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.

The Plot Thickens

When the Kennewick Man was discovered in Washington State a great argument ensued. Native tribes demanded that the bones remain with them, as an honored ancestor of 9,000 years ago. Others – non-Natives – argued the Kennewick Man carried “Western” traits (whatever the heck that means) and might have origins from Europe. A battle ensued. Along the way, of course, DNA analysis and genetic testing has evolved rapidly, such that today there are complete genomes of ancient peoples available from both the Old and New World. Recently, as the article below describes in fascinating detail, Kennewick Man has been confirmed as a true Native American ancestor, and his remains returned. It is still the strong belief, supported by evidence, that Native American peoples came from Eurasia, mainly Siberia, some 15,000 to 24,000 years ago. We have already forgotten that just two decades ago the STRONG belief was that nobody was in the Americas until the “Clovis” people appeared 12,000 years ago. As every year passes, dramatic rethinking is being forced by new finds:

  • Ancient people reached the Americas at least 20,000 years ago, and maybe much earlier;
  • Ancient peoples understood maritime seafaring and wandered widely, but during a time when sea levels were much lower such that all their sites are now covered;
  • Ancient patterns of trade and resource exchange were complex and widespread, often covering thousands of miles;
  • All during human development the climate has changed, some times rapidly, in enormous swings, equally as dramatic then as the current concerns about global warming have people panicking today;
  • There is now a begrudging acceptance that humans living in the time of the great animals were, for thousands of years, NOT the top predator, but barely able to linger in out of the way protected sites.

Some thoughts on humility

It seems to me, at least based on the research I did about what we know and can speculate about early human groups, that while life back in the era long before farming and towns and then cities it is likely that small groups could find sufficient food – especially if living along a seashore – without working every hour of every day, leaving time for play, stories, art, and wonder, it is also the case that during nearly all of those years – any time longer than 12,000 years ago when all the great animals went extinct – humans shared their homes with large, dangerous, and carnivorous beasts: dire wolves, saber tooth cats, huge jackals and hyenas, short face bear, and cave lions, suggesting also that those small human groups had to find safe refuges to raise their young and often – perhaps nearly always – were wiped out, to a person. In that time humans were not the apex predator as they later became. Plus, and this seems often overlooked, there were huge climate shifts, glaciations, meteors striking the earth, eruptions, floods, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, all bringing devastation, change, and death – natural forces too great to imagine or comprehend.

It is no wonder, then, such groups were surely conservative, careful, and cautious about their actions and decisions, and even more the case that they must have been truly humble, as in, accepting their smallness in the world around them, their weakness, their ignorance about what was going on.

In fact I would imagine that, along with the ability to tell stories and carry on culture and learning, the need for humility in all things was paramount for survival. Some have written that humility – the placing of one self subordinate to other forces, the awareness of lack of knowledge and understanding, and the value of memory and ancient truth – is what creates wisdom. It is no wonder, then, that elders and ancient members of a group or tribe were revered, just as, because of the precariousness of life, attitudes were formed with a view three, five, even ten generations down the road. I have tried in my Strong Heart Series to describe such a possible culture, which still contains all the human behaviors of greed, lust, envy, and so on, and sought in my tales to suggest that the required humility of those early ages must be brought forward to the present day as a means to offset many current toxic behaviors and values.

As long as there has been writing there have been people writing of humility, in different guises, and with different definitions. Anna Katherina Schaeffer, PhD, provides an excellent summary of the history of humility:

Humility is a core value in many ancient ethical and theological frameworks. The Confucian form of humility, for example, is profoundly other oriented in spirit, consistently valuing the social good over the satisfaction of our individual aspirations. In this ancient Chinese form, humility can significantly enhance social cohesion and our sense of belonging.

The Greek philosopher Socrates held that wisdom is, above all, knowing what we don’t know. He taught an intellectual form of humility that freely acknowledges the gaps in our knowledge and that humbly seeks to address our blind spots.

Aristotle understood humility as a moral virtue, sandwiched between the vices of arrogance and moral weakness. Like Socrates, he believed that humility must include accurate self-knowledge and a generous acknowledgment of the qualities of others that avoids distortion and extremes.

An accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses is still a core feature of current definitions of humility.
Christian humility is linked to self-abnegation, shame, and sin and may therefore not be to everyone’s taste. However, the ancient theologians can still help us to avoid arrogance and pretentiousness. They remind us that we are members of a species that is far from perfect and urge us to be mindful of the limited role we each have to play in the fate of humanity as a whole.

Through the centuries, the importance of humility as a moral character virtue has faded. However, psychological studies of humility have surged in the last two decades (Worthington, Davis, & Hook, 2017). This renewed interest in humility is, in no small part, a counter-reaction to what the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), have described as our “age of entitlement.

Today, self-realization and enhancing our self-worth are our highest aspirations. Precisely because it provides an antidote to many worrying tendencies of our age, such as arrogance, greed, and self-centeredness (all of which also have devastating consequences for our democracies and our planet), humility is experiencing a much-needed revival.



The Dog Days of Summer

The first step in becoming humble, in recognizing what we don’t know and cannot control, is seeing our own true hand in a situation. Until we do that, solutions cannot be found. These are the dog days of summer…..

Fire, everywhere. Greece, the United States, Canada, Siberia, Australia. I don’t know about other places, but a strong argument can be made that the terrible fires in the U.S. are largely caused by decades of fire suppression (Smokey the Bear) allowing the build up of huge masses of tinder, not to mention building neighborhoods in areas sure to burn. Yes, the beetle infestation is a factor, and hot and dry summers, but we own a big part of this.

