At Our Wit’s End: Why We’re Becoming Less Intelligent and What It Means for Our Future
Edward Dutton and Michael A. Woodley of Menie
Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2018
We in the West have long become accustomed to the idea that scientific and technological progress is the normal state of things, although decline—technological deterioration and loss of knowledge—is by no means uncommon across world history. The contemporary West may be declining in many ways, but what stage in our history could we point to as the summit of our scientific knowledge and technological capability if not the present? And wouldn’t it be absurd to suppose this progress has reached its completion?
Authors Dutton and Woodley, however, would note that a civilization may pass its peak long before the sum of its achievements is complete. We may look for our greatest era not when our knowledge and capabilities were most extensive, but when they were growing most rapidly. And that point, they believe, is already well behind us.
They begin their study by drawing our attention to two technological breakthroughs of the year 1969: the first flight of the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, cutting transatlantic travel time from eight to three and a half hours, and the first manned moon landing. At the time, most people assumed more such aeronautical wonders lay in store. This writer can remember the ubiquitous “artist’s impressions” of future manned flights to Mars and beyond; every little boy of that generation wanted to become an astronaut.
But a Concorde crashed due to human error in 2000, and all flights were discontinued three years later. We have not returned to the moon since 1972. The authors do not mention this, but by 2010 a NASA administrator was saying that “perhaps [the] foremost” of the space agency’s missions was to “reach out to the Muslim world … to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.” We are not exactly aiming for the stars any more.
In the authors’ view, the best explanation for such regression is extremely simple: we are becoming less intelligent. Other explanations have some validity: the end of the cold war, e.g., partly accounts for the lowered ambitions of NASA, although not the end of the Concorde. But on Ockhamist principles, as the authors write, “if we can plausibly explain two separate events with one theory, that is superior to having a different theory for each event.” Read more