Are we becoming less intelligent?

I wonder if we as a species are dumbing down. Before farming (ie, dense settlements, crowds, and a need for administration) human bones we have recovered shows that skeletons were stronger and brains bigger. In fact the very recent discovery of that skull in northern China, maybe 150,000 years old, has a brain bigger than modern man’s. My guess is we had bigger brains because we needed to remember everything in order to carry forth learning and culture. We did this with stories, I am sure, stories as a way to encode memory for years, then for generations.

Then with farming, and the development of a priestly class, writing developed, first used to catalogue the administration of commerce and materials, and to document religious structure and belief. Until very very recently – as in, the last say 500 years – only a tiny percentage of we humans could read and write; needed to read and write,. Then, about 400 years ago, education in the literary arts became more widespread, and now, in the 21st century, nearly everyone can read at some level.

So for the last say four or five centuries humans began to store their memories and their data with writing and scrolls and books in levels great enough to see the broad development of libraries. Libraries, and palace records, documented what had been learned and exported all this information to ink and paper such that humans did not, any longer, have to carry everything around in their head. At the same time, of course, culture and civilization became increasingly complex, requiring great specialization in the professions and in learning itself – further requiring the use of paper and ink to hold records, instructions, historical accounts.

With the wide use of reading and writing the tremendous importance of verbal and oral histories, and teachings, began to diminish. What had been held in a person’s large brain was now stored somewhere else. This meant that the brain no longer needed to remember so much. And maybe this is why the average brain of we humans today is smaller than the brains of our ancestors who had to survive in a world filled with terrible animals, great ice, and huge swings in climate.

Now we have entered a third phase in this process, in the last half century – the development of the computer, the ability to store incredible amounts of information on chips and drives. This was something in the early years but still required the printing of thousands of pages to reveal the stored data. However, in the last 20 years the “cloud” and the Internet has created a paradigm shift – now everything is stored in the “cloud” and there are applications and programs that enable anyone on earth, using a cell phone or computer, to ask any question and receive an answer. This is called “googling.” You see it all the time, someone asks a question and someone else peers at their phone and a half minute later gives an answer, because they googled the cloud and the cloud spat back an answer.

So these days humans no longer have to remember everything with stories, as our bigger brained ancestors had to, or know enough to read a card catalogue to find data in a library – no. These days all someone has to do is be able to read and click in a question, and the “cloud” gives the answer.

If human brains shrank with the advent of writing, the first form of remote storage, won’t brains shrink even more, and faster, with this “cloud?” Why exercise your brain, train it to learn and hold information, contain it and sort it, when an external thing does it for you? All those stresses and pressures creating neurons and pathways will fall idle.

The brain will shrink.

We are making ourselves stupid.

Author: Charlie Sheldon

Charlie Sheldon studied at Yale University (American Studies) and the University of Massachusetts (Master’s Degree in Wildlife Biology and Resource Management). He then went to sea as a commercial fisherman off New England, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster, red crab, squid, and swordfish. Active in the fight for the 200-mile Fisheries Conservation Zone, he later worked as a consultant for Fishery Management Councils, developing fishery management plans and conducting gear development projects to develop more selective fisheries. He spent 28 years working for seaports (New York, Seattle, and Bellingham) as a project and construction manager and later as an executive. In addition to overseeing habitat cleanup projects, he worked with Puget Sound Tribes establish a system whereby tribal fishing could coexist with commercial shipping in Seattle Harbor and Elliot Bay. Then, nearly ancient, he returned to sea, shipping out with the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific as an Ordinary Seaman, Able Bodied Seaman, and Bosun. Starting with commercial container vessels, on the New York to Singapore run, he finished his career aboard naval ships for Military Sealift Command. His last gig was as bosun aboard USNS Shughart, New Orleans to New York, in 2016. Always a writer, he published Fat Chance with Felony and Mayhem Press in 2005. He began working on ideas for Strong Heart long, long ago and began serious research in 2010. These days he hikes in the Olympics whenever he can, cooks for his wife, and continues to write tales in Ballard, Washington.

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