Skip to comments.Is human intellect on the downward slide?
Posted on 11/22/2012 12:06:23 AM PST by LibWhacker
I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues.
So Stanford geneticist Gerald R. Crabtree begins back-to-back Forum pieces for Trends in Genetics, entitled Our Fragile Intellect (Parts I and II). Crabtrees thesis: humanity is almost certainly losing its superior intellectual and emotional capacities.
Crabtree doesnt seem to be arguing for the intellectual vibrancy of the Akademia or the Lyceum. These places, and their celebrated occupants like Plato and Aristotle graced Athens only 600 years later, well beyond Crabtrees inferred date of humanitys intellectual zenith.
And he doesnt confine himself to Athens. I would also like to make this wager, he goes on, for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India, or the Americas, of perhaps 2000-6000 years ago. Hes arguing that humans throughout the world have been steadily losing their marbles for the last three to six millenia.
Well, Professor Crabtree, Ill see your Athenian intellectual Titan. And Ill raise you a bottle of 1998 St Henri and a $100 book voucher.
Did human intellectual capacity peak 600 years before Plato? Raphaels Scuola di Atene fresco in the Vatican, 1511. Wikimedia commons
Im not at all opposed to expansive predictions. But they should be tempered by critical thought. And wherever possible they should be reformulated as hypotheses and tested. Crabtree makes a few predictions that should, with progress in genomics, become testable. But it may surprise you to learn that his argument for why our intellect is fragile doesnt stand basic scrutiny.
So many ways of being dumber
Crabtrees main point boils down to this: human intellectual function depends on the action of lots of genes. In Part I, Crabtree briefly reviews the evidence that more than ten percent of all human genes 2000 to 5000 in all contribute to human intellectual and emotional function.
These genes dont simply each contribute a tiny bit to intelligence, with the genetic component of any individuals IQ being the sum of all these minute contributions. Instead, they interact as links in a chain, failure of any one of which leads to intellectual disability. The idea that various genes interact is far from controversial. But the case that breaking any one of these genetic links can be catastrophic does not compel me. I am sure that many crucial genes behave this way, but I would be staggered if every one of the 2-5000 was quite so brittle in its functioning.
With so many genes involved, it becomes a mathematic certainty that in the 120 or so generations since the pre-Golden-Age bronze-age golden age of the Athenian intellect, we have all sustained two or more mutations harmful to our intellectual and emotional stability.
There is some serious genetics behind this argument, and while the conclusions might not follow as crisply as Crabtree argues, it makes for an interesting read on the big-picture state of intelligence genetics. But would selection not have eliminated most of those mistakes?
Crabtree recognises that his case for genetic fragility of the human intellect conceals a flaw: if the human intellect is so fragile, then how could it have evolved to reach the mythic Olympus it inhabited 3000 years ago? In Part II, Crabtree lays out his theory for the main selective forces that shaped human intelligence, and for how changes in the last few thousand years have relaxed that selection. Extraordinary natural selection, he argues, was necessary to optimize and maintain such a large set of intelligence genes.
And where did that selection come from? Crabtree has some ideas: Errors of judgment. Inability to comprehend the aerodynamics and gyroscopic stabilization of a spear while hunting a large, dangerous animal. Finding adequate food and shelter.
In short, selection happens as a result of not dying. In the kind of world in which merely prevailing over the elements, slaying the occasional mammoth and keeping warm on a cold evening ensured success. The Survival of the Fittest world beloved of Darwins early supporters. And by creators of museum dioramas.
Which explains why Crabtree thinks humanitys slide began three millenia before Big Brother even started filming. Agriculture and high-density living, he argued, in selecting for immune resistance to epidemic diseases might have softened selection on intelligence. And that living communally probably reduced the relentless selection by buffering our ancestors from mistakes in judgement and comprehension.
The idea that group living dimmed the harsh selection on day-to-day survival skills intrigues me, and certainly merits testing. But to suggest that this was the end rather than a Renaissance for selection on intelligence reflects a narrow view of how selection works, particularly in humans.
Selection a social and sexual situation
When The Conversation editor, Matt de Neef drew my attention to Crabtrees articles last week, I was preparing a keynote talk at the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia conference in Perth on the evolution of language. While the deep evolutionary causes by which human capacity for language emerged remain murky and contentions, the ways in which we use language today reveal a lot about the forces that have shaped and embellished our capacity for speech, and for writing and comprehending it.
