The film, “Idiocracy”, not surprisingly, never had a major theatrical release, but has acquired a cult following. In essence, the film is a satirical look at where writer and director Mike Judge thinks society is heading. Sadly, I don’t think his depiction is terribly far off the mark. As such, I’m left to wonder: is evolution really steering humanity towards some form of idiocracy?

During the film’s prologue, a narrator explains that in our modern society, natural selection does not favor the intelligent (who think deeply about their reproduction choices and tend to reproduce less overall due to financial reasons, etc.) and that less-intelligent people procreate freely and easily out-breed the intelligent because our society focuses on preventing evolutionary creative destruction from occurring. Ultimately, due to this evolutionary twist, the futuristic world portrayed in the film is a dystopia that promotes rampant anti-intellectualism.

Do we see this happening today? If you’ve ever been ridiculed for talking about something intellectual or serious, you’ll probably agree that the dumbing-down effect in our culture is already occurring. I have plenty of anecdotes to support this belief myself. The movie ultimately reminded me that there is a strong case to be made for elitism (I plan to write about this more in the future). It’s incredibly hard to have a rational and logical discussion about things like politics, economics, and the very fate of humanity when so many of the voices who think their opinion should matter are so profoundly stupid.

For instance, my opinion on string theory is of very little value. I simply don’t understand it. In general, I’m relatively stupid when it comes to issues related to anything above basic physics. Suppose, however, that I showed up to a physics conference and said: “I don’t believe in string theory. I’m just not a fan.” I would rightfully get laughed out of the place for having no logical or rational justification for having that belief. This happens with political and economic issues frequently though.

I’ve personally had many discussions about economic related issues with people who simply don’t understand rudimentary economics. The problem is they are unaware that they don’t understand rudimentary economics and actually believe that they do. For some reason, when it comes to issues like politics and economics many people think that their opinion should matter regardless of their lack of intellect on the subject. Perhaps the real problem is that most people fail to realize where their intellectual limits lie. Aside from natural selection running its course, I’m not sure there is a good solution to this problem.

Glamorizing Our Hunter-Gatherer Past

I finally read Jared Diamond’s controversial article (published back in 1987) “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“.  In it, he writes: “Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.” Parts of this article certainly resonate with me, other parts don’t. The agricultural revolution, in my opinion, has presented some interesting challenges for humans and in many ways is at least partly responsible for many of our modern health woes. To blame agriculture for all of the flaws in humanity is, however, simply not fair.

Diamond is clearly guilty of wishful thinking and romanticizing the past. He writes about our collective past with a unique brand of Panglossian vigor. “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism,that curse our existence.” I have one minor objection to that claim: these problems are, however, not unique to societies with agriculture. This is merely a rendition of “the myth of the Noble Savage“.

The myth of the Noble Savage is anthropology’s oldest and most successful hoax. The myth makes the false claim that tribal societies of the past were noble and non-violent and it is often used in modern discourse to promote idealistic political agendas. The reality is that native peoples, the world over, have been fighting, conquering, and generally mistreating each other since the beginning of human history. Denying historical truths and elements of human nature demonstrates a rare form naivety. I didn’t expect to find this type of naivety in the writings of a renowned anthropologist like Diamond.

Bruce Thornton trashes “the myth of the noble savage” in his brilliant book Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge. Thornton never praises the ugly side of world history or human nature, but he never tries to deny its existence. Thornton shows compelling research suggesting that men in all known tribal societies dominated women. Sadly, women and children were the first to starve when food was short. Democratic practices in tribal societies were almost non-existent and power resulted largely from physical strength. Furthermore, almost all tribes engaged in warfare.

As I stated, agriculture, has likely been detrimental to human health. It is, however, unfair and naive to blame agriculture for all moral and societal ills as well.  There are indeed clues from our past that can make us healthier and help us to live better.  I think, however, that it’s one of the worst mistakes in anthropology to glamorize our hunter-gatherer past in its entirety.

Are You Part Neanderthal?

According to an article in The Guardian posted here, “Most people living outside Africa can trace up to 4% of their DNA to a Neanderthal origin, a consequence of interbreeding between the two groups after the great migration from the continent.” I find this fascinating and have long wondered when science would be able to tell us about interbreeding between humans and the Neanderthals. Although we can only speculate, it’s fun to imagine what the cultural dynamics between the two species must have been like.

After reading the article, I’m left to ponder the following question though: What happened to the rest of the Neanderthals? Apparently, humans may have eaten them, but that claim is still pure speculation. Ben Atlas dares to suggest it may have been genocide, alas, more recent human history surely supports that as a feasible claim.

I think Kurt Vonnegut put it best, “How embarrassing to be human.” And to think the dictionary defines neanderthals as “primitive, uncivilized, and boorish”. Is anything more boorish than eating a species you mate with? The next time someone asks: Are you part Neanderthal? I think I’ll answer with “only the good part.”