The past few months have shown that homo sapiens’ capacity for reason is overrated. And lately, the only way to sustain the fragile hope that evolution might improve that capacity is to stop watching the news.
The British vote to leave the European Union is the most recent and spectacular example of unreasoning people choosing the opposite of their own best interests. The pound has plunged, the British credit rating has been downgraded, the political leadership of both major parties is in chaos, and the EU has responded with an only slightly more polite version of “don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”
The leaders of the Brexit campaign have admitted the obvious — namely that they fudged the numbers on the costs and benefits of membership in the European Union. And leaving the EU may cause Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom, creating a series of complex divorce proceedings.
One chagrined voter, interviewed on television, said that she wouldn’t have voted to leave if she had known it would win.
But of course the British aren’t alone in the practice of folly. In our own country, many voters who feel aggrieved by stagnant wages and outsourced jobs are supporting a billionaire who encourages them to blame immigrants and Muslims for all their woes. The fact that net migration from Mexico has been at zero since 2010 does not seem to dent their enthusiasm for their candidate’s claim that he’s going to build a wall between the U. S. and Mexican border and get Mexico to pay for it. (If he’s actually elected, Mexico may consider this, to prevent thundering hordes of Americans from seeking refuge there.)
Will someone say, on the day after the November election, “I wouldn’t have voted for Trump if I thought he would win”?
And human irrational behavior is not confined to elections. In spite of the proliferation of droughts, wildfires, floods and other alarming indications of climate change, 75 percent of Americans who traded in hybrid or electric cars so far this year have bought an all-gas car instead. Demand for trucks, SUVs and vans has rebounded, and hybrids and electrics have sunk to 2.4 percent of new car sales.
So the very limited human capacity to act in our own best interests is paired with a pretty weak grasp on the need to plan for our future.
Scientists disagree about whether we are, as a species, becoming smarter or dumber. Some believe our intelligence peaked a couple of thousand years ago. Others say average IQs are up a little over the past century, but reaction times are down. But scientists have no consensus on a definition of intelligence, and they lack a way to measure the relationships between intelligence, character and culture.
But we don’t need settled science to tell us that we’d better get smarter in the last half of this year than we’ve been in the first.