Monday, November 26, 2012

We're All Dumb Here

I got email from a regular reader about this post, praising it and including a link to this post at another blog covering the same topic.  That blogger, Dave Cohen, had come up independently with some of the same criticisms I had, especially on the untestability of Gerald Crabtree's speculations, but I disagree with him on enough points that I thought I'd do an encore.

My main complaint is that while Dave Cohen quibbles with Crabtree's assumption that human beings are becoming less intelligent, he declares that "contemporary humans [are] more out of touch with Reality than they used to be", from which he draws the conclusion that we/they are "crazier than they used to be."
Technological "improvements" in mass media have created a situation in which the consensual Reality is now almost wholly defined by other humans whose conscious or unconscious agenda constantly shapes our perceptions of what's going on. In that sense, for contemporary humans, physical and psychological Reality can hardly be said to exist. Thousands of years ago, humans could perceive directly what was happening around them and to them. That's not the case anymore. Now there are layers and layers of obfuscation separating humans from direct apprehension of events. In Crabtree's terms, direct evolutionary selection pressures no longer exist. You are usually not killed off by the person right in front of you (although that still happens). Now you are screwed by a sociopathic banker on Wall Street who you don't know and who doesn't know you.
Wow.  Where do I begin to say what is wrong with this passage? The "consensual Reality" is only consensual if we give our consent; and even the most plugged-in person still has to fill his or her belly, keep his or her body warm, evacuate waste, and deal with fleshly morbidity and mortality.   Those "other humans whose conscious or unconscious agenda constantly shape our perceptions" don't necessarily, or even probably, know what they're doing, but anyhow human beings have been 'shaping our perceptions' with language for tens of thousands of years now.  One might well say that having "layers and layers of obfuscation separating from direct apprehension of events" through language and cognition is exactly what makes us different from other species, the core of human nature.  But Hurricane Sandy is a reminder of how fragile our cognitive bubble is, and we still manage to function when things break down.  The "consensual Reality" includes the measures that kept the death toll from Sandy comparatively low in the US, and that's pretty real.

It's significant how the nature of the evolutionary pressures "you" used to face have altered as the game of Telephone proceeds.  Crabtree thought that our distant ancestors had to survive in a hostile environment ("a hunter gatherer that did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter"), the Bizjournals writer wrote in terms of keeping a jump ahead of saber-toothed tigers, and Cohen selects "the person right in front of you" as an example of "direct evolutionary selection pressures [that no] longer exist," though in fact homicide not only still happens but is still a significant cause of death for human beings.  All three could be examples of selection pressure, but they're all largely secondary.  In fact we don't usually know what selection pressures lead to the extinction of a species.  (What killed off the dinosaurs is still debated, for example, as is what happened to the Neanderthals.  A lot of the explanations one hears are wishful fantasy.  The more we learn, the less we know.)

Cohen claims:
For example, polling reveals that Americans have no clue about the extent to which this society has been divided into Haves and Have-Nots. And last week, 120 million Americans voted for Democrats or Republicans, pretending all the while that it matters whether one political party or the other holds power, although the relatively low voter turnout was encouraging. Both political parties have sold them down the river over the last 30 years. Generally speaking, social realities have been nearly obliterated.
Really?  Polls reveal that Americans have no clue about the class divide?  Polls are tricky things, but his claim is debatable, to put it gently.  Por ejemplo (via):
Roughly three-quarters of the public (77%) say that they think there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States. In a 1941 Gallup poll, six-in-ten (60%) Americans expressed this view. About nine-in-ten (91%) Democrats and eight-in-ten (80%) of independents assert that power is too concentrated among the rich and large corporations, but this view is shared by a much narrower majority (53%) of Republicans.
Reflecting a parallel sentiment, 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and just 36% say the system is generally fair to most Americans. About three-quarters (76%) of Democrats and 61% of independents say the economic system is tilted in favor of the wealthy; a majority (58%) of Republicans say that the system is generally fair to most Americans.
I'll concede that our rulers and corporate media elites are out of touch with reality in many areas, but most Americans?  There's evidence pointing in the opposite direction.  The real problem is that the voting system is so set up that we have no one to vote for.  (I remember with pleasure Barbara Ehrenreich's satirical piece on the heartbreak of whiteness, when she pointed out that African-Americans had shown their superior intelligence because 90% of them had voted against Ronald Reagan.  It's hard to argue with that.)