As societies grew larger and more complex, our social worlds grew apace. More people to interact with every day, to speak with, to manipulate and to avoid being manipulated by. More people to court, and more ardent and eloquent suitors to thwart (or accept). The skills that made our ancestors successful shifted; from survival Bear Grylls style to navigating sexual, social and status complexity Sex and the City style.
A few days ago Jason Collins, made exactly this important point in his excellent blog Evolving Economics:
The problem is that Crabtree does not see sexual selection as an extreme selective force, when it is. Consider Wade and Shusters estimate that sexual selection accounts for 55 per cent of total selection in Homo sapiens. Or take Greg Clarks data from A Farewell to Alms, with the rich having twice the children of the poor. The link between resources and reproductive success is strong across societies, and assuming a link between resources and intelligence (which if anything appears to be getting stronger), the intelligent have been reaping a reproductive bounty for some time. For those less fortunate, survival without reproduction is still a genetic dead-end.
Humans are complex animals. Our intelligence is a complex adaptation. And the diverse and surprising ways in which we use it today suggest that we owe it to more than a handful of simplistic evolutionary scenarios. Recent evidence suggests that the advent of farming did not halt the course of natural selection, but rather that it diverted it. From where we stand it is almost impossible to discern what directions human evolution, including the evolution of our intellects, might currently be taking.
But I would gladly wage that if humanity is getting dumber it isnt via natural selection.
No. Culture and learning are in decline, not intelligence, which is innate. Natural selection does not account for decline, if there is such. Human intelligence varies little from person to person. A few geniuses and some regards, but most people are moderately stupid.
No. Culture and learning are in decline, not intelligence, which is innate. Natural selection does not account for decline, if there is such. Human intelligence varies little from person to person. A few geniuses and some retards, but most people are moderately stupid.
Are we not men?
Moderately to incredibly. You can’t refute the stupidity of Obama voters.
That could explain why the Nobel Committee gives prizes to people
like Gore and Krugman. Who’s next, Steven Tyler?
- we have a very broad and abundant source of food (e.g. we get tomatoes in or out of season)
- most responsible parents start stimulating our children's intellect upon birth (some try before birth)
- we have added more knowledge over the last 50 yeas than in all of human history and made it readily available
So I think any degradation would be due to overly processed foods, too many drugs, and toxins from our high tech world getting into our food and air.
NO! (I’m too stupid to know it is) LOL
Only in certain groups because primitive peoples are supplanting the more advanced
And will drag us all down
There was a time, not that long ago, when most people were not as arithmetically challenged as comrade obama, and could add and subtract without a calculator.
Our socialist society has reversed the trend of the rich having more children than the poor. Socialist welfare programs have made it possible for the poor to have many more children than the rich. The welfare programs have put in place financial incentives for the poor to produce more children.
The poor are not necessarily less intelligent than the rich but certainly they are less productive. The poors lack of productivity is however some evidence of inferior intelligence.
Or maybe some of the peoples of South America, people who mastered their environment to the extent they were able to build cities on mountain tops with a mastery of stone superior to anyone in the world.
But like flowers that bloom for a time they all withered and disappeared without ever understanding why. Maybe they weren't so smart after all.
Watch who breeds and who doesn't.
Watch the genealogy chart of the "smart" shrink, while the chart of the "dumb" expands.
Buy it so you can watch it a few times to pick up the nuances..
It is a somewhat vulgar, but very timely movie.
I'm almost seventy, driving a cab fifty hours a week (in "retirement" ;O)) and a couple of days a week my relief driver is a twenty-six yo woman.
After gassing up the other night, I glanced at my receipt, glanced at the odometer and announced that I had gotten about 19 mpg from the old pig taxi.
It took about two seconds.
Her response? "That's scary."
In ten generations it's still pretty much to the average, and in 100, or 1000 generations, it's the same old same old.
Even most of our genes are not terribly different than those of our most ancient spongoid ancestors, or even bacteria!
The tools in the DNA that put together a liver, for example, are pretty much the same in every species with a liver.
So, what makes the difference?
The big boys in the new field of epigenetics say it's the extra copies, the sequence and the blanks, and the bypasses (many due to methylation) that make the difference ~ and that's a pretty complex piece of work ~ and neither Darwinian nor any other view of evolution and survival of the fittest can do more than say 'see there, it works' ~ how it works has yet to be determined.
