Are we “evolving” toward becoming “marching morons”?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel recently spun a fable for The Edge about selection and drift in the human attribute of innovative creativity.  His assertion in Infinite Stupidity is that the very same civilization we built through innovation becomes a driving selective force, one that winds up sapping innovative genius from the gene pool.

Now at one level, Professor Pagel’s argument is just a reiteration of the old “marching morons” notion – once popular in 1950s science fiction, as well as the earlier Eugenics Movement – that the long term effect of complex civilization must be to reward mediocrity and propel a decline in net human intelligence.

Pagel starts with a reasonable premise: that as humans created ever-larger societies, featuring rapid communication among greater populations, more people would benefit from copying the innovations produced by a few truly creative individuals.

So far, that seems pretty obvious. Cultural dissemination of new techniques started really burgeoning about thirty to forty thousand years ago, around the same time that trade networks clearly developed, with seashells adorning necklaces in the Alps, for example.

The Neolithic Renaissance, at the dawn of the Aurignacian, erupted with astonishing abruptness after a hundred millennia of static technology. Within a few dozen generations – an eyeblink — our ancestral tool kit expanded prodigiously to include fish hooks and sewing needles made of glistening bone, finely-shaped scrapers, axes, burins, nets, ropes and specialized knives that required many complex stages to create.

Art also erupted on the scene. People adorned themselves with pendants, bracelets and beads. They painted magnificent cave murals, performed burial rituals and carved provocative Venus figurines. Innovation accelerated. So did other deeply human traits – for there appeared clear signs of social stratification. Religion. Kingship. Slavery. War.

And — for the poor Neanderthals — possibly genocide.

What changed?

The cause of this rather rapid shift is hard to confirm, but Pagel seems to be implying (by my interpretation) that it was triggered by something as simple as an expansion of clan size – augmented by increased inter-clan trade.

So far so good.

Only then Professor Pagel does something I find wholly unjustified, even rather weird. He proposes that – amid this flurry of trade-enhanced innovation – the need for the trait of innovativeness would decline, on a per-capita basis, because the average person or small group would benefit by copying whatever came along.

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers.”  In other words, what need to maintain the expensive capacity to create new ideas when you can simply borrow them from a small coterie of idea-guys, scattered across the continent?

Alas, Professor Pagel spins a just-so story that is conveniently and charmingly free of reference to historical or archaeological evidence. For example, he ignores the fact that innovation sped up, intensely and supra-linearly, as the number of individuals connected in a society increased.

According to Pagel’s premise, that rate should not rise appreciably with increased communication! Rather, if the amount of innovation were simply satisfying a Darwinian need, then with an expanded community the per capita creativity resource supplying that need would atrophy until the need was barely met. With the minimally needed level now acquired and satisfied by trade. people would simply become more dull and parasitical – that’s his theory.  Only logically it would hold actual-total innovation at the same, pre-trade level.

Toynbee, Marx and Wills

I mentioned that this notion has a long history. Dour folk have long held that civilized life must have negative effects upon the gene pool, leading some, a century ago, to push eugenics legislation. But there are other glimmers from the past that merit mention.

For example, Karl Marx actually praised the cleverness and acumen of the bourgeois capitalist class, deeming them absolutely necessary for economic development. Their competitive creativity (and theft of labor-value from proletarians) would drive capital formation. Cyclically, the actual number of capitalists would see a secular decline with time as their trade networks expanded. In the end, Marx foresaw this brilliant class extinguished, after all the capital was “formed” and when their cleverness was no longer needed. You can see how this eerily mirrors or foreshadows Pagel’s teleology.

Another maven, who comes across better in light of real history, was Arnold Toynbee. His survey of the past led him to conclude that civilizations rise when they support and eagerly learn from their “creative minority” — those who innovate useful solutions to rising problems. And societies fail when they don’t. (In which case, does America’s current war on science… and upon every other clade of mental accomplishment… forebode a coming fall?) In this light, Pagel’s assertion seems dour, indeed.

A third, more recent voice is Christopher Wills, whose book Children of Prometheus contends that civilization, in fact, rapidly accelerates changes in the gene pool, propelling evolution ever-faster. I believe this case is very well-made, and wholly consistent with what really happened in the era discussed by Professor Pagel.

The Great Acceleration

In fact, after the Aurignacian the pace of creativity only sped up, then exponentiated. Agrarian clans and then kingdoms allocated surplus food to specialists, rewarding them for talent and expertise, sometimes in accurate correlation to their effectiveness at innovation.  (Though skill at persuasiveness – lying – was always a higher correlate. That trait has almost certainly been an evolutionary rocket; but more on that another time.)

Key point: with agriculture, the collection and allocation of food surplus became a substantial human reproductive driver, as subsidized specialist roles became common. Competitively striving to attain that status, youths who became scribes, blacksmiths, tool-makers, engineers and priests must have achieved enhanced reproductive ability almost equal to the feudal lords who soon dominated every society.

