Sunday, February 28, 2016

Humanity Is Not Wise, But Dangerously Inventive

Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal... In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning. Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.

Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away for two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh — not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

Mark Twain
Our species, Homo sapiens, which is to say the wise ape, is as Twain observed, not only not wise but is in fact incurably foolish. But it is also terrifyingly inventive. That is the secret of humanity's domination of the planet. We engage in continuous innovation.

At the outset, the process was more intermittent than continuous. Someone found that a pointed stick could be hardened in a fire, making a better weapon to spear a boar or pierce a threatening stranger.

Later, perhaps ten thousand years later, someone invented the bow and arrow. The first step, perhaps, was to tie a piece of buffalo gut to both ends of a slightly bowed stick and twang it to produced a novel sound with which to entertain the girls. Then, someone fooling around with a twang stick, found that the gut string, when stretched really tight could propel a stick or a stone. Then we were really on the ladder of progress. Next step: point the arrow and you've got a cool way of nailing a pigeon.

Somewhere along the line came various kinds of chipped stone tools, axes, knives and arrow heads. Then someone came up with the idea of catching fish with a worm tied to a length of twisted gut. Often, the fish would slip the line before it was hauled in. But after a few thousand years some genius came up with a small hook carved from a stag's antler or a piece of whale bone, which, when attached to a fishing line and swallowed with the bait, kept the fish on line as it was drawn out of the water. Yeah!

None of these innovations, individually, may have been beyond the intellectual capacity of a chimp, or an orangutan. But what made humans unique and gave them the capacity for continuous innovation was the gift of speech. The power of speech meant that what was conceived once could become common knowledge of the tribe and then the species.

In the early stages of human evolution, innovation affected life only marginally. People with fire hardened spears killed more game than people armed only with rocks, and so their numbers increased, but not by a lot. Likewise, those who developed fish hooks increased the quantity and quality of their food supply, and thus prospered. But it took nine-tenths of human history before people got the idea of settling down to cultivate the land and grow crops instead of relying solely on what they could hunt or gather, and by that time the world's entire human population probably still numbered less than a million.

But by increasing the carrying capacity of the land, farming increased the density of population. Urbanization became possible, and with urbanization the process of continuous innovation was greatly accelerated. Higher population density meant more ideas and faster transmission of ideas. Moreover, urbanization created greater opportunities for trade and for the division and specialization of labor, which led to competition, which concentrated minds on innovation for competitive advantage. Thus began the human population's exponential rise, doubling over shorter and shorter intervals, first ten thousand years, then a thousand, then a hundred, and today, just thirty to forty years.

With each leap in population, the intellectual effort devoted to the process of innovation leapt also, thus causing the human carrying capacity of the planet to rise exponentially. Among the more important innovations were writing (which facilitated the spread of ideas both contemporaneously and across the generations), calculating, and organized learning. What started out as a bit of fun with a stick and a piece of gut turned increasingly to nightmare. Incurably foolish men acquired toxic gases, lethal microorganisms and nuclear weapons capable of destroying virtually all life on the planet. What's more they went about replicating these weapons on a massive scale and devising means of delivering them to any point on earth at hypersonic speed.

That is where the mind of man has brought us: to the brink of extinction. Or rather one should say, that is where the mind, not of man, but of mankind has brought us, for the minds of individual human creatures are as feeble as they ever were, but linked in a vast network with other feeble minds, they achieve prodigious results leading us ever more rapidly to the point of extinction.


CanSpeccy: Why Are We So Smart? Or Perhaps We're Not

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