Cohen's assertion that direct evolutionary pressures no longer exist is hogwash.  Such pressures do exist, but they affect us differently than they did a million years or even a couple of centuries ago.  Yes, human beings have changed our environment, but that began with the invention of tools and even more, with control of fire.  Fire and clothing enabled us to live in conditions we never could have survived otherwise.  We did this, not by changing our biology, but by creating an artificial environment through culture. If you want to worry about our distancing ourselves from "reality," our ability to live in frigid climates is the original sin.  Culture, which enables us to pass along what we've learned in a Lamarckian transmission of acquired traits, is the bubble that protects us from the "natural" world, but is itself a product of the natural world.

Our cultural bubble doesn't protect us from "selection pressures."  We've overcome many of the diseases that used to shorten our lives, but new ones keep turning up.  Did there used to be so many children with cancer?  But in evolutionary terms it doesn't matter: if the environment wasn't congenial for one reason or another, no species would "succeed."  When the environment becomes less congenial, any species will "fail."  We can't know in advance what will kill us off, but at present, despite climate change and its attendant disasters, with seven billion human beings on this planet we're far from extinct.  It doesn't matter whether we are becoming less intelligent: we're still here.  As I said in my previous post on Crabtree, intelligence is not a prerequisite for evolutionary success anyway.

Cohen proclaims:
Technologically clever, yes, but generally intelligent? No! The fundamental irrationality, the tendency to believe in invisible beings who watch over them, the belief in magic, the unwarranted optimism, the stubborn, false Hope which flies in the face of Reality, the tragic lack of self-knowledge—these, and a thousand other flaws have always been there.
No one knows what "generally intelligent" would mean.  Our "irrationality" hasn't kept us from flooding the planet with ourselves, so it's not entirely unreasonable to suppose that it contributed to our evolutionary success; "the tendency to believe in invisible beings" produced science as well as magic -- the two aren't as different as science cultists would have you believe.  Like many other people, Cohen fantasizes about a presumably unflawed intelligence, and while I don't mean to be complacent, no one has any idea what unflawed intelligence would be.  It's one of those invisible, imaginary beings Cohen dislikes.  Then there's the fantasy of an intelligence unemcumbered by a body of flesh, a intelligence free of irrationality, an intelligence without -- "Hope"?  Beware of wishing for "self-knowledge": you might get it.

I've long been baffled by this misanthropic dismissal of human intelligence.  The most extreme case I can think of was someone on the first computer BBS I frequented, back in the mid-1980s.  He said that he didn't think there was such a thing as human intelligence; there might, he allowed, be such a thing as real intelligence somewhere else in the universe, but not among Homo Sap, and not on this planet.  That was interesting in so many ways.  First off, since he wasn't intelligent by his own assumption, why should anyone take him seriously?  We're all dumb here -- you're dumb too, or you wouldn't be here.  Second, "intelligence" is something that most of us ascribe to human beings, and to a lesser extent to other animals.  It has no meaning except as a trait human beings have, and until we actually encounter "intelligent" extraterrestrial organisms, we won't have a basis for comparison anyway.  It's sort of like saying that there's no such thing as human beauty, except that we human beings do perceive beauty in other animals, in plants, in inorganic things (from quartz crystals to the Grand Canyon), in natural phenomena like sunsets or the night sky.  I suppose that a human being could decide that no human beings are beautiful, that only seal-point Siamese cats or the Andromeda galaxy are really beautiful; but I would reply that while it's fine for him, I (like many other people) do find many human beings beautiful.  Beauty, like intelligence or goodness, is in the eye of the beholder.  If everybody is ugly, then nobody's beautiful; if everybody's dumb, then nobody's dumb.  Or at least, some are dumber than others.

Finally, a good many people (usually male, I think) believe that computers are intelligent, and fantasize that machine intelligence will be the next evolutionary step in the ascent to Godhead.  The superintelligent computers will take care of us, or at least those of us who devoted ourselves to their service and support. Since there is no ascent, and no Godhead, this is just another one of the irrational fantasies Cohen derides.  I'm not claiming that humans have the best of all possible brains.  What I am claiming is that we don't know and can't know what a better brain than ours would be.  At this point, our sample for intelligence as Cohen conceives it is precisely one: us.  Just to say that is to see how pitifully self-aggrandizing it is.  Right now we have no grounds at all to declare what superior intelligence would look like, even if "superior" has any meaning.  But even if Crabtree were correct about the decline of human intelligence (and to repeat, he doesn't seem to have any evidence at all for that claim), it could easily be that the decline is the result of selection pressure, and the next step up the Great Chain of Being, Homo Doofus, is waiting in the evolutionary wings, waiting for his moment to come.  It's what Nature wants!