In my course Human Origins: Intro to Biological Anthropology a student will no doubt insert the movie Idiocracy into a question. And this never fails to annoy and befuddle me.
And it’s not because of the self-righteous tone that so often accompanies mention of that movie. Though it doesn't help.
And it’s not because I don’t care for the movie. We bought the DVD and the dialogue has really spiced-up domestic banter. (Unfortunately all of our favorite quotes are inappropriate for this venue.)
It’s because, in an educational setting, Idiocracy opens up a huge can of worms, too sophisticated to properly address in the first few days of an introductory course. And yet the can of worms can't be ignored once it's open because Idiocracy's take on the heritability of intelligence bows to common misconceptions held by all sorts of people.
So it's a case of misconceptions being perpetuated by culture. And in our case the culture (movie) that is perpetuating the misconceptions happens to be satirizing the fact that culture perpetuates misconceptions. Trippy.
But like I said, it also plays on half-baked assumptions regarding genes and intelligence.
If you haven’t seen it, the movie’s plot is just about an average guy who finds himself 500 years in the future with the task of saving the world. That future world is Idiocracy where nothing works, where politicians are mere entertainers (um?), where pilots, lawyers and doctors are “tarded,” and where someone decided that sports drinks are better for crops than water. Yep, they’re so stupid that they killed their food and fertile soil. With his average intelligence from 25 generations ago, our hero shows these idiots how to fix their problems. All of this is based on a simple premise that’s briefly outlined in the first few moments of the movie:
IN A WORLD…. where intellectuals have little reproductive success…. future generations are populated by non-intellectuals….and the cumulative result of each generation’s increasingly widespread stupidity is… Idiocracy.
By describing my own fertility when I explain reproductive success, students who are already privy to these sorts of demographic trends discover that I fit the norm for a female university professor. These real patterns are the basis for Idiocracy’s fictitious premise and lead me to unwittingly help my students connect dots that shouldn't be.
Also, it’s one of the few Hollywood films to conspicuously invoke evolution that my students have seen, so it’s a convenient mental touchstone while they experience my course.
I get it.
And here's why it's a problem...
If they take further classes in biology or biological anthropology then they will get a more sophisticated perspective and experience. But for first-timers to evolution (= many of my students) just taking one General Education course at a university is not enough. Chances are that they’ll actually buy into the movie’s premise after my course, simply because their radar's tuned to genes and evolution yet they aren’t solidly equipped with the tools to think critically about it all yet.
So, for the fun of it, let’s lay out the trouble with assuming that if the world’s intellectuals stop reproducing then future generations will be stupid.
- A person’s intelligence (i.e. how it is greater or lesser than someone else’s within the normal range, however that may be quantified) is not significantly determined by genes.
- People can improve their intelligence with training, practice, learning, etc... You don't come out of the birth canal all set to be Bill Gates or an astronaut. You need quite a bit of environmental impact to become anything that you are or might be. If you think of intelligence in terms of potential, most people on the planet never cultivate as much of it compared to what the privileged few are able to.
- A person’s intelligence (again, within the normal range) does not correlate with the level of education they receive. Although people try to make it so. IQ, SAT, and other tests are (1) assumed to measure a person’s intelligence and (2) used overtly and covertly to discourage and encourage young people within the educational arena.
- Education can improve your intelligence which can get you more education which can improve your intelligence which can get you more education which can improve your intelligence.
Given the tangled complexities of genes, intelligence, and education, would you assume that if highly educated people stop reproducing entirely that the next generation will be any less intelligent? NO!
What’s more, you can’t on the one hand assume that variation in human intelligence is determined significantly by genes and then on the other hand assume that you’re smarter than your parents.
Wouldn’t you agree that our individual intelligence has only increased compared to that of our ancestors? It’s not necessarily because alleles that code for greater intelligence have become more widespread than before. That may be true, but it’s undetectable…which doesn’t mean that genes are an insignificant contribution, but it supports the notion that they are not a large factor either.
You may be smarter than your parents or your siblings (or you may not) and that could have everything or nothing or betweenthing to do with genes.
Let’s go back deeper in time to our geologic parents. We share a common ancestor with chimps that lived 6 million years ago. We’re pretty sure we’re smarter than chimps. (This is according to cognitive measures that we’ve created, not them, but okay.) Thus, we assume that our ancestors were not as smart as us, yet we’re here today as these smart beings. Sure genomes have evolved during the last 6 million years, but is it really true that we're more intelligent today simply because the most intelligent individuals contributed to the gene pool during all that time?
(For a related treatment of human intellectual evolution click here.)
And back to the main point....Your particular level of normal intelligence hasn't been shown to be disproportionately impacted by anything that you inherit genetically from your parents.
Your intelligence is about (1) your genes that influence all sorts of interconnected machines and networks in your body, both outside and inside of your brain, (2) your environment’s impact on your body, including the establishment of neuronal networks (i.e. from family, teachers, stimulation, training, food, health, etc…), and (3) all the technology and innovation that has come before this very moment to which you may or may not have access.
Can you blame your parents’ genes for all of that? No. Intelligence is a complex trait with normal variation between you and your parents, me and my parents, and you and me that cannot be causally linked to the stretches of DNA that are either similar or different between us.
Now, without introduction, I ask you to perform a simple exercise…
Think of the smartest person you know.
Now think of the wealthiest person you know.
Okay, now scroll down…
Are they the same person?
For the majority of people (of whom I’ve asked this question), the answer is no.
Yet when you look at a globe, where are the strong economies? Where is the wealth?