The writer's thesis is that easy eats (agriculture) allow the less fit to survive.
presumably taking their food away will make them smarter ~ (snork/s)
The Chinese intellectual classes appear to have done much the same thing unless their lives depended on it ~ which suggests we can all become quite a bit smarter if tortured every now and then!
Many years ago in a long flight I was studying a calculus textbook (strictly for my enjoyment) when a fellow passenger said to me that with the advent of the calculator that subject was obsolete. He never did tell me which button you push to improve your brain.
Not really a ‘new’ field, but becoming much more of a focus now that it has become apparent that sequencing the genome wasn't the holy grail some had hoped. I've recently seen genetically identical twins who, as adults, are not the same height. Clearly ‘nuture’, including likely epigenetic modifications (such as the methylation you mention), plays a big role.
Having said that, the fact that we don't feed people to the lions in this century isn't because our DNA changed - or our methylation patterns are different. It's because humanity learned lessons that were passed on from generation to generation. If we stop passing on that which we've learned, those lessons can be lost.
So maybe this is an upside of reelecting Obama?
Noticed he lost 6.5 million voters last time around!
I would say the causes are more cultural. Since the eighties I have noticed the “dumb is kewl” trend. Add to that the sad state of dumbing down of public schools, and the school administration enforcing the “crab bucket” mentality.
I have seen that movie, and concluded that we are 80% there.
Which is doubtless why Japan, Russia, and Europe are all demographically imploding, while the Muslims, Indians, and Chinese are all booming (female infanticide and China's one-child policy notwithstanding...)
Only at the top of American government and courts.
That would be a step up.
A friend in Germany can't understand my dislike of the usurper - "But, but he got a Nobel Prize!!!!"
Whenever an athiest calls into his show and says the only hope that man has is to progress as a species Dennis Prager always responds that he thinks humans are getting dumber and asks the caller to compare letters we have from Civil War Soldiers (who usually only had at most an 8th grade education) to writings today. Oh well, gotta go watch “Ow My Balls!!!”
Need to ask? Just check the election results.
Probably on purpose. If a certain group that is seeking power wanted more power in a representative republic, they need control of a large, unquestioning voting block who lack critical thinking.
The entire premise of the "family oriented" The Cosby Show is that dad is dumb (even though he's a Dr), the kids are dumb, mom is the only smart one because she's authoritative and thinks critically, so don't bother with your own agenda, just follow mom's directives. Scale that up - with a government official as "mom", and constituents as family members - then you have the democRat party.
I have no doubt that the average Athenian of the golden age of Greece was highly intelligent. The city at it’s height was only around 100,000 yet they produced a huge number of the world’s greatest playwrights, philosophers, mathematicians etc.
At 1000 BC Athens was probably less than 10,000 with most of them living on the acropolis which would have been walled in. The fact that the acropolis was a very protected location and was close enough to the harbor at Piraeus is why the city developed. Also the Provence of Attica was apparently a fertile farming area.
The coming Agenda 21-sponsored worldwide famine will sharpen up the wits of the survivors.
I don't believe this is true at all. The bell curve is real. The bottom 10% are way below the top 10%. But averages are misleading.
Let us say there are 100 people. The bottom 10% have an IQ of 65, the top 10% at 130 (I'm just making these up.)against an average of 100. Eliminating the bottom 10% ups the 'average' intelligence to 103, but the society is not really smarter - just fewer dumb ones.
The real question is, was Hawking smarter than Einstein? Davinci smarter than Hawking?
Idiocracy oz fine, but completely falls apart if you look too closely at the premise. Firstly it’s just plain wrong on evolution. Secondly I kept expecting it to turn out that a few smarties were secretly running the country. A nation if idiots could live off the accumulated capital of our cibilization for a while. It’s easier to maintain electricity or the combustion engine, for instance, once you’ve invented them. And the idiots in the movie weren’t doing we’ll.
Still, they seemed to be doing too well for their abilities. They have a crop crisis, buildings are falling, you can escape from prison by telling a guard today is your release day, etc. But I think they’d all have starved to death by then in the real world.
Thirdly and finally they associated idiocy with Big Business, which makes sense in the sense that Carl’s Jr., Starbucks, or whatever, cater to idiots. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can be an idiot and run a corporation. Perhaps the CEO and any number of executives can be idiots, but someone somewhere has to know what they’re doing. This is also why I expected hidden smart people.
