We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.



4 thoughts on “Progress?

  1. I’m not flaunting the fact that I’ve travelled quite a bit. What I will admit to is being, or trying to be, so understated and unrecognised as an “American” in those travels. It is the most embarrassing predicament to see fellow countrymen behaving badly, very badly, in foreign places. We can be smug and arrogant…no…we ARE smug and arrogant.

    You are absolutely correct, Hugh, in your above assessment(s). If we were as smart as we “think” we are….as we left the room…we’d apologize and start over. Begin again. Move forward. But no. We choose to go backwards into our future…

    • Thanks, Jots. I was struck by the fact that the countries that are taking the lead with clean energy, for example, are countries like Iceland, Albania, Paraguay, and Mozambique. Not the ones we usually associate with “advanced” civilization and higher IQs. As BTG says, we need to rethink our biases!

  2. Hugh, thanks for sharing the premise of this book. I have seen it referenced, but not discussed like you have done. On technology changing the way we think, I keep going back to the famous Star Trek episode, where the civilization became so advanced in communication, they no longer could repair the machines they built. You noted the book was written in 1997, but the technology dampening on our intellect has taken more footing in the last 18 years.

    As for US exceptionalism being a misnomer, we are a heavily entertained, heavily imprisoned, heavily armed and less civil society than is healthy and it makes it more difficult to compete. We also have become so polarized in debate that obvious problems are not being addressed like infrastructure, education, poverty, etc. A few years ago some people relished that President failed to help Chicago win the Olympics. Think of that – we had Americans rooting against America, because the President tried to help. But, what we failed to recognize is the reason we did not win – our infrastructure in airports, electric grids, water/ sewage systems, internet cabling, mass transit need updating. That is an indictment that we shrugged our shoulders at. I am waiting for next time when someone says we are not coming because the US is dangerous with its lax gun laws and high gun death rate.

    Sorry to wax on, but this book triggers a lot of self-assessment we are failing to do. Thanks for the opportunity. BTG

    • It does indeed. And I suspect many people have said just what you are waiting to hear about not coming to the U.S. — they just said it out of your hearing! Thanks, BTG.

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