The strongest economies and the wealth are located in regions of the world that are often considered (along a spectrum of naivete to racism) to harbor the most innately/genetically intelligent people.
For reasons that must be due to our evolved ability (sarcasm!) to seek out and dream up causative correlations, the global distribution of wealth leads so many of us to assume that (1) variation in innate intelligence is distributed in the same pattern, and that (2) intelligence causes wealth even though the reverse is also true: Wealth causes intelligence.
Wealth also causes wealth causes wealth causes wealth.
(And intelligence causes intelligences causes intelligence, too.)
Wealth also builds super-comfy superiority goggles. Even ones that fit snugly on the poor, undereducated folks within wealthy populations!
If you chose two different people for that silly exercise above, then you've helped to demonstrate that patterns and associations that we make between intelligence and wealth at the population level (e.g. Japan is wealthy because it's full of superiorly-genomed Japanese people) do not always fit those that we see in our daily lives. Yet we rarely question ourselves when we apply those causative patterns to populations.
Accounting for individual variation among those we know is one thing we're good at, however, resisting the urge to generalize is not.
The misconception played-up by Idiocracy—that genes govern intelligence—is the basis for claims that biological “race" explains the distribution of wealth in the world. Philosophy like this has supported the killing of millions of people throughout our history.
This flow chart I've drawn for you describes this completely wrong view of genes, intelligence and wealth. (Click on the diagram to see it in full readable size.) We confound the accumulation and transmission of culture (knowledge and wealth) with the transmission of genes. And that’s not entirely due to our ignorance. These are complex issues!
But these are also very old mistaken ideas that persist despite generations of people living their lives and collecting their own experiential data and despite a couple hundred years of scientists and scholars professionally aimed at finding the causes of variation in intelligence, let alone the definition of intelligence.
You’d think we’d be further along than this...assuming so much even though we know only that intelligence is a complex trait. But that habit of ours of establishing causation for all correlations is mighty strong!
Especially when that convenient cause (our special personal genomes and our superior ancestral stock) makes us feel so good about ourselves.
Especially when that convenient cause lets us off the hook for helping the less fortunate because, well, they were born that way. Whaddya gonna do?
This second flow chart is a stab at a more realistic view of genes, intelligence and wealth. (Click on the diagram to see it in full readable size.) It’s not as gloriously and utterly hopeless as a previous flow chart I posted here, but I hope it reflects the complexity of the biological and cultural forces involved in intelligence.
Relative to the first flow chart above, this second one is not such a great recipe for a Hollywood plot is it?
Oh, c’mon... Idiocracy is still a hoot even if the biology's not true. I mean, who doesn’t adore Ghostbusters even though there is no such thing as ghosts?
Please go ahead and LOL and ROFL at Idiocracy... you just have to cleverly ignore its evolutionary ghosts.
And when the movie’s over, and you’re all done laughing, please heed the intended satirical message of the movie:
In a world... where the intellectuals (not an exclusive group!) are stopped from protecting knowledge and passing it down to future generations....future generations are intellectually compromised ....and they seem really stupid.... and they suffer terribly as a consequence.
See, the movie's not entirely a joke.
Idiocracy looms as a threat over all of our freakishly huge heads. And, yes, I mean to use that word exactly as Fox News does. It's a threat that humans have had to avoid ever since our ancestors fared better (i.e. they out-survived and out-reproduced others) if they passed knowledge down to future generations. This has probably been going on for a very long time given how many other animals learn behaviors from each other.
And what are people without scholarly merit doing on our school boards? They're purchasing textbooks written by inept Googlers.
Too many science educators are teaching under fear of repercussion. Too many are asked to tolerate or even respect a specified few false folk biologies. While, as far as I know, not a single English teacher has been asked to tolerate or respect grammatical errors.
I mean, You better learn proper English or else go back to where you came from--Right?
What about, You better learn proper science or else go back to being primordial goo?
And the breathtaking inanity of it all is that the ones issuing the threat of idiocracy are actually members of a species that has depended--more than any other organism on Earth--on the accumulation and application of knowledge!
Oh, I guess it's not so inane if you think intelligence and knowledge are innate, god's gift, mostly opinion, and come from the gut.
For many of us in education biz, the Apoca-Lapse of Reason that is portrayed in Idiocracy is even scarier than other doomsday scenarios we see on the big screen and read in books.
The Road? Pshaw. At least I'd die pretty quickly. Living for fifty more years under an idiocracy? Now that's dreadful.
Perhaps I laugh so hard at Idiocracy because if I didn’t laugh I’d cry.
Notes (added January 9, 2011)
1. I do not share commonly held views that IQ is a perfect measure of intelligence, that it is fixed sometime during development, or that mother nature would particularly care about what IQ tests measure (among "normal" people).
2. There is a body of literature on just about every single thing I discuss in the above and it is highly contentious, full of contradictory evidence and debate. However, you cannot dispute the role that status, stress, nutrition, wealth, culture (and more) play in the variation of IQ scores, educational success, and brain and body development... all three of which are involved in "intelligence."
3. There is good reason to believe that components of intelligence are plastic and can improve during life. (Intelligence must be plastic or else you'd have what you've got now as an embryo, but I mean during adulthood too.): http://www.pnas.org/content/105/19/6829.full
4. My use of "intelligence" is not scientific, but that does not make the concept insignificant. In this post, "intelligence" is what we're all able to assess in someone through interacting with them and I think this is a meaningful use of intelligence for this discussion even though it's not quantifiable.
Please read all the comments below by all, not just me. This post is not complete without them.