Maybe there was no central management and each individual franchise outlet ran itself autonomously, sorta carried on by inertia. But no, it takes some intelligence to run small businesses, surely. Not much to offer a shelter within which you give sexual release, but something to keep feeding people for as long as the idiots have lived.
No, it’s not epigenetics that makes the difference intellectually. Nor is it a lack of sufficiently rigorous natural selection. It is not biological at all. My assumption is innate intelligence has not changed since the advent of civilization. What makes groups smarter or stupider since then is learning, or a lack thereof.
Evolutionary science is really bad at history, economics, anthropology, and sociology, though decent at psychology. A perfect example is the povetyy of sociobiology. It lacks the equipment to understand experience, ir the world of “nurture.” Though it does have a few things to say about biological changes after the advent of of the organism, it is largely helpless in the face of culture.
Because its disciplined line can only in a robust manner explain how wewe’ve been generally for 65,000 years or so. It cannot explain at all, for instance, baseball or Beethoven except in very, very extremely general terms.
“the less fit to survive”
That is a contradiction. Fitness is defined as what us fit fir suurvival. If something survives it is by definition fit.
What you or they mean is the less intelligent survive. But that is simply not true. Average human intelligence, so far as we know, has stayed about the same since there have been humans. What’s happened, if anything, is that already born humans have been miseducated.
“I don’t believe this is true at all. The bell curve is real.”
Yes, it is. I’m nit saying there is nothing but the average. My post clearly admits the existence of born geniuses and retards. However, most people are in the middle range, wherever that happens to fall, and whatever else changes that range never moves drastically left or right from generation to generation.
When I say intelligence doesn’t vary much from person to person, obviously if you line up a genius and a deranged person between two normals it does. But not amongst normals. And in any case the main point is that over time the distribution of geniuses, retards, and normals stays constant.
What makes a species go may not be good for the individuals in that species.
But never mind, if you'd read the whole piece you might wonder why I challenged Darwinian evolution.
Epigenetics explains why your livers grow to different sizes.
On the other hand, the Jews in Babylon ~ on and off again part of Persia, produced intellectual works in literature comparable to what the Greeks were doing ~ and surpassed the Greeks ~ and also trudged along the pathways to authority sufficiently so that their works survived.
BTW, the greater body of Athenian literature was destroyed ~ we know of it through stories about it, and the few snippets that survived.
We have added tremendous amounts of information. A significant portion of that is noise, not signal.
Not all information is knowledge, under the best circumstances, and much of what passes for information is incorrect.
What we are lacking is the ability as a culture to filter the information to gain knowledge, and the moral and philosophical basis to use the knowledge to derive wisdom.
The ability to throw more paint at a wall does not an artist make.
OK,you have piqued my curiosity about Azerbaijan in the 5th century BC. I know almost nothing about that country except that it is close to Persia and Turkey.
What did they do which equals the golden age of Greece?
Now the Jews in captivity we know a little more about, especially from Daniel. Babylon and Nineveh.
Zorastrianism was brought in early.
BTW, there's a type of ear called an Armenoid Ear ~ and a nose called an Armenoid Nose. Today both are widespread in the Middle East ~ back in the day even the Hebrews didn't have either!
These folks are also held to be responsible for founding the Median Empire although they are NOT the Medes.
Think of them as a pretty doggone important bunch of people but subject to repeated cultural disaster which has led to them being identified as OTHER PEOPLE!
Thor Hyerdahl worked up an alternative reading of the rather strange stories about Odin found in ancient Norwegian literature. It was his thesis that a group of Azerbaijanis, under the leadership of a guy named Odin, tried to avoid further military service as auxiliaries in the Roman armies so they WENT NORTH TO SCANDINAVIA in the first century BC or thereabouts.
Hyerdahl pointed to a sort of hat and some other features that would be peculiar to these Azerbaijanis and the Norwegians at the time.
Then, one day somebody found a cave in Azerbaijan that showed drawings of the cap and other items of peculiar design that showed up in Norway in the First Century AD.
More recently DNA analysis has shown the presence of Indians in Scotland in ancient times, so it's hardly a surprise to find Azeris wandering off to Norway. They had the horse, iron work, etc.
Way back in the good old days my main Middle Eastern history professor (dr.jwadeh at indiana university) used to use the Azeris as an example of a LOST CIVILIZATION about which we know everything, but we have no idea why since all their stuff is somewhere else. He was the world's foremost expert in the Kurds ~ that is, the Medes.
