Monday, April 29, 2013

For the Betterment of Mankind, Part I - The problem

The defining feature of humans as a species is extreme intelligence. The presence of so many idiots among us, then, is the epitome of irony.

It's true, the idiot is on the rise and can be found in most corners of modern society. Evidence is abundant in your local Wal-Mart, college fraternity, and the Jersey Shore beach house. It has arisen in airports, newsrooms, and city halls, and it is unmistakable on television and the internet. The idiot may be ferociously text messaging on the interstate, boorishly fist fighting at a sporting event, or verbally abusing a Starbucks barista for incorrectly preparing their grande single shot 4 pump sugar free nonfat extra hot no foam light whip stirred white mocha.

Interestingly, humans have exclusive rights to idiocy. After all, there are no idiots elsewhere in the animal kingdom. There are no stupid chimpanzees, no moronic salamanders, and no imbecilic salmon. Indeed, all of these species are less intelligent than humans, but as a collective, and only due to a less evolved brain. In the animal kingdom, the only appropriate equivalent to an idiot is the individual that is promptly selected out of the population. It is the individual that does not survive, the one that is killed by a predator or by one of its own or by other variables in its environment, because it is less fit than others of its kind. And is that not the way it should be? Is that not the beauty of evolution? It is the brilliant simplicity with which the "idiotic" individuals die that so gracefully embodies Charles Darwin's central theory on the evolution of life - survival of the fittest by Natural Selection. In the face of challenges within an environment, variability between members of a population heeds differential survival. It's simple, and Darwin made it clear 150 years ago - the idiots are supposed to die.

Alas, the idiot human does not suffer the same fate as the "idiot" chimpanzee, salamander, or salmon. In fact, the idiot human often outlives the non-idiot human, both in terms of longevity and lifestyle. I return to the the Jersey Shore television show, where exemplar idiots live a lifestyle often dreamed of by the non-idiot. These individuals are rewarded for their unhealthy behaviors, in this case with riches and fame. The more they engage in physical confrontation with others, expose their bodies to copious amounts of alcohol and other harmful substances, and have unprotected promiscuous intercourse yielding more people like themselves, the more success they find in life. This may not seem like a problem, but it is a slap in the face of Darwin. Indeed, any other species cannot take part in comparable behaviors, because each one has its own specific, and prompt, consequence on the overall fitness - and therefore survivability - of the individual. Take a chimpanzee. Say this chimpanzee foolishly challenges a much stronger, more experienced chimpanzee to a fight for dominance of a troop. Defeat for this chimpanzee most likely means death of its injuries - Darwin's survival of the fittest at its height. Conversely, a cast member of the Jersey Shore who demonstrates similar foolishness and who suffers the same end result gets a high-five and a ratings boost. Certainly, the entire, overly tanned Jersey Shore cast may die of cancer caused by harmful UV emissions, or of liver disease resulting from alcohol abuse, but these are only eventualities. Such will not occur before they have had the chance to live auspiciously, reproduce plentifully, and pollute the minds of millions of viewers with incessant bouts of idiocy.

The question must be raised, then, why does a member of the Jersey Shore not have to abide by the same rules as a chimpanzee? Are they not both primates? Are they not both products of thousands of generations of continuing evolutionary advancement? Why are human idiots not enduring their due fates? The answer is a paradox: it is a consequence of intelligence that allows idiots to survive in human populations.

Continuing in the vein of idiots on television, reality TV programs like the Jersey Shore are prime examples of this phenomenon. Despite its noticeable lack of surface value, reality TV is a direct product of human ingenuity. The recognition of our society's attraction to such humans as are found on the Jersey Shore television show has yielded a multi-billion dollar industry cashing in on the promotion of idiots. In this way, we are enabling their idiotic behavior. Such cultural exploitation is strictly human and must be attributed to sheer mental capacity.

Society's attraction to observing idiots on television and elsewhere is widely evident and may serve as an indirect source of their success. However, human intelligence has contributed to this apparent hitch in Darwin's evolutionary scheme in a much more remarkable way. Essentially, humans have manipulated their environment to an extent to which it is no longer evolutionarily challenging. That is, after all, a crucial aspect of Natural Selection. In every other species, environmental challenges, be they predation, competition between or within species, or resource acquisition, are what act on variability between individuals and eliminate those that are not fit to survive. Without such variables, survival becomes easy for all, including those that are less fit. The average, modern human is our prime example. His challenges have nothing to do with his inherent, natural environment. Rather, his problems, the things that really threaten his survival, surround elements of life that he himself has created - automobile accidents, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, war. These are all  elements of a strictly human society, because only humans have the advanced intellect necessary to create them. Even disease, seemingly the only true "evolutionary" threat left to mankind, is largely driven by the actions of humans. Even when it is not, it does not act on behavioral discrepancies, and it does not serve to punish an individual's idiotic behaviors.

In summary, because there is no longer a viable evolutionary threat to exploit human idiocy, the species cannot improve. In part II of this commentary, I will suggest that, perhaps, it would be useful to reintroduce that element of threat into human populations.

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