Why Are We So Stupid?

Alexis Zeigler

February, 2005

No Footnotes Yet

There was a forest in front of my house. A fox lived there, and a few different species of hawks. A herd of deer lived there. They run as a group in the winter, and spread out more independently in the summer. This past summer two does, Josephine and Madeline, had their fawns in that forest, and raised them. They grazed on my yard, and picked too much fruit from my trees. Now there are bulldozers driving back and forth, and the forest is gone. The developers describe themselves as "environmentalists," though they have not left a single blade of grass on their newfound construction site, not a single leaf. The animals have left, to struggle in the territory of other animals.

The conservatives say that economic growth is good. They appreciate nature at a distance if at all. The liberals say that growth is good. They say with a greater self-confidence that they support the preservation of nature. A natural world somewhere, but not here. Perhaps it is the curse of living in America, in the southeast where labor and land is relatively cheap, that one gets to witness the unending work of heavy machinery. I have seen a lot of this land, up close. I have counted over a dozen species of ants on a single boulder in the middle of a pond. I have watched the snakes slide silently through the dark underbrush. I have watched the hawks and the crows chase each other across the sky, calling, cursing, and teasing each other. I have watched the deer, the bucks who learn to hide their antlers, the more precocious does. I have watched them sleep, watched them raise their young. I have watched this land give birth, and I have watched it die.

If they take the time to think about it, everybody knows that the trees make the air that we breathe, they clean the air and the water, they draw down rain from the sky, they draw down sunshine and make it into those strong trunks, the heavy shoulders holding out strong arms, gripping the leaves that hold up the sky. And now we are playing Russain Roulette with ourselves and all of nature. We don't know what is going to happen if we cut down too many trees. Will we tip the global climate completely out of control? Will we push so many species into extinction that entire ecosystems collapse wholesale? How is economic growth going to affect the future of the fish we eat, the trees that become our houses, the paper we write on and read? We hold dearly the myth of progress, that somehow technological innovation will always outrun the depletion and destruction of natural resources. But we don't know really.

I have marched in the street. Just a few months back was one of the largest marches I have ever seen, when women's organizations called for a march to support women's rights and the "right to choose." Downtown Washington D.C. was shoulder to shoulder with people, as it was with similar marches twenty years ago. And still we do no know, why men came to dominate women, why men dominate women all over the modern world, when and why human societies choose to regulate human sexuality.

I have marched in the street many other times, trying to stop the wars, trying to preserve life on earth. We have grown accustomed to seeing social problems as "issues," somehow separate from the quesion of how those "issues" might fit together. Can the average person tell you whey we so blithely play with our own ecological destruction? Or why poor people are poor? If you asked people on the street, why do men dominate women all over the world? Neither the average person on the street, nor even in the universities, could give you an answer to that question. For all the incredible technological sophistication of our time, why do we not understand the roots of the most basic institutions in our society? Why do we not ask that question? And most importantly, given the convergence of political and ecological decay in our time, how could we possibly hope to overcome such powerful destruction and polarization without a systematic understanding of the human culture in which we live?

Before you decide that people are simply stupid, ask them about the statistical history of their favorite sports team. Ask them about their job, even if it is nominally "unskilled" labor, it will likely involve a sophisticated explanation. No we are not stupid, but we are very selectively intelligent. We can build highly sophisticated computers, and space ships that fly to the Moon and Mars. But we don't know why poor people are poor, or why our society is organized as it is. Why do we develop such a sophisticated mechanical technology while we have so little understanding of our social world? Why can build micro-chips that can process millions of electronic signals in a second, and yet we do not know where our own beliefs come from?

History has been written by people who consider themselves terribly important. That has been true for a few thousand years now. Slaves to do not write history, nor soldiers or working people. History is written by academics. It is preached from the pulpit by ministers and politicians. It is in their interest to tell you that ideas are important. The academic will tell you that their past and future research is important, that the development of philisophical ideas propels the consciousness of society forward. The politicians will tell you that their policies are important, that you should support them and their party. The minister will tell you that faith is important, and support for the church.

