A leading expert in genetics says we human beings are getting dumber all the time, and that the average person from Athens in 1000 BC would shine in a room full of today’s average specimens. It’s an interesting and compelling idea that, simplified, says that our brains got big because we needed them to survive as hunter-gatherers and, now that we no longer use them in such a critical manner, they are devolving and our intellect is on the decline.
The general tendency, at least in online commentary, is to agree that we are getting stupider and point to reality television, the habits and statements of certain politicians, and even to the existence of a story like this in a serious newspaper, as proof. Yet, it is so easy to argue otherwise that one has to wonder what evolutionary trait has left us with such little faith in our abilities and our culture. We’ve come a long way and are remarkable for our achievements.
Take the idea of a man from 1000 BC Athens in a room full of his modern peers. Aside from the fact that he wouldn’t be so rude as to stare at his smartphone while we tried to ask him questions about his trip to the future, there would be little to recommend this unwashed slave owner who considered women to be inferior and wind to be an element. It’s simply impossible to imagine that he would strike a modern person as particularly well-informed. And it takes a great leap of faith to believe that any outdated cultural beliefs he held would be instantly erased by the power of his intellect when confronted with our modern cultural beliefs, even if his brain really were better wired for spotting small prey in the room.
The most striking thing about the study is that it reminds us that we are now smart enough to theorize that we are not as smart as we used to be. We have gathered evidence and used science to advance our understanding of ourselves to a level way beyond that of any person who lived 3,000 years ago, or even 300 years ago. We have all the same frailties as our ancestors – we are still violent, greedy and, sometimes, willfully blind to fact – but we are also more aware of the world around us than ever, we work harder to end wars than we do to start them, we believe in fundamental human rights and improving the lot of people less well off than us, we can decode DNA and search for the “God” particle, and we have developed and adapted to technologies that are continually making our lives richer.
No, we’re smarter than we used to be. A little more cynical too, but that’s not the end of the world.