Stupid is as stupid does, and apparently it's doing
it more than ever.
If you're like me, you remember your elders sitting in corpulent coffee klatches around the dining-room table, smoking cigarettes and grousing about the deteriorating levels of intelligence all around them. Every generation is more clueless than the preceding one, and each succeeding generation is another full revolution on the downward spiral to intellectual oblivion. This used to raise my rebellious youthful hackles, having my entire generation unfairly dismissed out-of-hand by these wrinkled old oracles of octogenarianism. In hindsight, I get their point, and so does a Stanford geneticist who recently confirmed the findings of the spit-and-whittle club: People are getting dumber.
Gerald Crabtree published his hypothesis in the prominent journal Trends in Genetics, which is really only prominent among nerdy groups of geneticists. Those people who still believe in so-called "science" found Crabtree's central thesis alarming: Each generation produces deleterious genetic mutations, so our intelligence is ever-more impaired compared to that of our predecessors. To put a fine point on his argument, Crabtree theorized that if we transported an ancient Athenian from 1000 BC to today, he would be "among the brightest and must intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions."
How can a grubby, robe-wearing, unemployed Athenian philosopher be smarter than us, you might ask? We are slathered in smart stuff — we have hand-held computers that can access the sum total of all human knowledge in seconds (given a sufficient number of signal bars). We have verified the rotund aspect of Earth by landing men on the moon. We are exploring the smallest building blocks of the universe, and know that Higgs-Boson is not a wedding registry at Target.
Demonstrating that his brain is obviously unencumbered by the very genetic mutations he frets about, Crabtree explains that historically, natural selection took care of many of these evolutionary boo-boos. If a caveman's brain decided that it was a good idea to ride a lion, that brain was quickly converted to feline protein. Although mechanisms still exist today to clean up the gene pool — skateboarding, Velveeta cheese, stealing live copper electrical wires — they are far less efficient and automatic than hungry lions. Civilized society protects the dumbest among us with class-action lawsuits, guardrails, messages of positive self-esteem and universal access to medical care.
Well, this all makes perfect sense now. Kardashians, fake breasts, bacon sundaes, and YOLO are perfect examples of atrophying brainstems. Behavior like this would've left our ancestors either impaled on pikes and positioned outside city walls to warn potential invaders, or wiped out by barbaric Mongol hoards that suffered no similar lack of focus. Just a few generations ago, mankind was cooking up great things like the Hoover Dam and Apollo moon rockets and the theory of relativity. Now, mankind is wholly preoccupied with Top-40 Flo Rida songs filled with penis references or the Jesus-like arrival of the newest iPhone.
As a species, we are no longer challenged to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world. Schools are pressured to pass every backward-baseball-cap-wearing slacker so they can get out of school and start punching out babies. Facts don't need to be retained since the collective knowledge of the universe is now on-demand. Hunting-gathering skills are irrelevant in a world that has a Taco Bell in every gas station, dulling our problem-solving abilities and replacing our spinal fluid with nacho cheese. Our grandparents went to school to learn Latin and trigonometry and the Socratic method. Our parents learned English and algebra and the scientific method. We learned Words With Friends and calculators and the rhythm method.
As interesting as his research is, Crabtree didn't offer solutions to this sad state of affairs, but since my genetics haven't suffered any mutations that weren't caused by the judicious application of high-quality scotch, I have donated a considerable amount of brainpower to the problem. First, we must convince the mouth-breathers and simpletons that bacon sport jackets and salmon-meat Uggs are haute couture. Then, we release starved grizzly bears. In one fell swoop, we remove the scratch-and-dent genes from the equation, promote survival of the fittest, and move on from Kanye West and Honey Boo Boo. You're welcome.
Of course, there is still a chance that Crabtree's research was overly pessimistic and maybe he was just having a bad day. Perhaps it's too easy to miss the forest of intelligence because of the stupidity of the trees. After all, being a semi-professional curmudgeon, I am apt to romanticize the past too much, and maybe those grumpy old men drinking coffee at the table were missing the point: Maybe we get smarter as we get older. It's really the only thing that makes sense.
Henry Lightcap tests his IQ daily in Las Cruces.