Putting the life back in science fiction

Why evolution will not make us smarter
June 14, 2012, 4:40 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m having fun reading the New Yorker article referred to in BoingBoing, about how smart people are more vulnerable to common thinking errors than dumb people are–or at least, there is a positive correlation between SAT scores and bias errors.

I suspect that Terry Pratchett got there first, since I remember a quote about his character Leonard of Quirm, who (in Lord Vetinarii’s estimation), had, in scaling the heights of intelligence, found heretofore undiscovered new plateaus of stupidity. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s a similar sentiment. Most geeks and nerds don’t end up doing better in life than their dumber peers, despite their measurably greater intelligence.

In a similar vein, I’ve been reading a history of Korea, the most Confucian kingdom in Asia. Even though they had a bureaucracy of demonstrably smart, exam-passing men, even though they invented movable metal type at least two centuries before Gutenberg, 1870s Korea was an agrarian backwater, where a few families owned most of the land and an unfortunate proportion of the population were slaves. For some reason, some of the most brilliant Confucian scholars in the world, steeped in a theory of government that’s certainly no more stupid than most, were quite vulnerable to regulatory capture by the land-owners, and the result was over a century of bad governance. Government by the smart didn’t work for them, and it doesn’t seem to work very well in its modern incarnation of technocracy.

I’m not going to say government by the stupid works any better. Effective government is hard, and all models tried so far have critical shortcomings. Instead, I’d like to stretch out to a rather cynical view of evolution.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this research is correct. Above a certain basic level of intelligence, getting better scores on IQ, SAT, or similar test does not make you a better decision maker. Rather, it makes you more vulnerable to your own unconscious biases.

What does this mean in evolutionary terms? Apparently, there’s little selection pressure for greater intelligence, for the simple reason that it doesn’t lead (on average) to greater resources or to greater reproductive success. It *might* also mean that the New Agers and Aquarians were right. If we get lucky, we may see evolution favoring increasing consciousness, average people becoming more aware of their own biases. Enlightened, not smarter. Of course, Tibet provides a cautionary model of what government by the enlightened looks like…

Do I believe this proposition, that evolution won’t make us smarter? I’m not totally sold, but I fear it’s true.

Now, before you say “Obviously, we’ll be computer augmented cyborgs soon, and that will solve the problem,” let me point out that increased processing power (as measured by an SAT) may make you more vulnerable to your own unconscious biases, not less. Cyborging won’t help. Unless you can invent a computer that gives you a better unconscious and fewer biases, increasing your processing power isn’t going to save you from doing stupid things. It will just help you get there faster and with greater confidence in your own wrong answers.

What do you think?