A little more than a week ago, scientist James Watson made a complete idiot of himself with some despicable and racist comments about the intelligence of white people and black people, and Greg Laden justifiably kicked his arse over the ill-founded statements. I was certainly surprised, then, to visit the official Rutgers University newspaper (The Daily Targum) website and see an opinion article by a freshman named Brad Pironciak who apparently has no idea what natural selection is, his piece being an idiotic espousal of Social Darwinism (although he didn't use the phrase that pays, "survival of the fittest"). Between this student piece and Jerry Fodor's latest essay, some members of the Rutgers community are showing just how ignorant they are when it comes to evolution.
Although it is not certain who said it, there is a familiar maxim that goes "It is better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt," and Pironciak has opted to let us in on his condescending brand of foolishness. Our student author opens with the "true story" of 44-year-old Megan Fri, shot dead because she decided to "surprise" officers that were training on a firing range. A quick google search does not reveal any news stories about this death, only a few random links to lists of "Top 20 Homicides" that are anything but amusing. Apparently Pironciak has not yet learned that one of the primary rules of journalism is to CHECK YOUR SOURCES, as we are presented with a very thin story with no references as absolute fact. What's more, even if the event actually occurred Pironciak looks at the event rather callously, the rest of the article (as we'll see) implying that she deserved to die because she did something that wasn't very bright.
After briefly pondering why there are helmet & seatbelt laws, instructions on Pop Tart boxes, and warnings on hair dryers, Pironciak unveils his rather strange (but unfortunately not unique) hypothesis. He writes;
Throughout history, I think it's conceivable that there has been a relatively equal ratio of the number of intelligent people to the number of not-so-intelligent ones. However, this does not mean that the number of intelligent to stupid people being born was the same. It does seem that the number of stupid people born has always been significantly higher then those of a higher mental capacity.
This may be putting some words in Pironciak's mouth, but his idea seems to be that the different between "intelligent" and "not-so-intelligent" is genetically determined at birth and cannot be changed or overcome by environment, education, or other factors, the hypothetical loathsome idiots always outnumbering the egg-heads in their Ivory Towers. This, of course, is unadulterated bullshit with nothing to support it except the author's opinion, and intelligence is heritable to greater or lesser extents and seems to be correlated with unintentional injuries or early death in adult life, Pironciak apparently could not be bothered to do any actual research and saw it fit to instead reveal his own biases. But wait, it gets better (and by that I mean much, much worse);
How do the numbers stay so even then, you ask? Simple.
Charles Darwin's defined natural selection as the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved. Those best adapted to their environments are more likely to survive and reproduce." As those of a lower intelligence lived their lives, they naturally did things not in their best interests, which inevitably led to their deaths. Now, just by sheer luck, not everyone who did stupid things was killed off. This leads me back to my earlier argument.
If the number of births for those who are dumb is higher than those who are not, we have to rely on natural selection to take some of them out of the gene pool and balance out society as a whole. Because our society is littered with warning labels, safety laws and a variety of other things to help stop those who are dumb from doing the dumb things we hear about in the news, those of extreme stupidity don't have any opportunity to kill themselves off.
I guess we're all bad people then, depriving Pironciak's imaginary idiotic populace from killing themselves off like they're supposed to. I could hardly believe I was reading this, and is obvious from the tone of this post it's difficult to control my anger and frustration that this made it past the editors into print (even if it is an opinion piece). What Pironciak is essentially doing is taking the "survival of the fittest" model of natural selection and applying it to populations of Homo sapiens, dullards diluting the intelligence of the species by producing more offspring with low intelligence than their more intelligent counterparts. Given this notion, I'm actually a little surprised that Pironciak didn't go all the way and advocate eugenics or selective breeding for intelligence, but if we think through his spotty logic (and I use "logic" loosely) he is implicitly suggesting selecting for the "best and brightest" by weeding out those deemed undesirable. Even if we look past such loathsome ideas for a moment, it's starkly apparent that Pironciak is no expert on Darwin, and even if he has read some of Darwin's books much of it seems not to have sunk in. Thanks to the work of Ed Darrell, who actually has read Darwin's work and understood it, we can see what Darwin had to say for himself when it came to the application of natural selection to humans (click the link for the full quote, as I've only extracted the most pertinent parts here to keep things as concise as possible);
In regard to the moral qualities, some elimination of the worst dispositions is always in progress even in the most civilised nations. Malefactors are executed, or imprisoned for long periods, so that they cannot freely transmit their bad qualities. Melancholic and insane persons are confined, or commit suicide. Violent and quarrelsome men often come to a bloody end. The restless who will not follow any steady occupation-and this relic of barbarism is a great check to civilisation (17. 'Hereditary Genius,' 1870, p. 347.)-emigrate to newly-settled countries; where they prove useful pioneers. Intemperance is so highly destructive, that the expectation of life of the intemperate, at the age of thirty for instance, is only 13.8 years; whilst for the rural labourers of England at the same age it is 40.59 years. (18. E. Ray Lankester, 'Comparative Longevity,' 1870, p. 115. The table of the intemperate is from Neison's 'Vital Statistics.' In regard to profligacy, see Dr. Farr, 'Influence of Marriage on Mortality,' 'Nat. Assoc. for the Promotion of Social Science,' 1858.) Profligate women bear few children, and profligate men rarely marry; both suffer from disease. In the breeding of domestic animals, the elimination of those individuals, though few in number, which are in any marked manner inferior, is by no means an unimportant element towards success. This especially holds good with injurious characters which tend to reappear through reversion, such as blackness in sheep; and with mankind some of the worst dispositions, which occasionally without any assignable cause make their appearance in families, may perhaps be reversions to a savage state, from which we are not removed by very many generations. This view seems indeed recognised in the common expression that such men are the black sheep of the family.