The physical sciences suffer similar constrictions. Brilliant minds are constrained by outmoded traditions and stifling institutions. And then they break out of the cage. The geeks build a computer in their garage, and it goes on the market. Einstein develops his most significant theorems on the back of used paper brought home from his petty administrative job at a patent office. And when these theories and devices escape their academic exile, they assert their own place in the market.

And social ideas? There are plenty, but there is no market to sort the grain from the chaff. What is left is a politicized filtering of ideas, inside and outside of academia. We can build computers. And almost no one can offer a coherent explanation of why men dominate women, or why we suffer from collective ecological blindness.

It's a terribly peculiar question to ask, because it is not a question we are accustomed to considering. We think about how to preserve specific legal protections for women, but not the deeper roots of male supremacy, nor how male supremacy weaves into the basic fabric of our society. We may think about how to secure more funding for specific social programs in our time, but we do not spend much time thinking about why our society is so economically polarized into rich and poor. The writers of history have collectively told us for thousands of years that ideas are important, and political expediency demands that we respond to current pressures. But is there is a deeper solution? Is there a social technology that can make us socially aware, as our mechanical technology has triggered an explosion of our understanding of our physical world?

The history of the last couple of centuries are a story of economic expansion. Along with that expansion has come an expansion of democracy and civil liberty. We are now reaching the point where that expansion is slowing, in both economic and civil terms. In our immediate future, we will increasingly face the constraints of the ecological limits of Island Earth. Can we successfully navigate such monumentous changes by focusing on one issue at a time? What do we need beyond the triumph of yet another invention?

We need a social technological revolution, and generalized increase is social understanding among people that is then applied to our economic and ecological circumstances. Is a revolution of social technology possible, a revolution that would have as profound an affect on our lives as the industrial revolution has had? Yes. Is it desireable? Is is the likely the only means of our future survival. But it is going to look very different than you might imagine.

The social technological revolution is not going to start in the voting booth. It is going to involve a systemic change of the entire culture, and of the global cultural system. Political decisions may regulate how much taxes you pay, and who has the power to allocate those fund to their constituents, but culture has a deeper and larger influence over your life. Humans are uniquely and deeply cultural beings. You learn everything you know about the world around you from the culture in which you are raised. That awareness opens your eyes and puts blinders on your vision at the same time. Most people can only venture so far outside of the dominant ethos of their time. In an age of slavery, some may question slavery, but full equality of peoples is outside of the common consciousness. We tug and pull each other with our thoughts, a fact well documented in social science experiments on "group think." Culture pulls hard on its members to not think or act too far outside of the social norms. In this context, we are defining culture broadly, to include all things that humans create. Changing culture means changing the entire system, economic, political, and spiritual.

Evolutions of Human Consciousness

The culture around us has enormous influence of how and what we think. But how do the belief systems of entire cultures evolve? We know the myth of progress perpetuated by the great white men of history, but what's really going on?

Human consciousness has been through a number of momentous steps as the nature of human society has changed. For most of our history, humans did a lot of camping. The small cultures of our gathering ancestors were immediatey accessible in all regards to their inhabitants. The members of a band all knew each other, they witnessed personally the failings and triumphs of different members of the group, and their impacts on the group. God lived in the plants and animals in their immediate environment. It is difficult to say to what extent people in such groups may have had, or have, a "social technology" of their own societies. But one can imagine that they did to some extent understand the impacts of their actions on the culture of the group, over the long and short term. It is noteworthy than humans evolved as intelligent beings in these small egalitarian bands. Although we are predominantly cultural beings, the social fabric of the egalitarian band is wound into our genes.

The problem of having a rational understanding of one's society gets more complicated as the society gets more complicated. The growth of more complex societies was a global phenomenon. Relatively egalitarian. gathering societies lived all over the world for thousands of years before the advent of modern agriculture and civilization. They did not have the complex stratified social institutions that we have in modern times. People speak of globalization in our time, but the first globalization dates back thousands of years when humans spread themselves relatively evenly over the entire surface of the planet. This in affect was a global decision on the part of humanity to cope with slow but steady population growth by dispersing to every corner of the world. This reduced the need to fight for increasingly scarce land and natural resources.

