Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stupidity, Our Evolutionary Burden

I guess it's a common enough experience: stupid people and stupid behavior seem to be everywhere—including, humiliatingly, some contributions of one's own. Still, one tends to be much more forgiving toward oneself and find 'reasons' for doing things that, from any other point of view must surely be considered inflicted with a measure of stupidity.

But when one is bombarded by evidence at all levels that Frank Zappa was right ("Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."), it can be hard to find a reason to excuse the continued existence of a species inflicted with such overwhelming numbers of truly, ineffably, usually incorrectably stupid individuals, all of whom seem to get even more stupid when placed into groups, which apparently acts as stupidity amplifiers. And this discourages even an optimist like myself; which is saying a lot. But the evidence for those who claim that we are actually getting smarter—through, for example, the influence of 'education', which is, of course, delivered at all levels by those who blessed with copious amounts of stupidity; definitely no less than the 'average' population—is...well...zero, basically. And not just 'basically'. It's zero no matter how you try to spin it.

Lest anyone thinks that I'm being judgmental, let me correct that impression. I know that 'stupid' tends to be used as invective, but I'm not doing that. I only lapse into 'judgment' mode if faced with situations like the other day, when my car was at the front of a four-car pileup, caused by someone ramming into the third car behind me with sufficient force to crash the two cars in front of him, both stationary and with their brakes on into my tail end. I was able to drive away with minor damage from the crash, unlike the other participants, because of the dampening effect of the intervening vehicles; but that didn't stop me from, very judgmentally, thinking of the driver who caused the accident as a 'stupid idiot'. Similarly emotional subtext also adheres all my assessments of politicians, who actually are stupid idiots, without any exception I am aware of—and all-too-often they are also criminal ones, who should be jailed for life, or worse. This includes individuals in the current Australian federal and certain Australian State governments, who should be held fully, directly and, I believe, criminally responsible, for the actual deaths of people who should never have died. I will name no names, but just mention two instances: 'Federal Home Insulation Scheme' and 'Queensland Health System'. And that's not even remotely close to being the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Far from it.

You think that war is bad? The carnage in society caused by the stupidity of people in governments at all levels, far outdoes anything happening currently in current war zones in terms of, in this instance, Australian soldier casualties. Add to that deaths or serious injuries, of the physical and mental kind, done to individuals as a result of the stupidity of non-politicians, which means everybody from stupid drivers to stupid corporate executives, scientists, doctors, engineers, and so on.

Stupidity is why the human species might not actually survive after all. The kind that, no doubt was on the minds of the following writers (quoted from Wikipedia):

The first book in English on stupidity was A Short Introduction to the History of Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin (1932):

Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity.

According to In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters, (2003) by Merrill R. Chapman:

The claim that high-tech companies are constantly running into 'new' and 'unique' situations that they cannot possibly be expected to anticipate and intelligently resolve is demonstrably false....The truth is that technology companies are constantly repeating the same mistakes with wearying consistency...and many of the stupid things these companies do are completely avoidable.

Enough already, yes? It's just too damn depressing, is it not?

Still, let us inject some 'perspective' into this. For the definitions of 'stupidity' leave something to be desired, in that they do not actually define what it actually is, except in a circular kind of way. I'd like to propose an approach that may be more fruitful:

'Stupid' is an attribute attached to a behavior that happens as a result of the one(s) acting 'stupidly' failing to apply the maximal capacity of their intellects to resolving a problem, or dealing with a situation, they are faced with.

The causes of this failure can be wide-ranging: from simple mental dullness, to intent and/or emotion over-ruling better judgment, to situational over-complexity overwhelming the individuals mental capacities.

Stupidity is usually detected by others—correctly or incorrectly, because said 'others' might actually be the 'stupid' ones!—because their p.o.v. differs, and they 'see' things the person acting stupidly doesn't. 'Stupidity' is often used by stupid people as a epithet, to denigrate, possibly very un-stupid, actions by the ones assessed so unfavorably.

Yet stupidity is nothing but the result of the basic flaws inherent in the evolutionary process. After all, 'intelligence' is a property, if you will, of the human brain/mind that served only one purpose, namely survival. The intelligent animals survived to breed in greater numbers than the dumb ones. But intelligence is actually very specific and tends to be trained for in particular contexts: those a creature can identify, implicitly or explicitly, as requiring some sort of survival response. Being adapted to survive in one context, however, does not imply that this does get carried over into other, apparently unrelated, ones. The brain, despite its vast capabilities, is still a limited system that can only deal with so many things at once and pay attention to a limited range of attention-attracting items, all of which are competing with each other for...well, attention.

All of this, together with a sub-awareness instinct system, contribute to creating what we commonly know as 'stupidity'. It's as simple as that. Blame it on evolution, because evolution didn't have the time—and by now has been bypassed through science and medicine, which basically nuke the classic evolutionary procedures—to adapt us to a world in which our survival, as individuals, societies and the species, has become contingent on factors unknown to the creatures from whom we derive.

None of this, of course, helps to abate the flashes—and occasionally more than just 'flashes'—or irritation one might feel when faced with an avalanche of evidence for the pervasiveness of stupidity just about everywhere; from the casual to the persistent, from the petty to the grandiose, from the trivial to the significant. But when one finds it in oneself—as I did the other day when I wasn't paying attention and told myself "ahh, that's OK, I don't need to wear protective gloves" and promptly cut my hand in a place that's going to take some time to heal, and where I should count myself lucky that things hadn't turned out much more serious—it's probably a good time to reflect on it with what you might call 'perspective'.

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