With civilised nations, as far as an advanced standard of morality, and an increased number of fairly good men are concerned, natural selection apparently effects but little; though the fundamental social instincts were originally thus gained. But I have already said enough, whilst treating of the lower races, on the causes which lead to the advance of morality, namely, the approbation of our fellow-men-the strengthening of our sympathies by habit-example and imitation-reason-experience, and even self-interest-instruction during youth, and religious feelings.
A most important obstacle in civilised countries to an increase in the number of men of a superior class has been strongly insisted on by Mr. Greg and Mr. Galton (19. 'Fraser's Magazine,' Sept. 1868, p. 353. 'Macmillan's Magazine,' Aug. 1865, p. 318. The Rev. F.W. Farrar ('Fraser's Magazine,' Aug. 1870, p. 264) takes a different view.), namely, the fact that the very poor and reckless, who are often degraded by vice, almost invariably marry early, whilst the careful and frugal, who are generally otherwise virtuous, marry late in life, so that they may be able to support themselves and their children in comfort. Those who marry early produce within a given period not only a greater number of generations, but, as shewn by Dr. Duncan (20. 'On the Laws of the Fertility of Women,' in 'Transactions of the Royal Society,' Edinburgh, vol. xxiv. p. 287; now published separately under the title of 'Fecundity, Fertility, and Sterility,' 1871. See, also, Mr. Galton, 'Hereditary Genius,' pp. 352-357, for observations to the above effect.), they produce many more children. The children, moreover, that are borne by mothers during the prime of life are heavier and larger, and therefore probably more vigorous, than those born at other periods. Thus the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. Or as Mr. Greg puts the case: "The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts-and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal 'struggle for existence,' it would be the inferior and LESS favoured race that had prevailed-and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults."
There are, however, some checks to this downward tendency. We have seen that the intemperate suffer from a high rate of mortality, and the extremely profligate leave few offspring. The poorest classes crowd into towns, and it has been proved by Dr. Stark from the statistics of ten years in Scotland (21. 'Tenth Annual Report of Births, Deaths, etc., in Scotland,' 1867, p. xxix.), that at all ages the death-rate is higher in towns than in rural districts, "and during the first five years of life the town death-rate is almost exactly double that of the rural districts." As these returns include both the rich and the poor, no doubt more than twice the number of births would be requisite to keep up the number of the very poor inhabitants in the towns, relatively to those in the country. With women, marriage at too early an age is highly injurious; for it has been found in France that, "Twice as many wives under twenty die in the year, as died out of the same number of the unmarried." The mortality, also, of husbands under twenty is "excessively high" (22. These quotations are taken from our highest authority on such questions, namely, Dr. Farr, in his paper 'On the Influence of Marriage on the Mortality of the French People,' read before the Nat. Assoc. for the Promotion of Social Science, 1858.), but what the cause of this may be, seems doubtful. Lastly, if the men who prudently delay marrying until they can bring up their families in comfort, were to select, as they often do, women in the prime of life, the rate of increase in the better class would be only slightly lessened.
