A long-held suspicion of ours has at last been confirmed by science. Mankind truly is becoming dumber.
This welcome reassurance that we’re not crazy comes courtesy of the Natural Society’s web site, which reports on Stanford University geneticist Dr. Gerald Crabtree’s finding that “humans are losing cognitive capabilities and becoming more emotionally unstable.” The trend is so far advanced, Crabtree has written, “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.”
Alas, as we survey the contemporary scene it seems the good doctor is damning that long lost Athenian with faint praise. Although the article does not explain how genetics has proved the diminution of human intelligence, the sociological evidence abounds. The decline is especially apparent in cocktail party conversations about politics, but can also be found in the futile attempts to receive change from convenience store clerks, the proliferation of neck tattoos bearing the names of ex-spouses, the backwards ball caps and saggy britches that now pass for proper funeral attire, and any number of other encounters with the average citizen.
There’s a possibility that we are unusually unlucky in our encounters, but corroborating evidence of the decline of human intelligence can be found not only in the past election results but also in the most popular products of today’s popular culture. One needn’t go back to the age of Aeschylus to notice that the entertainment industry once believed it could expect a greater level of knowledge from its audience than the producers of modern reality shows and actions flicks would dare demand. The eminent pessimist Mark Steyn likes to point to the introductory lines of “Just One of Those Things,” in which Cole Porter assumes that the pop music listeners of his time would recognize a witty reference to Abelard and Heloise, the tragic literary lovers of the 12th Century, but an even better example of the better-educated audiences of the recent past might be a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1949 called “The Scarlet Pumpernickel,” which finds Daffy “Dumas” Duck in the midst of the French Revolution and hilariously pronouncing “Robespierre” with his distinctive spittle-spewing emphasis on the “p.” It’s a low-brow bit of humor, perhaps, but it’s in service of a rather sophisticated and surreal show-within-a-show-within-a-show plot that requires a familiarity with history one no longer anticipates when making high-brow art-house fare, much less a children’s cartoon. A friend recently related a conversation with some local college students who had seen the new movie about Abraham Lincoln, and he tells us that although they enjoyed the movie they were disturbed by the surprise ending when the main character got shot, which is about the level of education that a moviemaker should now accommodate.
Even the smart people of the modern age are dumber than the smart people of the past. The political class is exhibit A, of course, with academia close behind, but the decline is also apparent in the sciences and the arts. An amazing array of gizmos are constantly being created, but nothing so original and consequential as the printing press, steam engine, light bulb, or polo vaccine, and we can think of no one in the visual arts, theater, dance, or any other corner of high culture that is seriously compared to the towering figures of the past century. The letters of self-taught farmers and housewives in the 18th Century feature livelier prose than can be found in today’s best-sellers, and offer more honest and insightful accounts of their times than the dreary work of today’s highly educated journalists.
Crabtree attributes this decline to the diminishing effects of natural selection, as agriculture and then urbanization and industrialization allowed the stupid to survive and procreate, and while this seems reasonable enough it doesn’t explain the severe acceleration in the trend over the past 50 years or so. The writer for the Natural Society, being a natural kind of guy, blames pesticides, processed foods, and fluoridated water, but we’re inclined to think that enduring pests is dumb, processed foods seem not to have affected the atypical smart people we know, and we witness a great deal of stupidity while living in a town that has long been ridiculed for its steadfast rejection of fluoridated water.
We look to the culture, rather than genetic or chemical reasons, and especially the contemporary trend of the most dim-witted people being the most fecund. In his splendid satire “Idiocracy” the filmmaker Mike Judge envisions what society will look like after another 500 years of the high-IQ couples endlessly delaying parenthood while the low-IQ types reproduce like proverbial rabbits, and our only quibble with his scenario is that we don’t think it will take nearly so long for the America to reach the comically moronic level he depicts.
Crabtree doesn’t offer any solutions to the problem that he has identified, and neither do we, but these days one is doing well just to be aware.
— Bud Norman