The human brain is the most complex structure known. As human-like species evolved over several million years into homo sapiens, hominid brain size tripled. Today the average human brain weighs about three pounds. Our nearest primate relative, the chimpanzee, has a brain that weighs less than a pound. Our brains constitute about 2% of body weight, but consume about 20% of our energy. In a chicken and egg scenario, this increase in size resulted from or was the cause of our increased ability to perform complicated mental and physical tasks.
Human attainment both fine and awful is the result of our remarkable cognitive powers. Music and war, abstract thinking and evil doing, altruism and greed are all the spawn of our complex brains. There’s a considerable price attached to all this intricate mentation – we know the certainty of our death and approximately when it will happen, and our outsize skulls make childbirth both painful and dangerous for our mothers.
A recent study from Dartmouth College indicates that after a steady increase in brain size over several million years the human brain shrank about three thousand years ago. The reason for this diminution is not clear. The Dartmouth investigators using ants as a model – yes, ants – propose that as collective knowledge increased humans could rely on the knowledge of others to accomplish tasks and thus reduce their brain size and spend less energy on thinking and more on activities that don’t require specialized knowledge. They could get someone else to do the heavy lifting, or intricate manipulation, allowing complicated tasks requiring specialized skills to be dependent on the activity of numerous others who contributed to the final outcome.
These authors don’t mention specialization, but they’re on the same page as was Adam Smith when on page 1 of Wealth of Nations, he described all the steps needed to manufacture a pin. He showed how specialization and division of labor resulted in the manufacture of vastly more pins than would result if one person had to do everything required to make a pin.
Consider modern physicians. They are completely dependent on a multitude of support staff. These include nurses, technicians, laboratories, other physicians, pharmacists, pharmaceutical companies, and are subservient to medical administrators, billing clerks, insurance company bureaucrats, and the brobdingnagian reach of of the government. They’ve gone from independent contractors to mid level technocrats. To use Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox as an example (a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing), doctors have gone from foxes to dequilled hedgehogs. Take away their army of enablers and they’re as mobile as a newborn human.
Is there a price for relying on collective knowledge for almost everything save the one thing we know how to do on our own? Dependence is an obvious candidate. Especially, as it’s easy to go from knowing one thing to being completely clueless and helpless. Below are some of the features of modern life that we now can blame or explain as the consequence of brain shrinkage.
The world seems to be more or less evenly divided into countries that are authoritarian versus those that are less so. A while back I might have said free, but freedom seems to be a burden too heavy to bear for much of the Western world. I’m using Western world as that part of the globe where the government is elected by its citizens as opposed to the remainder of the planet where elections are only for show. Considering the United States as a model for all of the non-authoritarian countries, we can see a struggle between security and liberty. This struggle seems the rule in any country that operates for a century or more with an elected government.
The US broke off from its parent country after an armed revolt and established a government largely based on principles set forth in the country from which it separated. That its practices did not live up to its founding ideals is the rule for any human activity based on core principles. The recent emergence of a sizable fraction of the country which feels that this failure is disqualifying is a relatively new phenomenon in the US. The portion of the population which wishes to completely remake the country is at its root demanding more security from the government – ie, more free stuff. One could easily attribute this desire for more security in the form of government intervention into areas of discourse and activity previously felt to be improper as the consequence our smaller brains. Dependence on the know how of others breeds insecurity and its sequelae.
The demand for more security from the inevitable vicissitudes of life, the infantilization of quotidian intercourse, the magnification of fear could be the result of our smaller brain’s inability to process large amounts of complex data. We are drenched in information that flows from the widespread dissemination of our collective knowledge. Some make efficient use of the ubiquity of knowledge, others are overwhelmed by it.
The authoritarian countries, like Russia and China, don’t allow their citizens the luxury of unapproved behavior – sane or otherwise. In fact, they weaponize against dissent by declaring anyone who departs from the expected expression of opinion by declaring him mentally ill and sending him, if the offensive action is sufficiently unorthodox, to a psychiatric hospital which can be another name for a prison.
Were we (all of us) less susceptible to fear, our initial reaction to the COVID pandemic would have been more measured. A serious problem that had limited mortality compared to some of the plagues that have afflicted mankind since Moses was 80 years old should have been managed by protecting the vulnerable (the old and infirm) while leaving those not at great risk from the virus free to engage in their routine activities. Instead we got financial ruin which has yet to fully play out, supply chain disruption, government mandates that made no scientific sense even as they were promulgated in the name of science, and a general fertilization of aberrant thinking. All of this Marxian madness (both Karl and Groucho) the result of fear and faulty information processing.
Consider the mania about climate change. It’s a religion rather than a measured response to an intricate long term problem. The climate activist is, in the main, stupid and sequestered as if in solitary confinement from the realities of the planet’s climate. He cannot distinguish climate from weather and prefers the ruin of life to the hard thought of analyzing the problem and seeking solutions that do not condemn half the world’s population to continued poverty. Mandating the universal use of electric cars that will depend on an electrical grid already overburdened by current demand is not a rational solution to the problem of carbon emissions. More research into alternate sources of carbon free energy is what is needed. Banners and marches are not likely to be helpful. Wind and solar panels are clearly not the solution to our long term energy requirements. Atomic power and the development of economically and scientifically feasible fusion should be on the list of possible sources of increased energy needs over the rest of the century. Solving tomorrow’s problems with today’s technology will not successfully meet our needs. What we should pursue is research leading to new technology. This is not the time or place for a detailed discussion of this problem, but painting the issue with apocalyptic images is not a source of reasoned examination, especially when offered to an already terrified populace.
Was all this stupid stuff the result of cerebral atrophy spread across the entire species? Or was the current craziness just another example of Lord, what fools these mortals be? Incidentally, Shakespeare’s play is set in a time shortly after our brains underwent miniaturization. I’ve written about stupidity before. The video below presents another view of the fatal flaw which is apt for today’s manifestation of this persistent problem.