that we’ve been there, done that.
At the risk of igniting a firestorm of controversy, if not condemning protest, it seems reasonable to me that there are racially correlated differences in intelligence. After all, we accept that intelligent parents are likely to have intelligent children, which implies that there is a genetic component to intelligence. We also accept that certain obvious traits, such as skin color, are genetically determined. So why is it so difficult to combine the two beliefs and accept that there might be a connection between race and intelligence?
I don’t view acknowledgment of such innate differences as grounds for discrimination or persecution, but I think many people fear that precisely such consequences will automatically ensue from such an acknowledgment, which is why examining the idea, no matter how scientifically valid, is taboo. Nevertheless, if there are such innate differences then we are going about addressing the issue of socioeconomic inequality all wrong. Instead of mandating equality by fiat, through programs such as affirmative action, perhaps we ought to be seeking to equalize “intelligence.” I quote the word intelligence here because what passes for intelligence is in some part knowledge. In other words, we can elevate peoples’ “intelligence” by simply committing more effort to educate people who require more educating. Sadly, we’ve instead chosen to lower educational standards so as to not hurt anyone’s feelings, which has had counterproductive consequences for society.
Isn’t our society better served if we make an effort to elevate those who need help – regardless of race – to higher standards? Isn’t that the only way we’re going to “evolve,” by seeking to improve our species?
Whereas parents who are intelligent, engaged in the childrearing process and serve as good role models for their children seem to have fewer children, parents who aren’t so “evolved” seem to have children in abundance, litters of them, so to speak. If “inferior” people reproduce at a higher rate than “superior” people, then the aggregate human condition will never advance beyond a certain plateau. It appears we have already arrived at that plateau and have perhaps even begun to regress a little bit.
Under anarchy, the natural system that prevailed for most of human history and still dominates the natural animal world, people had to think for themselves and make few mistakes, or perish. It was a form of natural selection that improved the species. Modern government, which promises to do peoples’ thinking for them, has given people the opportunity to shut off their thinking skills, secure in the knowledge that if they screw up some social safety net will catch them. While such dependency serves the interests of government, what with its insatiable appetite for control, it diminishes peoples’ capacity for thought and progress.
I have long said that humans are intelligent enough to destroy themselves, but not intelligent enough to avoid doing so. Maybe I need to augment my axiom by adding that humans are intelligent enough to subsist, but not intelligent enough to evolve.
The environment plays a huge role in our development, both at the genetic level and in our daily health. No matter what aspect of our modern environment one examines – pollution, drug use, food and water quality, exercise – today’s environment is vastly degraded compared to that of our ancestors, implying that our own condition must also be impaired. Obesity alone is pandemic, and is a clear indication of our ill-health as a species, despite our living longer. Ironically, although we’re living longer than our ancestors, we’re not necessarily living better, nor are our genes necessarily better than those of our ancestors. We’re simply more accomplished at obscuring our defects and compensating for them with medical technology, including medications. The rising rate of mental illness and depression globally is also evidence that we’re not living better than our ancestors. The point is, if the suitability of our environment on which we depend for sustenance has “peaked,” how can our own evolution not have peaked as well?
Until recently any individual cursed with a hereditary defect would likely die at a young age, taking their defective genes to the grave with them. Today those defects are preserved and propagated. I’m not implying that we should allow such people to die, but it appears that by keeping them alive we may be doing our species a disservice. It’s a very sensitive philosophical question, what to do about people harboring defective genes. Certainly, I do not advocate exterminating them! And if we have the means to keep them alive, it seems morally imperative that we do so. And while it may be prudent to discourage people from propagating their defective genes, how can one person impose such chastity on another? The only approach I can think of that’s fair and sensitive is to educate people about genetic diseases and hope that they do the right thing and not propagate their defective genes.
I regard mitigating genetic defects as one area where benign eugenics could help us to make real progress. If, for example, it were possible to identify genetic defects prior to conception and correct them using genetic engineering techniques, I would view that as a worthwhile use of such technology. If I were having a child and knew it was going to be born with a genetic defect, and I had the means to correct the defect beforehand, I would seriously consider doing so.
Unfortunately, there is no clear demarcation between what constitutes ethical and unethical use of such technology. We would have to trust people to employ good judgment in making such godlike decisions, but such trust would not be misplaced if we made a sincere effort to actually improve peoples’ “intelligence” through education.
Although our life expectancy has risen substantially from that of our ancestors, it definitely appears to be leveling off, as shown below.
U.S. Life Expectancy, 1850–2000 (source: infoplease)
Interestingly, looking at the graph above there also seems to be a correlation between rising life expectancy and increased energy consumption, suggesting that during the heyday of free abundant energy, humans enjoyed a surge in life expectancy. Does that imply that as we enter the era of diminishing energy resources that our life expectancy will also fall?
