Are humans becoming dumber? Some researchers think so, and argue that if a citizen of ancient Athens suddenly appeared in the modern world, they would seem unusually intelligent, well-balanced, and emotionally stable.
The arguments for an increasingly dim-witted human race are based upon a kind of reverse Darwinism — the world is now so safe, the theory goes, that the mutated dunderheads among us aren’t killed off and culled out, and therefore survive to reproduce where they wouldn’t have survived before — in combination with studies that show that certain common substances, such as fluoride in the water supply, pesticides, and processed foods, reduce intelligence.
Color me skeptical. There’s no way of knowing whether the ancients were, in general, smarter than modern humans, but the arguments in support of that position seem pretty thin. There seem to be medical studies that support just about any health conclusion you might want to reach, and if modern pesticides, fluoride, and processed foods are bad, there’s no telling how many people from ancient cultures were exposed to lead, poor sanitation, uncured illnesses, and other conditions that could impair brain functioning.
The natural selection argument doesn’t work, either. If anything, the modern world is more dangerous to the witless than were the days of yore, where the village idiot could happily live out his days in the same tiny hamlet, guzzling mead and eating turnips. The big killers — wars, plagues, and other pestilences — tended to kill the bright and the dull in equal measure. Now, technology gives the imbeciles countless ways to knock themselves off, as the Darwin Awards recognize. Why do you think modern devices feature so many unnecessary warnings? The only reason lawnmowers caution people not to lift the lawnmower and use it to trim hedges is that some fool actually tried to do so at some point.
We citizens of the modern world may not all be rocket surgeons, but I see no evidence that we are any more stupid than our ancestors. I don’t think the human race is quite ready to go the way of the Morlocks and the Eloi just yet.