A few weeks back, a coworker asked my opinion on the idea that humanity might be breeding itself stupider, due to the types of people choosing not to procreate. We had an interesting, if brief, discussion, and I thought it was a topic worth writing about. When, a few days later, the Guardian ran an article by Julian Baggini on the merits of childlessness, and the increasing number of people not having children, I started doing research and organizing my thoughts on the matter to share with you all. Well, it all got pushed a bit to the side, due to my crazy work schedule and everything else, and I’m finally getting back to it now.
This idea seems fairly common. As I processed my thoughts on the matter, I was walking around for an entire week with a line from that Harvey Danger song – you know the one – on repeat:
Been around the world and found
that only stupid people are breeding
the cretins cloning and feeding
and I don’t even own a TV
The whole argument immediately strikes me as incredibly arrogant. The assumption underlying the entire thing is that the people making the argument are the right kind of smart, and that any evolutionary tendency, real or perceived, away from that kind of smart is bad for humanity. A quick google search on the topic yielded all sorts of blog discussions; what I gleaned from a quick scan was a lot of racism veiled in evolutionary language. Most of the research on the topic appears to be based on IQ scores, and many of the bloggers and commenters seem to be suggesting, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that eugenics is probably a good idea.
The thing is, it is difficult to impossible to quantify intelligence. The IQ scale measures a few narrow areas, but it is biased, and tells us very little beyond a subject’s ability to take tests. A major problem lies in the conflation of education and intelligence. Highly educated people are the group most likely to forego reproduction. Yes, most educated people are intelligent, but people making this argument seem to overlook the many smart and resourceful people who, through various circumstances, have not had the time or opportunity to pursue higher levels of education. My parents, a construction worker and a farmer’s daughter, fit this category. There are plenty of smart people out there, living “normal” lives and having kids.
Another thing that strikes me about this is the fact that real genius tends to come at us out of left field. Oftentimes it takes a person with the ability to think beyond the conventional wisdom on a topic to come up with a true breakthrough. Specialized education by definition narrows our vision. This has obvious benefits, but sometimes a person with a broader field of view can pick up on something that may have been staring the experts in the face all along. Also, it seems there may be something to the idea that genius and craziness can be one and the same.
Beyond all that, there is this idea that a lot of people have that we are “devolving”. Anyone with an understanding of evolution should know that there really is no such thing. Evolution has no goal or purpose beyond survival and reproduction. All life is in a constant state of evolution; it reacts to selective pressures to preserve genes for traits that ensure survival and reproductive success. It doesn’t necessarily move toward greater complexity or sophistication, and most of the time it is completely imperceptible at the surface level.
We humans have changed our environment in many ways to enable greater survival. This means that we are subjected to different selective pressures today than we were, say, a few centuries ago. Some see this as a bad thing; fewer of the “weak” are being weeded out, and our populations are becoming “polluted” by inferior genetic material. I think it’s a mistake to try to ascribe value to what natural selection may or may not favor. It’s arrogant to assume that we have any idea what qualities will be necessary and/or beneficial in the future. As the way we live changes, so does what it takes to survive.
It’s difficult to see the ways humanity is being shaped in the moment, or even over a century, but I think it’s safe to say that evolution will continue to do what it does, and we’ll be just fine without implementing a geek breeding program. Although, it occurs to me, isn’t that really what the internet is for? Think about it: the internet is enabling nerds the world over to meet and potentially mate. That has to make up for some of the supposed lack of smart breeders. I’d like to see that study.