“No. Culture and learning are in decline, not intelligence, which is innate.”
Perhaps that explains it. Then again, a culture which does not encourage the rigorous application of innate intelligence will seem like the innate intelligence does not exist.
Living overseas for a time, I spoke Spanish fluently as a young boy. I never used it after I returned to the US, and lost it completely.
point is, unexercised, certain aspects of intelligence are indistinguishable from not having possessed the intellect to begin with.
THAT is what we are suffering from - a culture that does not value the effort of pushing one’s intellect to the limit.
Further, the use of automation has also diminished human intellectual accomplishment over time. I look at all the discovery of the past couple hundred years - these folks knew math - they did it in their heads, or on paper. Look at Maxwell, Faraday, Gauss or any of the namesakes of our systems of physical units today - and you find astounding genius in comparison with the “educated class” today.
I think that has something to do with it too.
Thanks, that is more than interesting.
I have always had a bit of curiosity about Finland, they seem so different from other people in the same area. Some of their words even sound Japanese.
Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are closely related languages. This is a result of history. The Sa'ami languages are NOT closely related as languages go, but they are far more ancient than Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian or the various Indo-European dialects like English, German, Romanian and Tocharian.
For a very long time there's been a debate about whether or not the Sa'ami languages were just variations on Finnish, or had their own source ~ maybe somewhere in the far east. In those days the greatest scientists on earth thought all the Sa'ami originated in the East ~ mostly because of differences in their cheekbones and their eyes ~ like Blond Mongols!
DNA revealed the Sa'ami to be wholly European in origin ~ just the first people to leave the Western European refugia as the Big Ice began melting. They went due North and presumably were heavy into seafood. Eventually they spent the next 19,000 years fairly isolated from other Europeans and retained many features that make them look like the Eastern peoples who split off from the Europeans between 58,000 and 35,000 years back (even the Chinese are not genetically isolated from Europeans more than 35,000 years.)
There was one "meeting" with an outside population about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago so the Eastern Sa'ami managed to pick up some Eastern European DNA ~ and with that managed to introduce some Sa'ami linguistic elements into the blends that ultimately became Hungarian, Estonian and Finnish. Later contact with the Mongols added yet more words to their vocabulary in the 1300s BTW. But even before then, the current thesis is that Sa'ami languages probably lent many of the basic grammatical terms to the less developed Eastern European and Asiatic languages. NOTE: that was all going on before there were any clearly identifiable Indo-European languages.
Within the context of the period from 8,000 years back until about 560 AD, much of the basic Eastern Sa'ami language base got transmitted to East Central Siberia ~ where all the American Indians, East Asians, Japanese, etc. originate. This is in the plains North of the Gobi ~ prime hunting area in the aftermath of the Ice Age.
Not much credit was given to the idea that the Sa'ami actually got that far themselves ~ so the anthropologists had hypothetical East Asian hunters trudging back and forth across the Steppes swapping tusks with the Sa'ami and getting dried reindeer meat in return.
Then within the last 10 years DNA studies revealed a gene sequence called the X-Factor present exclusively in the Sa'ami. Then they found the X-Factor in the Chippewa, then the Cherokee, then the Iroquois, Delaware, Fulbe (in Africa), the Berber (in North Africa), and voila, the Yakuts Sakha in East Central Siberia.
The Yakuts Sakha have a written record recently translated that reports on their recurring invasions of Eastern India, and their returns to Siberia ~ depending on climate, how upset the native got, and so forth, they were there ~ one of their most famous members is known as Buddha. That's why he looks pretty Asian!
About 535 the climate in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and a wide variety of other places turned very bad and a Dark Age began in the affected places. Economies collapsed elsewhere.
That's when the Yakuts Sakha traveled East and conquered much of Korea, and much of Japan ~ however, the war in Japan lasted until the 1500s.
I don't think the noble classes in Japan have had their DNA checked for the X-Factor gene sequence, but I wouldn't bet against it being there.
The Yakuts Sakha imposed their Turcic language on Korea and Japan. It has strong elements of the other better known Mongolian languages, but there are Sa'ami words in there ~ just like there are Sa'ami words in all the Indo-European dialects, and all the other Uralic or Altaic languages, particularly Finnish.
Beyond that it's hard to say why lake Inari means a type of sushi in Japanese ~ but it may have to do with FISH.
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