We’re pretty dumb & getting dumber

What makes us so damned smart?  Compared with other critters, I mean.

Let’s face it: when it comes to brain power, humans are the class nerds on Planet Earth. Poodles don’t do plane geometry. Chimpanzees can’t parse a Petrarchan sonnet. Nightingales sing and partridges thrum, but can they toss off a Puccini aria or a Ginger Baker drum solo? Not likely.

Flamingos do a courting dance, but can they waltz? Foxtrot? Watusi? I don’t think so. So what is it that makes Homo sapiens so drop dead smarty pants?

Would you believe cooking?

Yup. We’re the only species that makes a habit of heating our food before we eat it. It probably happened by chance a couple of million years ago when some caveman ancestor — let’s call him Thog — accidentally dropped a hunk of sabre-tooth tiger haunch in the campfire, fished it out and stuck it in his mouth.

Not only did it taste better, it was easier to chew and digest. What’s more, it allowed Thog’s body to absorb more nutrition with every bite he took.

That meant that Thog didn’t have to spend nine hours a day foraging for and digesting his meals like all the other animals. Result: spare time.

Time to invent things like stone tools, fur bikinis and the Hadron Particle Collider.

That said, there are some who think that we’re not nearly as smart as we used to be.

A study conducted by Stanford geneticist Gerald Crabtree concludes that if an Athenian citizen from 1,000 B.C. were to suddenly appear on the streets of Toronto in 2014 A.D., he or she would automatically be among the best and the brightest of anybody in sight.

After a minor tune-up in modern history and the English language.

Crabtree figures the human race reached its intellectual pinnacle somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago. It’s not that quick-witted people aren’t still with us; it’s that we’re not chucking out the slow ones like we used to. Back in the Bad Old Days, being dumb was a mortal disadvantage.

“A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died” says Crabtree, “whereas a modern Wall Street executive making a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and, accordingly, be a more attractive mate.”

It’s not just finagling financiers dragging us down. Look at modern art — specifically, French performance artist Abraham Poincheval. He had himself sewn into the carcass of a stuffed bear in a museum in Paris. Artistic statement. Match that, Robert Bateman.

Politics? Let me present George W. Bush, the most bone-ignorant leader ever to drag a major world power into two worthless wars.

Elected to the presidency by popular vote twice. Okay, once.

Not that Canadians have any cause to feel superior. Exhibit A: Rob Ford.  He is, incredibly, mayor of Canada’s largest city as I type these words. Surely that’s no longer true as you read them.


Oh, we’re pretty dumb — and getting dumber by the moment. Don’t take my word for it; take it from a man who could have held his own with any intellectual, in 2014 or in 1,000 B.C. A man who said: “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.”

Albert Einstein said that.

— Arthur Black’s column appears every Tuesday in The NEWS. He can be reached at: arblack43@shaw.ca.

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