The second globalization occured when most every part of our world had been populated by human beings. We lived for millions of years as gatherers as proto-humans and then humans. In the short span of a few thousand years, agricultural societies sprung up all over the world. Agriculture can feed many more people in a given area than gathering. Or ancient predecessors knew how to plant seeds, but they waited until their other options were expended before they started farming. Once population had reached a level that only farming could support, then they started farming.

As much as gatherers may have been able to understand their own societies simply because those societies were small and close at hand, a fundamental transition of human consciousness began with the development of agricultural societies. As much as we have been taught to believe that consciousness influences our economy and politics, the opposite of far more true. In terms of our early agricultural predecessors, they faced accelerating population growth. Gatherers had used many methods to limit their population growth. Contrary to myth, subsistence farming represents a less reliable food supply than gathering because the number of food sources is greatly narrowed. But the starchier diet of farmers makes women more fertile than the diet of most gatherers, and a sedentary lifestyle makes raising more children possible. Thus early farmers faced not only population growth, but accelerating population growth. At the technological level, this meant changing technologies toward more and intensive forms of agricultural production. Again, contrary to myth, more "civilized" societies worked harder and harder to maintain their standard of living in the face of accelerating population growth and ecological strain.

The impact on human consciousness of population growth and intensifying agriculture have been profound. The social and political results of increasingly intensified agriculture were the development of male supremacy and social stratification. While headmen are non-existant or largely powerless in band level societies, they became increasingly important as population grew. Their job was to increase the productive effort of the group, to organize people to work harder, and to organize parties of warriors to fight others in an increasingly crowded world. Headmen accomplished such goals by rousing people to work harder for the next feast. These headmen were respected for their efforts, but they recieved no other privileges or perks for their effort. As population continued to increase and warfare intensified, the headmen became chiefs and chiefs became kings. The headmen who started out simply cheerleading people to work harder became more and more central to larger and more intensive systems of agricultural production and redistribution.

The primary purpose of early leaders was to increase the organizational capacity of large groups of people. The organizational capacity of a group is the ability of that group to make decisions, and to implement those decisions, especially when the implementation involves hard work or heavy sacrafices for members of the group. A small group will have greater organziational capacity if they all speak the same language, or if they have some experience or training together. A group with the lowest organizational capacity would be one of randomly collected people with no experience, and no organizational structure. Among small groups, egalitarianism achieves the highest organizational capacity because the group is able to make use of the mental and physical resources of the whole group without angering or suppressing individuals. The issue of organziational capacity gets a lot more complicated with larger groups. In general, for very large groups of people, social stratification increases their organizational capacity. Large stratified groups can convince people to work hard or fight enemy soldiers for the glory of God. Or failing that, can coerce, imprison, or execute the nay-sayers.

Social stratification seems to be the universally adopted means that human societies have used to respond to the need to intensify agricultural production and to organize warfare. More stratified groups seem to have been able to outcompete, at least in the short term, less stratified groups. While those near the top of such hierarchies like to espouse the idea that their position is devine will, the history of humanity for the last few thousand years has been one of convulsive growth and collapse of civilizations and ever escalating warfare. It is a short-term competition in which stratified groups have succeeded.

The Child Mind

We started domesticating animals a long time ago. I have heard it said that dogs have been selectively bread to favor those individuals who remain puppy-like into adulthood. It means they are "cute," less aggressive, more docile. Perhaps someone who knows more about the evolution of canine pedigress can speak more succinctly to that point, but there is no doubting that human cultures developed an effective means of creating docile humans as we grew into stratified societies. One notices when reading the ethnographies of egalitarian band and village cultures that young people take on adult roles early. Among such peoples, there is a recognition of the attributes of different age groupings, and elders recieve some deference. But in general, nothing stands in the way of young people taking on adult roles, particularly in their teenage years. Children and young adults in such cultures are given free reign, within the general social norms of the group, to behave as they choose and undertake whatever task they wish to try.