Regardless of the answer to the above question, it appears that our life expectancy has stopped increasing. In other words, like every other human characteristic, life expectancy for most people has essentially peaked.
I don’t know what it is, perhaps it’s hubris, but human beings seem incapable from learning from the mistakes of others. Either we don’t believe others actually experienced the consequences chronicled in the historical record, or we arrogantly believe we won’t suffer the same consequences. The end result is that human beings repeat the same mistakes over and over again with a regular periodicity that seems to be related to the length of our reproductive generations. Economic theory is riddled with such cycles, many of which have merit. How many times in history have we seen a currency debased into worthlessness? How many pointless, ruinous wars have we seen? How many times have we seen countries swing from freedom to despotism?
It seems that after a couple of generations, we “forget” the lessons of our ancestors and have to relearn them. More likely, we don’t forget the lessons, we simply choose to ignore them, believing ourselves superior to our simple ancestors and able to avoid the consequences they suffered.
Because of this hubris, we are incapable of learning from history, which today comprises an immense tome covering nearly every conceivable circumstance humans are likely to encounter. Were we to consult the historical record from time to time and use it to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we could start making real intellectual progress, but we don’t, so we won’t. In other words, we have ceased evolving intellectually and philosophically. We’re as good as we’re ever going to be.
Observing humanity as a whole, one could be forgiven for concluding that the great mass of humans are, well, idiots. What’s more, they are reproducing like crazy, propagating their intellectual weaknesses in conjunction with others like them, certainly not “evolving.”
On the other hand, there is a tiny group of elite people who are well educated, aggressive, selfish, and think nothing of dominating the vast majority of “lesser” humans. These elites also reproduce among themselves, in effect, implementing a program of self-selected, voluntary eugenics.
It appears, then, that the stage has been set for the human species to diverge into two genetically different groups: a large number of people who are of low intellect, sickly, unambitious, plodding workers; and a small group of people well suited to dominate and exploit the others. That state of affairs is in its incipient stages today in the realms of society, politics and economics, but it’s not yet accompanied by genetic differences. However, following a period of sufficiently strict self-segregation of the elites and the masses, I believe a genuine genetic divergence could occur, especially if accelerated by means of advanced technology which might become available only to wealthy elites.
My vision is reinforced by the book, The Bell Curve (Chapter 21, The Way We Are Headed), by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which reads:
Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:
• An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
• A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
• A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution.
Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. [My emphasis]
Not only did this book, written fifteen years ago (in 1994), prophetically anticipate modern events, what with all the financial shenanigans going on for the benefit of the elites at the helm, but if the tendencies cited above are followed to their logical conclusions, the bifurcation along “cognitive” lines will eventually be followed by a bifurcation along genetic lines.
Ironically, although our advancing technology and knowledge of human science makes it likely that some humans will be able to live for well over a century, the vast majority will not. The humans who will have access to these life-extending technologies will be the elites at the top of the cognitive and genetic pyramid. They will have everything going for them: superior intelligence, better genes, better health, greater longevity and, of course, a much higher standard of living. These qualities will create a positive feedback loop which will benefit them and accelerate their evolutionary divergence from the rest of humans. We’re getting a glimpse of this feedback loop today. It’s one of the reasons why the standard of living of the wealthiest humans has diverged so sharply upward from that of the rest of us. In the not too distant future, the elites may well be a de facto different species by virtue of all the above advantages, and over time they may well become a genetically different species from the masses.
According to every metric, except perhaps technological progress, human evolution seems to have peaked. But I repeat, the expertise behind technological innovations is housed in the minds of a very small number of people. Self-imposed improvements are generally isolated among a tiny fraction of the species, but are grossly overwhelmed by the stagnation or regression among the vast majority of the species.
In the end, perhaps it’s only “traditional” humans who have peaked. Perhaps a new species of more intelligent, cunning and self-centered creatures is incipiently evolving from the traditional human species, people who will someday be as superior to contemporary humans as Homo sapiens was to the Neanderthal.
Well, this is just too funny. This article reports that scientists, apparently not content with the pace at which the human species is already regressing to Neanderthal stature, are halfway along to being able to clone Neanderthals!
Researchers announced that they had finally managed to reconstruct the entire DNA of the former species in a world breakthrough that follows a similar feat for the mammoth.
Now they believe the milestone could help discover why Neanderthal man, a short hairier version of a human, became extinct 30,000 years ago.
It also raises the possibility - although played down by scientists - that the code could be used to clone a living version of the creature.
Why is it we take such delight in using our technology to regress instead of to make progress? With each technological advance we design ever more destructive and lethal weapons; resurrect eradicated, wicked viruses like the 1918 Spanish flu virus; enable post-menopausal, elderly women to have babies, as if we need more people on the planet; and now home in on resurrecting an inferior hominid species.
I love the scene in the movie Jurassic Park in which the mathematician, Dr. Malcolm, sagely observes,
Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.