It has been urged by several writers that as high intellectual powers are advantageous to a nation, the old Greeks, who stood some grades higher in intellect than any race that has ever existed (26. See the ingenious and original argument on this subject by Mr. Galton, 'Hereditary Genius,' pp. 340-342.), ought, if the power of natural selection were real, to have risen still higher in the scale, increased in number, and stocked the whole of Europe. Here we have the tacit assumption, so often made with respect to corporeal structures, that there is some innate tendency towards continued development in mind and body. But development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only tentatively. Individuals and races may have acquired certain indisputable advantages, and yet have perished from failing in other characters. [emphasis mine] The Greeks may have retrograded from a want of coherence between the many small states, from the small size of their whole country, from the practice of slavery, or from extreme sensuality; for they did not succumb until "they were enervated and corrupt to the very core." (27. Mr. Greg, 'Fraser's Magazine,' Sept. 1868, p. 357.) The western nations of Europe, who now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors, and stand at the summit of civilisation, owe little or none of their superiority to direct inheritance from the old Greeks, though they owe much to the written works of that wonderful people.
Natural selection follows from the struggle for existence; and this from a rapid rate of increase. It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase; for this leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide and many other evils, and in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent. But as man suffers from the same physical evils as the lower animals, he has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence. Had he not been subjected during primeval times to natural selection, assuredly he would never have attained to his present rank. Since we see in many parts of the world enormous areas of the most fertile land capable of supporting numerous happy homes, but peopled only by a few wandering savages, it might be argued that the struggle for existence had not been sufficiently severe to force man upwards to his highest standard. Judging from all that we know of man and the lower animals, there has always been sufficient variability in their intellectual and moral faculties, for a steady advance through natural selection. No doubt such advance demands many favourable concurrent circumstances; but it may well be doubted whether the most favourable would have sufficed, had not the rate of increase been rapid, and the consequent struggle for existence extremely severe. It even appears from what we see, for instance, in parts of S. America, that a people which may be called civilised, such as the Spanish settlers, is liable to become indolent and to retrograde, when the conditions of life are very easy. With highly civilised nations continued progress depends in a subordinate degree on natural selection; for such nations do not supplant and exterminate one another as do savage tribes. Nevertheless the more intelligent members within the same community will succeed better in the long run than the inferior, and leave a more numerous progeny, and this is a form of natural selection. The more efficient causes of progress seem to consist of a good education during youth whilst the brain is impressible, and of a high standard of excellence, inculcated by the ablest and best men, embodied in the laws, customs and traditions of the nation, and enforced by public opinion. It should, however, be borne in mind, that the enforcement of public opinion depends on our appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of others; and this appreciation is founded on our sympathy, which it can hardly be doubted was originally developed through natural selection as one of the most important elements of the social instincts. (31. I am much indebted to Mr. John Morley for some good criticisms on this subject: see, also Broca, 'Les Selections,' 'Revue d'Anthropologie,' 1872.)
While this passage, from the Descent of Man, is obviously a bit dated it does hold some important ideas as to how natural selection works and why we should not expect that those who simply breed the most will end up outnumbering those who are not so prolific in Western society. As I had mentioned earlier, environment, education, and economic status (among other factors) all are important in influencing intelligence, and those that do not have many of the luxuries that you or I may have (those who Pironciak would rather be rid of) often experience higher rates of mortality at an earlier age, their impact not being as great as would be assumed. Treating other humans beings as if they were some sort of vermin, in contrast, tries to simplify the model to the point where intelligence is determined by genes alone, those with low IQ's having no choice but to give in to their compulsion to start having babies at the earliest age possible for reasons they cannot fathom. As a professor and friend remarked about this article and relating to such ideas, one is almost tempted to say that they must be satire, but I fear that Pironciak's moral superiority is real. He continues;
What are the ramifications of this, you may ask? Well, as the amount of "safety" in our society continues to grow, the ratio will continue to be skewed in favor of the dumb. As there are fewer and fewer intelligent people to fix the messes inevitably caused in society, society as a whole will begin to slowly crumble. Combine this with the amount of increasing lawsuits due to dumb people doing things to hurt, but not kill, themselves, and we have a world that will quickly stop making progress toward the future.
The solution: Get rid of it. By it, I mean every little unnecessary thing in our society that simply keeps alive those without any common sense. Want to drive a car without a seatbelt? Go for it. Ride that big ol' motorcycle without your helmet? Have a blast! To add to the fun, when you get home, blow dry your hair while sitting in the tub or explore what happens when you jam a fork into an electrical socket.
