My New Year’s column has always been important to me. Maybe it is a way, personally and professionally, to sum up a year or look forward to the next year.
I have written about love, passion, depression and optimism in the past. Now as I review this year, I want to write about intelligence.
How can a nation with so much be unable to take better care of itself? Why does it take forever to commit to the obvious?
Future generations will look back on this era and see it was a time of crisis. Historians will evaluate the decisions we are making much as we have evaluated the decisions of other generations.
They will compare their intelligence to ours. What will the “star trekkers” hear in their history modules about us and what we were like? Will we seem primitive to them, unaware?
Primitive evolution - “multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die” - does not consider much beyond the ability of a species - zebras or Homo sapiens - to survive and reproduce in the greatest possible numbers.
Adaptation to your environment and intelligence were once synonymous. The hunter with longdistance vision and the ability to throw a spear could feed more women and sire more children.
We instinctively knew as hunters and gatherers how to respond to crisis: fire, flood, attack. We startle and respond now when we can hear the rumble that warns of an earthquake or the wind and whine of a tornado.
But future scientists will say we had not evolved enough to notice the more subtle signals of the loss of ancient evolutionary balances.
We mark the end of the century when Homo sapiens became the dominant species of the earth and, in so doing, used its intellect to circumvent nature. Once we began to short-circuit adaptation, to stop famines, to maintain an increasingly lower death rate, to use religion to promote reproduction, to accommodate violence or environmental degradation, we dropped out of the known evolutionary process.
“Survival of the fittest” has become far too cold-hearted for us. We believe in a morality that will, regardless of numbers, maintain every one of us but not necessarily any other species.
Dictionaries define intelligence not as the ability to survive but as “the faculty of understanding.” The dictionaries don’t reveal what we need to understand in 1995 to be wise.
Our tests of intelligence confine understanding to a very narrow path, sort of like a horse with blinders. You don’t have to understand anyone else, or even yourself. You don’t have to understand the effect of your behavior on others or the environment.
You can get a high score on most IQ tests and be an active sociopath planning your next murder or an executive avoiding detection for pollution.
You can get a high score and be amoral, unable to work with others, a dictator, a rabid racist, a Nazi or a Mafia don. You can be “intelligent” and run your corporation as if it is a robot manipulating instead of supporting a community.
I upset some Mensa (high-IQ) people when I pointed out that their members might have some problems. I have sent them the research I referred to.
Mensa members are not worse than the average in most social and ethical categories, but they are not better, either.
Scholars will write historical essays in 2095 about our inability to notice that our problems, in this era, were no longer biological evolution but behavioral evolution. They will wonder why we didn’t redefine wisdom to include protection of the planet, limitations on reproduction, discouragement of violence, a sense of community, and acceptance of international citizenship.
They will see that our old IQ tests, heroes, morality, rituals and faiths were too frayed to sustain us. They will laugh at the absurdity, in 1994, of Time naming a pope who supports ancient, self-serving reproductive mandates and mindless discrimination against women as “man of the year.”
Will the future generations who examine us understand that we were alone, as other centuries have not been, at a time of rapid transformation, with no evolutionary signals to warn us of the threat of new problems for our species?
Will they remember how difficult it is to mobilize Homo sapiens or any other mammal to a longer-term view of population, environmental degradation or violence?
The evolutionary process, itself, had no goal, no ultimate definition of “the fittest” - only survival and reproduction. That is why there are millions of species each in its own niche.
There is no prelaid biological pattern for a perfect world or a perfect being. There is now only what we decide to sustain and create.
We are on our own as to the nature of our future model. We need a new contract, a new story, new goals of what we can be in this garden that is our planet, not a step back to the past that seduces with small steps that appeal to our old common sense but offer no wisdom.
We need new and stronger moral norms but not mindless moral codes based on old and unjust models.
Maybe the end of the evolutionary process is the creation of our current mind. Our brain, with its complexity, its ambivalence, its memories, may contain the characteristics necessary to multiply wisdom.
Maybe those who read about us will know that we were the first generation, worldwide, that struggled to break out of our heritage as animals. Maybe they will sense that we wanted to create a new vision of man, that we knew the possibilities deep in our shared unconscious but could not reach them.