Children growing up in highly stratified cultures, such as modern industrial society, face a very different circumstance. In stratified societies, children are put in social groupings in which they must defer to higher power, and kept in a position of deference throughout their childhood and into early adulthood. We have become so accustomed to this fact that we presume it to be natural, unnavoidable, as if young people would run wild and destroy themselves and society if they were not so controlled. And yet it is a radical departure from our history, and one that has profound impacts on human conscioussness and society. We may think it natural that high school students, even young adults in college, have no democratic control over the institution of which they are a part, but it is very different from our past and has profound impacts on how we think.

Raising children in institutions where they are kept in a juvenile position makes our intelligence selective. If you study developmentalism, the science of how children evolve intellectually, you discover a few interesting things. At a very young age, children feel a natural deference to their parents and higher spiritual powers. They are suggestable and easily believe in supernatural beings like Easter Bunnies and Santa. The universe of higher power is congealed into thier mind as the world of dieties, parents and other adults with which they have a personal relationship. They don't really differentiate themselves from this larger universe of protective devine beings, but in a sense percieve themselves as being in the center of it.

Developmentalists have discerned that, as much as our stratified society prefers to rule by command, children actually develop intellectually as a result of peer interaction with other children with whom they stand as equals. In these inteactions they learn the real-world impacts of lying to, cheating, or hurting a friend. They also learn to see themselves as separate individuals in the midst of other unique individuals. They learn that rules are written by people and can be changed by people. At least some rules.

The affect of keeping children in stratified social organizations is in some ways analogous to the selective breeding for juvenile traits that we have undertaken with our domestic animals. In this case, the affective is a selective application of juvenile intellectual patterns to specific realms of life. Because children in our society are kept in highly stratified social organizations throughout their development, their juvenile intellectual patterns are frozen into adulthood and selectively applied to specific aspects of modern life. Older children and adults in our society may sit down to a game of poker and negotiate the rules. But we have all undergone a long process of education regarding what rules we are allowed to think about, and which belong in the realm of higher power. Sports statistics, so we have been taught, are subject to ordinary, hard-nosed rational analyses. National foreign policy, or understanding our own culture, its past or current evolution, these things are not subject to rational examination.

To tie this in to the earlier discussion about the origins of social hierarchy, the purpose of stratification from the beginning was to get people to work and fight harder, to increase the organizational capacity of the group to respond to population growth, ecological stress, and military threats. Once social classes became firmly established, then leaders chose to work for their own benefit as often as that of society, but the original impetus for social hiearchy not to benefit the few at the expense of the many. Raising children in hierarchical social organizations increases the organizational capacity of a society by relegating social technology to the realm of the Gods. We don't look at poverty, male supremacy, or any other larger social issues with a rational mind because we have been taught to apply juvenile thought patterns to those realms. That increases the organizational capacity of our society because it removes from questioning or criticism the greater part of our social and political existence. And that is why there are such stark differences between "conservatives" and critics of our society. Its not that these different groups hold opposing beliefs, but rather that they use very different intellectual processes to analyze their respective worlds.

Although we have social sciences that are supposed to transcend the immediate restrictions of political fashion, that is not how it works. One can trace the development of "discoveries" in the social sciences and correlate them with political trends. The 1800s saw a domination of Social Darwinism and similar "science" that justified the increasingly polarized nature of American society. With the advent of the progressive revolution of the early 20th century, science "discovered" that unemployment, not laziness caused poverty. When the progressives were divided after WWI, science turned to personal motivation as an explanation for poverty. With the upsurge of the unions and the socialists in the 1930s, social science again turned to the social causes of poverty. The pendulum swung back to a focus on personal causes of poverty in the conservative 1950s under Eisenhower. The 1960s and 1970s saw an upsurge of science that looked at the social causes of poverty, i.e. unemployement. This was also the age of ecological anthropology, and extensive re-examinations of anthropology and history from the perspective of women and minorities. And since then? Social science has once again turned to studying minutae and personal motivations, with no concern about the social causes of social problems. The ecological anthropologists who did extensive work re-examining the history of humanity a couple of decades ago have been marginalized to a large extent. The means of marginalization is to simply refrain from quoting or teaching previous writers. Over time, this means their extinction from the common consciousness. Fame is decided by who is quoted, who is taught, and who is forgotten. Individual writers and social scientists may choose to challenge dominant ideologies. But one can see "discoveries" made and forgotten, then made and forgotten again and again as political ideologies shift. In the social realm, there is no building on past technology as there is in development of mechanical technology in our society.