As I mentioned earlier, Pironciak's rather bleak interpretation of a future populated by dullards is hardly unique, taken to horrifying extremes by tyrants in history but also reflected in some works of fiction. Indeed, I have to wonder if the Targum tirade was somehow inspired by a recent Mike Judge film Idiocracy;
As PZ has previously noted, there are no "marching morons" like the titular victims of the Cyril M. Kornbluth story "The Marching Morons," essentially being the great intellectually unwashed that so worry our student writer. While I have to admit that Idiocracy has some funny moments, the sentiment behind it is far from accurate, those who feel they're somehow superior than others easily falling into the trap of thinking that they actually have to be concerned about the average IQ of the next generation. Indeed, Pironciak's view of the situation is rather bleak;
Is there another option? I don't really think so. While smart people are developing treatments for diseases, running corporations or going into space, stupid people are just sitting around breeding. Well, what else is going to improve Joe Schmo's day after coming home from a long shift at McDonalds except having sex with his wife and popping out baby number seven?
If you want real proof that we are dire need of a solution, feel free to turn on the TV. One thing stupid people can do is vote, which is the reason we had President George W. Bush for four years ... and then President Bush for another four years. We live in a world where people legitimately believe that the media is fair and balanced, and thusly do everything "that ol' picture box tells me tah do." If we don't do something quick, I fear the day that I open the pen that has an instruction manual.
Don't go to the bathroom while God hands out brains.
Oddly enough, it seems that Pironciak may have simply been doing what the "picture box told [him] tah do," finding it far easier to publicly stick his foot in his mouth rather than think his standpoint through. Perhaps it's too much to ask of a pre-business freshman to look up some primary sources and create a well-constructed argument, but I would have at least expected one of the editors to spot this steaming pile of editorial excrement before it got the "OK" for publication. Pironciak's work is an embarrassment to himself, to the Targum, and to Rutgers, and his hijacking of natural selection to support his holier-than-thou views is not helping in the creation/evolution debate either. It is people like him who continue to use the term "Darwinism" to support their morally questionable views that continue to give good scientists a black eye, and while I can't stand creationists like Ken Ham, I can tolerate writers such as Pironciak even less. I'll be sending a condensed version of this post to the Targum for publication and I will follow up on it this week as to whether it gets printed or not; I can't sit idly by when a student like Pironciak misuses one of the most important ideas in the whole of scientific thought to uphold his own questionable views.
"If the number of births for those who are dumb is higher than those who are not, we have to rely on natural selection to take some of them out of the gene pool and balance out society as a whole."
And why, pray tell, would this supposed process keep an exact proportion of 50% ? Why not 45%, or 66% ? That's population genetics for you !
And where does this 50% figure come from? Would that be, perhaps, because the distribution of IQ scores is gaussian, with mean = median = 100 ? But why is it so ? Because it was constructed to be so, because the subtests were selected and calibrated for that purpose, that's why !
Though I possibly perceive the downward trend of the average persons "intelligence" about certain topics and issues (evolution being one as per this article) I most certainly would NOT attribute it to either genetics or natural selection.
Western society is entering a decadency based "bread and circus" phase in which our media is pushing towards the "lowest common denominator" which I'd argue they are in essence manufacturing. Televised News is presented in a hugely watered and brief fashion, but in a package that credits the viewer as to feeling like their an expert on the subject.
Worst of all is a society of subliminal messages that you are better than other people (mostly in the form of commercials "you deserve" etc) in which a university student suddenly believes he has both the credentials and authority to pass judgement on the whole population (despite the fact I'd argue it's business majors that have constructed out current media dulled society).
Oh well. I'll just have to go see if Survivor Eugenics is on ;p
One of the points of Idiocracy was that even the 'smart' people were morons.
As for your remarks regarding the influence of environment on IQ - you say that as though there were no inborn influences, either.
Caledonian; The way I looked at the society in Idiocracy was as a culture of stupidity; while the actual heritable IQ might have been low, the other major reason everyone was so dull was because of the attitudes everyone had towards learning and high levels of IQ. Traumador brought this issue up in the comments, rampant consumerism and too much time in front of the TV having an impact on what we really value.
Also, if you re-read the brief section on determination of IQ, I did acknowledge that intelligence is heritable to a point, but that environment and other factors are also important. Pironciak was operating under the assumption that we're all born smart or stupid and that there's nothing we can do about it, and while I recognized that there is a heritable element I wanted to make the point that intelligence is not entirely determined by genetics.
Also, if you re-read the brief section on determination of IQ, I did acknowledge that intelligence is heritable to a point, but that environment and other factors are also important.
The essential point is that there are lots of limiting factors on intelligence, just as there are limiting factors for muscle development, and once the environmentally plastic factors have been addressed, the unalterable ones begin to dominate. Our genetic inheritance represents one of those limiting factors.
The 'smart' preppy people in the beginning of the movie might have had high IQs, but they had very little ability to construct an integrated understanding of their world - we might say they had low Wisdom scores. That's actually something we *know* isn't measured by IQ scores.
Congratulations on your publication, btw. It's always amazing to see something you crafted in print.