Hence, a proclivity for nerdiness would increase… though, of course, not quite in pace with an ever-rising tendency toward oligarchy. I’ll admit that the trait most avidly reinforced was the ability of some men to pick up metal implements and take away other men’s women and wheat… a trait that required not only strength but some cleverness and yes, innovation.

Nevertheless, the brain-lackeys – the priests and tool-makers and monument builders – certainly did well. And they passed on the traits that made them successes. So much for the dismally grouchy “marching morons” hypothesis.

All of this is clear from the historical record. I find it disappointing that Professor Pagel seemed so willing to spin us a vague tale without confronting any of it. Indeed, for an evolutionary biologist to weave such a story without referring to reproductive advantage seems very strange, indeed.

A Warning for the Future?

But it isn’t finished. Pagel extrapolates to the modern age: “As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

He continues, “What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

“Domesticated?” One is tempted to demand that the professor speak for himself, not this wild spirit!

But ah, well.  So we come down to the couch-potato argument. The question posed by Nicholas Carr and other cyber grouches who contend that Google is making us Stoopid. As I have said before, any sensible person can look around and see plenty of signs that suggest the cynics may be right. Their criticisms may be more inherently useful than the giddy proclamations of cyber-transcendentalists, like Clay Shirky. Criticism is welcome… even if I find both sides romantically unrealistic.

Nevertheless, look, this is just an assertion, bereft of even correlative evidence, let alone proof. Sure, ninety percent of Internet activity is crap. But that could be said about everything, all the time, even – especially – during all the eras leading up to this one. And while Pagel’s lament may elicit voluptuous schadenfreude, it is hardly utilitarian or helpful.

If civilization relies upon Toynbee’s creative minority, depending on the small percentage of creators more and more, then that minority had better buckle down and find ways to get more support from those marching (copycat) masses. Duh?



Filed under future, history

11 responses to “Are we “evolving” toward becoming “marching morons”?

  1. Hmmm. “The Marching Morons” C.L. Kornbluth. Ends in genocide, a “Final Solution” wherein all the morons are rocketed off to Venus to die.
    I’m told that CL was an extremely pleasant individual, and he was certainly an engaging, talented writer, but I think I would have been a little uneasy having him as a neighbor–or my Congressman.
    The notion that civilization degrades us–biologically, intellectually, evolutionarily–isn’t a new one, of course. It dates back to Malthus in the 18th century, and a case could be made that some of the ancient Greeks who specialized in “Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn” polemics held the same belief.
    The timing of your blog entry refutes Pagel and Carr even more thoroughly than you and Wills have managed, since are we not all pausing to remember Christopher Hitchens, who died a towering monument to the premise that we are NOT intellectually flabby, we are NOT domesticated, and we are NOT ‘stoopid’?

  2. Aw, geez, how many potential Einsteins and Mozarts and Hitchens are now allowed a chance to flourish and communicate as billions of people no longer labor to exhaustion every day and instead have access to knowledge of the world?

    Also, what percentage of people are truly creative? I know for myself, I have a bit of creative problem solving (do super computer support and also attended art school) but I’m in awe of real creative folks. Am glad our civilization is getting more and more people away from the fields and plows.

  3. Ah but do creative folk get reproductive advantage? Rock stars, I guess. And the Nobel winners’ sperm bank. Still….

  4. Sigrid

    I’m not sure of the choice of terms and definitions Pagel uses in this version of the marching morons hypothesis. Of course I understand in a loose way for every day casual conversation what people usually mean by creativity and innovation and intelligence. And I realise he is giving a colloquial account of his views, not writing for a peer-reviewed journal.

    But still, if you want to assert a view that civilisation’s influence in general, and/or the Net Age provides perverse incentives to be dumb and still breed, okay, but you need something more than a “just so” story for an argument.

    Because as I see it, as individuals we all are copy cats, we all have limits to our intelligence which is not very consistent, we rarely have original ideas and even when we do, someone else almost certainly had them too. I think this goes for everyone however intelligent they may be or however talented an artist they may be. I’m sure this has always been true.

    Also, it is not at all obvious to me that superior intelligence or creative ability gives much of a reproductive advantage in human society, but that doesn’t give argument to marching morons. What is different about modern society that we did not have a marching morons crash long ago? (Assuming it didn’t happen to earlier societies and we just don’t know it, which seems unlikely.)

    • Jake

      Nice comments, Sigrid.

      What is different about modern society… “Marching Morons” isn’t just about the lack of creativity, innovation, and “new ideas” in society, but the low IQ of society as a whole. The argument says that in our modern society less-intelligent people are breeding more than intelligent people. A lazy, unmotivated, or unintelligent person before the 1950’s might have had trouble feeding a family or eating the right nutrition to birth a healthy child. In modern society various charitable organizations, our governments, and modern medicine ensure healthier lifestyles to everyone, whether or not they are financially able to take care of large families. Women joining the workforce is also a major factor. An intelligent woman would have had trouble acquiring a career that hampers her ability to raise a large family. Contraceptives are also more likely going to be used correctly by responsible couples (both young and old).

