Thursday, May 24, 2012

Idiocy, Idiocracy, Cats & Dogs

Once again, I have been meaning to blog for an entire week.  Let's just say, the week started out crazy-stressful, and then settled down.  So here I am again, finally.

Last weekend, I read Michael Michalko's May 19th entry on The Creativity Post entitled, "Is America Becoming an 'Idiocracy'?".  I'm sure plenty of people will see the title, yell "YES!" (without reading the article) and blissfully exclude themselves from the idiot-mix.

I'm not so certain.  I agree with many of Michalko's main points: we are taught to think "exclusively" rather than "reproductively."  When faced with a problem, we tend to weed out alternatives to arrive at a solution by process of elimination.

It's hard to juggle multiple ideas simultaneously--and, quite frankly, it's mentally uncomfortable.  So we pare back and exclude until we think we've arrived at the obvious answer.

I would argue that good teachers don't allow their students to do this, but I would also argue that in many ways, they're fighting a losing battle.  There is a certain reward for mental laziness: we get the answer (or we think we do) much more quickly, and we shorten the (time-consuming) process of... well, thought, actually.

Who wants to waste time thinking when you could just quickly insist that you've got the answer?  This seems to be the mindset of much of America these days, I'm afraid.

Michalko borrows cognitive scientist David Geary's use of the term "idiocracy" (itself borrowed from a 2006 film starring Luke Wilson) (no, I've never seen it) to suggest that evolutionarily (not sure if that's a word), we're getting a bit dumber with each passing generation.

Geary's research has shown that cranial size has declined as population density has increased: the more humans in a group, the less necessary it is that any one of us be particularly bright.  We can compensate for each other in order to survive.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a slightly cynical friend of mine.  He pointed out that, on bottles of lighter fluid, there is a warning: "Caution: FLAMMABLE."

His argument was, if you don't realize that lighter fluid--lighter fluid--is flammable, then perhaps we should let nature take its course and eliminate your potential contribution to the human gene pool.

I suggested that the warning was perhaps directed towards children, but he said, "You're giving people too much credit.  I don't think so."  I pointed out that, obviously, it was designed to ward off any liability on the part of the good people who manufacture lighter fluid: they don't want to be held financially responsible for someone else's stupidity.

Of course, some argue that the human brain may be shrinking because it's becoming more streamlined.  A bigger brain doesn't necessarily mean a smarter individual, and animal brains have also been shrinking over the years.

Which leads me to another article I encountered last weekend, one designed to address that age-old question: which species is smarter, cats or dogs?

This is a ticklish subject, no matter how you answer it, so let me offer my own perspective: I'm a cat person, so I'm going to vote "cat," no matter what.  I like dogs and I think they're sweet and wonderful, but I love the kitty cats.  I just do.  I cannot be objective on this issue.

I'm not sure why we did away with the ancient Egyptian worship of the goddess Bastet.

I will acknowledge, however, that a smart dog is smarter than a smart cat, in ways that are more directly relevant and beneficial to their human owners. 

Lassie couldn't get Timmy out of a well, but she could get someone who could.  My kitty may fully realize that I should not be in the well, but he would expect me to get myself out of my dilemma since, after all, I'm the one who got myself into it to begin with.

In case you're wondering what any of this has to do with idiocy (although maybe you aren't at this point), shortly after reading about Geary's theory of idiocracy, I stumbled upon the research of an obvious dog person.  In his Dec. 3, 2010 article in Psychology Today entitled, "Are Dogs More Intelligent Than Cats?", Stanley Coren argues that yes, they are.

In terms of the "Encephalization Quotient" (EQ), a "mathematically sophisticated comparison of the actual brain weight of an animal compared to the expected brain mass for that animal's body size," it has been concluded that dogs are, ultimately, "smarter."

But here's where it gets interesting.  According to Coren, "Animals that live in social groups are always smarter and have larger EQ's than solitary animals. This is because social animals must engage in problem solving every time they interact with another animal in the group. This involves reasoning like 'If I do this, then he'll do that, so I can do that other thing.'"

The research apparently shows that, as dogs have become domesticated and been challenged to engage in interactions not typical of life in the wild, their species' EQ has risen.  The EQ of cats, on the other hand, has remained the same.

I chalk this up to the fact that, behaviorally, dogs like to people-please.  They want to do what you want them to do, particularly if they've decided that you're "the One."  They love their people.   They just do.  They'll never leave you-- never, ever, ever.

Cats, on the other hand, will insist that they could care less, ultimately (even though they do care quite a bit, actually).  The attitude of a cat is, if you love them, cool.   If not, well, they didn't really need your sorry human ass anyway.  They're smart and sexy and they know it.

(For obvious reasons, I have derived all of my dating and relationship behaviors from cats, not dogs.)

So, in terms of the cat-dog EQ issue, I say it is no surprise that the cat EQ has remained unchanged.  Personally, I think cats should get credit for the fact that they have stood their cerebral-cranial ground and refused to let humans make them any smarter or dumber.

They're perfect as-is, and they've known it for centuries. 

The point is, perhaps idiocracy isn't an evolutionary default-position.  We humans could stay "smart," even though we live in groups.  There's no reason why our communities need to foster intellectual laziness or why we couldn't encourage one another to think "reproductively" (okay, that sounds bad, but by this point, you should know what I mean).

Whether this would stop our brains from shrinking, of course, is anyone's guess.  And on the issue of whether or not size matters, I'll refrain from comment.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."