by Ted Rushton
Does human intelligence evolve?
Does anyone, over ten years of age, miss the dinosaurs?
Actually, according to recent science, dinosaurs are still with us.
Now they are birds and chickens. It gives me a warm thought every time I buy some Church’s Chicken. It’s nice to fantasize that I’m taking a bite out of a descendant of Tyrannosaurus Rex. (In reality, it’s more like I get to nibble on Insignificatus Jr.
Sharks are different. They evolved long before dinosaurs, and never changed. (There are benefits to be a conservative.) Nonetheless, it gives me a warm thought every time I have shark ceviche. Coyotes are different. In less than 50 years, coyotes spread across all of North America. They have a different intelligence. For one thing, they leave me alone. Professional courtesy, I suppose.
Such is the intelligence of living creatures. They adapt to climate in which they live and which is always changing. Constant change forces life to change, which requires an increase in intelligence as the alternative to extinction. The oceans are relatively constant, thus eliminating a need for sharks to evolve to counter new conditions. Life on the surface endures constant change; catastrophe was too sudden for dinos to change, thus their extinction. The constant change in nature creates a natural growth of intelligence to cope with these different conditions.
It’s what intelligence is all about. The world has abundant people who are capable of living in a pre-industrial hunt-and-gather environment; it has precious few who are capable of programming computers or creating new ones — such as Steve Jobs. Yet, as now seems evident, society is moving toward ever greater technological complexity. Technology makes the material elements of life simpler and easier. But, it doesn’t improve the intellect.
(American troops in Afghanistan can move anywhere at night by using the very latest high-tech night vision goggles. The Taliban have no such equipment; but as long as they are within 50 years they are able to see the very faint but still visible green glow of the goggles. The result is Americans are suffering a high number of face and neck gunshot wounds.)
The curious element is why Western Europe developed such a high level of technology during the Roman Empire, and then effectively resorted to warlordism society for the thousand years after the collapse of Rome.
On the basis of material well-being and technology, the average European in 1800 probably lived as well as the average Roman at the time of Christ, or the average Egyptian 2,000 years earlier. Their intellects were probably equal; the things they had to know, and their social rights and privileges, were quite different. The Romans were almost at the height of their empire; by 1800, Europeans were just starting their empires.
The Roman system did not “collapse” as such. While Rome and the Western Empire dissolved into warlord fiefdoms, the Eastern Empire remained largely intact in Constantinople for another half-millennia until its conquest by the high tech Arabs. Instead of powerful outside forces, Western Rome collapsed because it had become a status quo in terms of the truth, justice and the Roman Way throughout all lands it controlled. Romans lived in an ocean equivalent where conditions rarely and barely change.
Romans were the sharks of their time; the ultimate predators of the Mediterranean, yet unable to handle weaker, less organized and yet more nimble invaders. Roman intelligence failed to match the guile and persistence of new challengers; Rome was not defeated in a massive “Battle of Rome” conflict, it was nibbled to death by a thousand little cuts. The Spanish Empire died in much the same manner; despite the wealth of the Americas, it was nibble to death by a thousand or ten thousand freebooters.
Western Civilization, that of Northern Europe and North America, now faces a challenge in terms of global warming and resource depletion.
Both are products of human ingenuity; resource depletion is simply the reality that minerals are not an unlimited resource. Global warming is part natural and part human caused; take away the human element and we’d likely face the start of a new ice age in Baffin Island and the highlands of Labrador.
That is part of the challenge, ably outlined in ‘Plows, Plague and Petroleum’ by William Ruddman. It’s not the type of book the typical politician is likely to read, nor the tree huggers or flacks for energy polluters. It is simply too clear, concise and logical to be of use for any modern extremist debate.
For people open to reason based on facts, it is superb. I grew up in an area that would still be under the ice sheets if not for global warming; I now live in a desert that was temperate forest some 10,000 years ago. Global warming and cooling has occurred for millions of years, as Ruddiman clearly shows; and so, we’d likely be cooling now if not for human intervention.
Actually, I hope he’s wrong on his pessimism about the future. To quote: “To reduce current and future greenhouse-gas emissions to levels that would avoid most of the projected future warming, draconian economic sacrifices would have to be enacted that almost everyone would find intolerable: much more expensive fuel for travel and heating, much lower/higher thermostat settings in houses and workplaces, and extremely costly upgrades (or total replacements) of power plants.”
He is “…optimistic that we will discover new technologies.” Such is the ultimate American faith: the ability to technologicize our way out of any physical, social or religious problem. Personally, I’m pessimistic (age sometimes does that to a person). My expectation is succinctly outlined in ‘The End of the Wild’ by Stephen Meyer who concludes, “Today the guiding hand of natural selection is unmistakably human.”
Meyer and Ruddiman agree a similar conclusion: we must act to save what’s left. Ruddiman touches briefly on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the reality of requiring almost 1,500 years restoring the technological expertise of the Romans. In my view, a superior technology couldn’t save the Romans; Rome fell because too many people stopped caring about Rome and instead became utterly absorbed in their own genius.
This book is too factual to be of use in the current global warming shouting matches; my great hope is that it accurately expresses the knowledge of relevant decision makers guided by facts instead of fantasy. If so, there is still hope of avoiding a climate disaster — even if not avoiding a very different social and physical world within a few hundred years. The basic problem is not global warming, no more than “barbarians” were the major problem facing Rome. Rome collapsed because too many citizens assumed they lived in the mightiest empire the world had ever known, and thus personal sacrifice or commitment was unneeded.
How does that translate to America?
First, when it comes to education. America still produces some of the world’s leading scholars. But, it also produces many of the world’s leading uneducated and uncommitted dropouts who blithely assume the world owes them a living. Even when they get jobs, all too many have no commitment to work.
Second, is civic involvement. Local government is closest to people; yet, it is being resolutely ignored. Phoenix just held the first round of its mayor and city council elections; people could vote by mail for a month prior, and polls were open Tuesday and the two previous days. Turnout was 21 percent, just 140,000 voters. The leading candidate for mayor received about 55,000 votes; the city population is about 1,500,000.
Only 55,000 votes. It’s slightly more than a sold-out crowd at for an Arizona Diamondbacks game; a little more than double the team’s usual crowd. Perhaps people feel they have more “impact” when cheering at a baseball game than in electing city officials.
Now, with such enthusiasm … what is the fate of any effort to counter global warming? As with Rome, and I suspect with the collapse of many empires — the barbarians is us.