      I’m not sure creativity and innovation have anything to do with the “Marching Morons” theory, other than creativity being an aspect of intelligence. As long as it is agreed that intelligence and IQ are linked to heredity, one can firmly say that society will become less intelligent (creativity included) if intelligent people are breeding less. That leaves the question, of course, whether or not intelligent people are actually having less children these days…

  5. Jason

    You might find the article, “Demography and Cultural Evolution: How Adaptive Cultural Processes Can Produce Maladaptive Losses–The Tasmanian Case,” by Joseph Henrich and published in 2004 in American Antiquity of interest to this argument. While the paper applies his cultural transmission model to a “negative” case of reduced population, the model equally applies to the reverse. Complex behaviors are more likely to evolve, and evolve more rapidly, in larger populations. Copying the successful is a part of this model, but tinkering and innovations are as also included.

  6. Tom Parsons

    Seconding Sigrid – the definition of creativity and its measurement must precede using it as a foundation for a thesis. Someone who neglects this when the space is available loses significant credibility.

    Also, a much clearer phenomenon is the combinatorial explosion produced by the interactions of more memes harbored by more people in those bigger tribes/clans. Larger population confers not just an exponential but a factorial increase in the possible actions and states of mind! Surely this would be the basis of creativity (by any definition we might agree on). This shows it to be a group phenomenon as much as an individual one, thus relegating Darwinian DNA inheritance to a co-star’s role.

    IMO the key foundational technology was the decoration of the body. This was essential to the formation/cohesion of larger groups.

    Within the practical (150?) limit for remembering un-marked people, insufficient specialization and insufficient social organization would have limited the local memosphere. Remember Jared Diamond telling us that a New Guinean’s first task on meeting a stranger was determining whether they had a relationship that justified not immediately killing the other. Much easier to look at a tattoo or ocher identifier on the face or shoulder, and immediately get on with the killing or the cooperation.

    Body decoration -> group identification (and status in group) -> much larger groups with more specialization + expanded memosphere -> more good tricks to out-compete the neighbors. All this should occur almost independently of DNA variations.

  7. Well well, this is all a matter of faith and almost a religious question. While technology has worked thus far for humanity, in the long run we can’t be sure if we will get smarter or dumber because of it. Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans, as did early modern humans. Possibly humanity has already passed through its era of maximum personal intelligence. But the future…

    Assuming that future tech trends will turn us into dummies or into gods is in both cases a matter of faith, and not science. They are both a kind of philosophy at best, uncritical religion at worst. The underlying idea in both cases is that technology somehow will “drive” us down one path or another. In fact, culture drives technology at least as much as technology drives culture. We aren’t wearing jetpacks for mostly social reasons – there’s nothing in the laws of nature or technology that would stop us from all strapping them on now. We don’t because of cultural choice. There is no techno-goddess (Techna?) writing future history according to the foretold progress of the machine, and making a tech-rapture and tech salvation (or doom in the lake of fire) inevitable.

    This is why we can’t calculate most of the probabilities for the Drake Equation – our science of “social history” is no better than checking entrails. Without other examples of species for rose up or fell down, we can’t find any empirical way to justify our beliefs – these are arguments which remain at the level of Greek philosophers discussing medical theory.

    In the long run, it is easy to imagine lots of disasters for humanity. We could get sucked so far into virtual reality that millions of years later, we die as a “newly evolved rat-like creature” develops a “taste for electrical insulation” as Olaf Stapledon described for one of the races in “Star Maker”. Or, we could be the godlike aliens of Arthur Clarke’s 2001, “beyond the reach of time”. If it is a matter of entropy, more bad than good future tracks are out there. But, unless consciousness is an illusion and just another way of saying “determinism”, we aren’t on a fixed path like a particle from a supercollider. Our species might make a choice for “voluntary simplicity”, consider merging with its machines, implement ethical extinction, blast worlds to photons in the pursuit of ever-more energy, convert all animals to intelligent forms – it’s very hard to predict.

    And that being said, it’s hard for me to see how self-knowledge of impending “Idiocracy” (great satirical movie on this topic) would alter our behavior in any case. Would we change, even if we knew?

  8. Heywood

    Making the argument on evolutionary grounds and claiming we’re genetically dumbing down has very little basis, but what about from a cultural basis? At that level, one could argue that the collection of behaviors and traits that make up a culture might evolve one way or another. A supporting example might be the Japanese isolationism and encounters with Europeans, the discussion on Tasmania referenced earlier another.

    At that level, one could make an argument for “marching morons cultures.” The Japanese went into copy mode and adapted pretty quickly,, so it ends up being somewhat of a counter-argument as well as a supporting argument. Like any over-simplified hypothesis, this one is pleasing on the surface and that gets a lot of play on the pundit circuit.

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