The driving engine of cultural change is the economy as it interfaces with ecology. As a result of population growth, human cultures evolved social stratification as a means to increase the organizational capacity of societies to respond to ecological and military stressors. Stratified cultures keep children in hierarchical organizations in order to teach those children to be adults who put God and Country into a category of faithful juvenile thinking that does not question. This too serves to increase the organizational capacity of the group as a whole. The affect, however, is to suppress social awareness in society at large. In as much as the social sciences might choose to question the dominant political form, that domination is pursued and the retreated from as the political tide of mainstream society swings back and forth.

Conscious Culture

We tried to stop the developers in front of my house. The neighborhood is African American, and many of these folks have no hesitation about speaking their mind. Across the street from me lives a man who was born in the house next to the house he lives in now. His brother, raised in the same house, lives a few doors up. Just down from these brothers is a man in his 70s who also grew up on this street. His son lives next to me. Just beyond the elderly gentleman is an elderly woman who also grew up here. This used to be a poor black neighborhood, and it is not a wealthy one now. For many years these folks lived here without city water, without city trash pick-up, and with mud for streets. My yard has a well because they had to have water. The folks across the street got their water from the spring in the big depression where they are building the new houses. The new houses will be stacked close together. They will sell them for 300,000 dollars or more, to wealthier whiter people who will move in here, not having met these folks who have lived here for their entire lives, never knowing what was here before they came.

We tried to stop the destruction of our forest, because it was our forest. Legally someone else owned it, the rich white men who these folks have worked for. We tried to stop them, and legally we didn't have a leg to stand on. Property rights are paramount in our society. Politically, liberals and conservatives alike call this "growth," and deem it to be a good thing. Ultimately, this problem runs deep. Every house is built where there used to be a piece of nature. As is every road, and every field. Nature is resilient, and can adapt to a lot of changes. But at this point, we are pushing global ecosystems into collapse. That isn't a conscious choice really. People want houses, and cars, and consumer items because they have been told that is what a self respecting person should want. Their consumption in turn drives the industrial economy forward, burning up the excessive productive capacity of our great machines. People get what they want, the economy grows, and nature gives way.

If these houses were not built here, a forest somewhere else would be destroyed so they could be built there. Every unit of economic growth we currently enjoy is being subtracted from the viability of future human societies and ecosystems. It is impossible to predict with precision what our future economy will look like, but the physical sciences have become sufficiently sophisticated that they can at least estimate what level of resource use is sustainable in the long term. By the best estimates anyone has been able to generate, we are expending resources at somewhere between ten and a hundred times the sustainable rate. By any reasonable measure, single family houses and personal automobiles are far beyond the margin of sustainability. To alter how we live at that level is not possible within the current cultural system.

The muchrakers and truth-tellers are more desperately needed than ever. Even in times of ascendant conservative power the truth occassionally wins victories, generating pressure to that restrains the abuse of power. In terms of the long term prognosis for western society, we have to recognize that the suppression of social technology, of social awareness, is a systemic process in highly stratified societies. The academic institutions that might challenge the suppression of social technology do not in general do so. While resistance is critical, the organizational capacity of scattered issue-oriented campaigns is very limited.

Economic changes have powerful influence over our belief systems over time. The escalating ecological crises of our time will create increasing stress on industrial societies. Our ancestors were not conscious of the affects of their actions on the evolution of their own societies. Neither are we. For all the extraordinary technology of our time, our society is no less mythologically oriented than past societies. Our social evolution is as blind as it has been for the last ten thousand years, probably more blind than it was when we lived in small groups. We are capable of another leap of conscioussness, but that leap of conscioussness cannot happen independently of economic and political change. We are capable of a conscious social evolution. That is the only means that we have to confront the enormity of the challenges we face. The creation of a conscious evolution movement in our society with sufficient organizational capacity to challenge existing social systems is going to require a spiritual dedication that reaches beyond liberal intellectualism. Our lives, the lives of everything around us, are at stake.