Are We All Getting Dumber, Or Is It Just Me?

Posted on October 8, 2010


At some point in my formal education I was taught that humanity was an integral part of the evolution of the universe. Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher, said that through our collective consciousness, we are following a path toward what he called the Omega Point, a place of intellectual and spiritual godhood. Teilhard believed that we are, together, reaching for perfection.

Well, I have my doubts. Yesterday I picked up a bottle of drain cleaner and right on the front it said “Harmful If Swallowed!” The scary part was that I overheard one of my brain cells say to another, “Whew. Close call there, huh?”

The truth is, we aren’t that smart. In a natural world running efficiently on survival of the fittest, we need to be told how to avoid hurting ourselves. When we get onto a roller coaster that’s about to turn us upside down and take us to a 400-foot vertical drop at 120 miles per hour, a sixteen-year-old boy in baggy pants has to remind us not to stand up during the ride. Any product we buy that gets plugged into an electrical outlet comes with an instruction booklet that devotes its first sixteen pages to the various ways we might be injured by the device. My table saw has warning labels telling me to keep my hands away from the spinning blade, the same blade I’m using to slice through two-inch-thick boards of pressure treated lumber. The booklet also advises that I should never use the saw while seated in a pool of water.

Left: Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. Photo by adpowers.

We make puzzling choices in our everyday lives, choices that don’t seem very wise. We’re afraid of the sun and tap water and white flour, and we believe a copper-coated bracelet on our wrists will help us play better golf. We give our credit card numbers to people named MR. STANLEY from Nigeria who claim they’re going to send us forty million dollars. We keep buying self-help books and vegetable choppers and powerful stain removers, even though the last twelve books didn’t help us at all, we can chop anything with a regular kitchen knife, and nobody has ever removed a stain from anything in the history of the world. On top of everything else, we read our horoscope.

Why aren’t we living up to Teilhard’s vision? How did we stray so far from the path? I have a theory.

Many thousands of years ago, humanity was progressing in great leaps. We had developed magnificent civilizations that produced incredible works of art and architecture, knew how to grow food in abundance, invented mathematics, and learned to chart the heavens. At that time, most people were extremely smart. Today’s bell curve of intelligence would have been looked upon with disbelief; in fact, their chart would have shown almost everyone to be a genius, with only a thin sliver of the population exhibiting mental dullness. We were, perhaps, on our way to intellectual and spiritual godhood.

Then one day, something bad happened.

A blazing comet appeared in the sky. Hurtling toward Earth, the mass of ice and rock grew bigger and brighter each night. Almost everyone went outside to investigate. All of the intelligent humans — the curious, the scientific minded, the philosophers, the mathematicians, the teachers — stood, watched, and speculated. Then the comet slammed into the Earth, flattening everything in its path and wiping out, in an instant, all of the world’s smart people.

Meanwhile, huddled inside their homes and local lottery ticket outlets, that thin sliver of humanity argued about the catastrophe. Some insisted the gods were having a snowball fight. Others thought a really big turtle had stepped on everyone. Many said nothing and continued to wait for the winning lottery numbers to be announced on television.

Thousands of years passed, and here we are. Seven billion of us, all descended from a tiny group of under-achievers who went on to invent bungee jumping and diapers decorated with Disney characters.

Imagine where we could have been by now. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks probably knew about precession, a slight wobble in the Earth’s axis that occurs in 26,000-year cycles. The only evidence of precession is a barely perceptible change in the position of the constellations. Who was paying such close attention to the stars that they would notice this variation, and how would they have even known to look for it? More than twenty centuries later, I have trouble reading a bus schedule.

Precession: The Earth's axis wobbles like that of a spinning top.

We cut down a hundred acres of forest to build another subdivision, then ask why we have coyotes in the backyard. We listen to celebrities who live in 30,000-square-foot mansions tell us how to reduce our carbon footprint. We spend our time watching reality shows about other people living their lives, then wonder why we aren’t smarter than a fifth grader.

This morning I looked at the five-day forecast online and saw the following daily predictions: Partly Sunny, Partly Cloudy, Variable Cloudiness, Mainly Sunny, and Cloudy Periods. Each came with a 40-60% chance of precipitation. In other words, we’ve found at least six different ways of saying that it might rain and it might not. Didn’t we already know that?

We put nutrition labels on everything, even bottles of soda. Were you aware that Mountain Dew is not a significant source of vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron? Neither was I.

Behind the wheel of the car, I am constantly reminded of my own ignorance. I have trouble understanding traffic cops who are just waving their arms. When they do that weird dance thing in the middle of the intersection, I am baffled. An argument usually breaks out between my wife and me.

“He’s doing the Funky Chicken,” she’ll say. “He wants you to stop!”

“No, he doesn’t,” I’ll yell back. “That’s the Mashed Potato. It means proceed with caution.”

Road signs are also confusing. Most contain pictograms, symbolic images that are supposed to be easily understood by everyone. When I see one of these signs, I usually have to slow down, stare at it for a few seconds, then talk it out: “There’s an arrow and a dotted line and a man with no feet chasing a round thing. Am I supposed to take off my shoes and play volleyball? No, that can’t be right. Maybe it’s advising me not to use my table saw while driving…”

And this, I guess, is how we missed the turn for the Omega Point. The exit was a few hundred miles back, but we kept going. And now we’re sitting in traffic, waiting to pay the toll. They were going to remove the toll booths, but they said they need the money to pay the toll collectors’ salaries. I think that’s smart, don’t you? And look, there’s a sign telling us to expect delays. I wasn’t expecting delays but I am now, because I’ve been staring at that sign for thirty-five minutes. Lucky for me I’m listening to my new self-help audiobook, Forget Everything We Said in the Last Book: Here’s How To Be A Much Better You!

The weather forecast for tomorrow says there’s a fifty-percent chance of hail. I wonder if it really will be hail, or just those zany gods up there throwing snowballs again. Either way, I hope the mail gets through: I’m expecting that check from MR. STANLEY to arrive.

Posted in: In Over My Head