Covid Delta wave: We had it licked in the late spring, or so it seemed. Vaccines (three of them) that worked and many people wearing masks in crowded spaces. Now, three months later, it’s almost as bad as before, this time nearly all people who have not yet been vaccinated. How can it be that we have become stupid enough to politicize the health benefits of masks and vaccines, to somehow make this an issue of freedom instead of health? We have entirely forgotten the world before penicillin and vaccines, when life was cheap, many died, and people grasped at the chance to take a shot and protect themselves. They would look at us today and laugh. How did we beat polio? Everyone was vaccinated, end of story. Good God. Yet here we are with millions among us refusing to face the situation, in denial, pretending the virus itself is fake.

Afghanistan: Twenty years of war and the army we built and funded collapsed in two weeks. Somehow our initial limited mission to get Bin Laden and Al Queda morphed into something else, nation building. And then, when the Iraq invasion propaganda was in full swing, just before the invasion, millions around the world marched against war. No media mentions that today, those millions who were right, back then, and still are. Our history of invading other countries to remake them in some idealized democratic system is a terrible history, and we have learned nothing, it seems. Two Presidents could not end what Bush began. Now Biden has ended it and the media and pundits are howling. Tough break for the war industry, for sure, but a blessing to any parent of any kid in the services. And who do the media bring on to discuss Afghanistan? The very same people who howled for invading Iraq, remaking the Middle East, nearly all in some way connected to military contractors and think tanks.

A humble person faces facts, admits error, and learns from mistakes. Repeating the same mistake expecting a different outcome is a good definition of insanity. It seems we are close. We have been allowing the forests to fill with tinder for two or three generations. In the face of compelling evidence we still, or many among us, refuse to take simple, tested, proven health steps to defeat this virus. Despite, in my lifetime, having now twice invaded and tried to remake another nation, stayed way too long, and been entirely defeated, there are many in the Washington D.C. blob seemingly arguing that leaving Afghanistan is a mistake, and it seems these people are the ones filling all the air time.

I don’t see our leaders in the forestry industry howling and demanding funds to clear the tinder from forests, to allow controlled regular burns, to prevent construction in fire prone areas. I do see some among us demanding vaccine and mask requirements, but this could have been so easily handled had the last President said everyone needs a shot and a mask, again and again, starting in early 2020, but he did not and here we are. Finally a President came before the public and said Afghanistan was lost, and to protect American lives we were leaving, and the leaving would be difficult and messy, and the buck stops with him as to the outcome, and he has been vilified. Yet, to date, he seems the first among us to show some humility.

I hope we see more.

Humility (2)

During the last, say 150 years there has been unrelenting and consistent technological change in nearly all areas – medicine, communications, travel, energy, the list is seemingly endless. It is almost unbelievable, actually. Somehow there seems to have been a parallel assumption that we humans have also changed greatly, maybe because we think we must have changed to bring forth all these marvels, and maybe, even more, many of us think that with all these new wonderful tools the measure of people, their character and behavior, must be changing rapidly as well. There has been, for at least six or seven generations, a steady belief in inevitable progress in all areas, including the character and behavior of humans.

This is a huge, huge mistake, in my opinion, because human nature hasn’t changed despite all these technological breakthroughs. The evidence of our own eyes and memories, for those of us who have been around for eight or nine decades, is exactly the opposite, as is the historical record – we humans have been bad to each other, always and forever.

Go way back, Im mean, way way back, before farming, before towns and cities, the time of great ice and terrible animals, and humans barely hanging on in remote safe places. When a group invaded another group’s territory, back then, it seems they captured the women and children but killed off all the men, all of them, so there would not be retribution. Surely humans then, and in the years since, and today, are selfish, vengeful, hateful, lustful, cruel, possessive acquisitive, tyrants, murderers, just as humans are loving, caring, friendly, empathetic, self sacrificing, and noble.

Look over the last 150 years – many huge wars, hundreds of millions dead, maybe 70 million in the two World Wars alone. Millions more killed with famine, whether in China, Russia, India, Asia, or elsewhere. Millions more lost to disease. Remember that a century ago only smallpox had been defeated, there remained the scourge of measles, mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, polio, rickets, cholera, not to mention millions more lost to raw poverty. Yes, it is true that today millions of people are living far better than their forebears, but does this mean human nature has changed? That the legacy of grim news that has underpinned all the technological triumphs will somehow miraculously end?

I think not. Somewhere in the rush to greatness, and the ability to build and invent great things, we seem to have entirely lost awareness that we are both good and evil, flawed and noble, and any excess – ANY – promises difficulty, death, destruction. Nowadays we may look back and consider earlier people cautious, conservative in behavior, keeping their heads down, but maybe the truth of the matter was they were raised humble, cautious, well aware of their own dark side, and the dark sides of others. Throughout all of history the battles have remained the same – on the one had wresting survival from a hostile world, which we humans successfully did such that the world seems now to be ours, but on the other hand always, since the beginning, struggling with the much larger danger – ourselves, our conflicts and fights, and these days our narrative driven views that only we are right and all others not only flawed but even evil.

In ancient times, when we were not the apex predator, the world was above us, more powerful, and we were careful, humble, cautious, because we had to be. Now we rule the world, but it has not been the world that has brought evil, it is ourselves, plain as day, brought forth in the urgency of ideology and zealotry and certain-ness, and further complicated because the public megaphones respond to only anger, rage, froth. My sense is the greater mass of us are sick of all of it, and want to just get on with our lives, as best we can, and all of us know that only through humility will come the wisdom to regain some kind of balance.