the history of stupidity

by Richard Riehle

I found a New York Times Blog article which considered this idea. The differences in how i am curious about this idea, and with the latest coverage from this blog post is this: the NYT article considers that stupidity is not the norm, and as such is a worthwhile topic area to examine. This article succeeds in  relating some efforts by neuroscientists to correlate this sort of basic stupidity with one’s physical symmetry. It strikes me that this examination of what stupidity is comes far closer to a broader lack of intelligence (i. retardation).
I am far more interested in the summation of everyday things we do which are comparatively stupid.
If you take the time to look Welles’ books (e.g. the History of Stupidity, in a link on this post), you can see that human history is replete with stupidity, and that we are far closer to this sort of activity than the neuroscientists seem to want to consider.
 Kevin Mitchell, a developmental neurogeneticist at Trinity College Dublin, thinks the latter. In an essay he published in July on his blog, Wiring the Brain, Dr. Mitchell proposed that instead of thinking about the genetics of intelligence, we should be trying to parse “the genetics of stupidity,” as his title put it. We should look not for genetic dynamics that build intelligence but for those that erode it.
The premise for this argument is that once natural selection generated the set of genes that build our big, smart human brains, those genes became “fixed” in the human population; virtually everyone receives the same set, and precious few variants affect intelligence. This could account for the researchers’ failure to find many variants of measurable effect.
By Kevin Mitchell
What if we’ve been thinking about the genetics of intelligence from completely the wrong angle?  Intelligence (as indexed by IQ or the general intelligence factor “g”) is clearly highly heritable in humans – people who are more genetically similar are also more similar in this factor. (Genetic variance has been estimated as explaining ~75% of variance in g, depending on age and other factors).  There must therefore be genetic variants in the population that affect intelligence – so far, so good.  But the search for such variants has, at its heart, an implicit assumption: that these variants affect intelligence in a fairly specific way – that they will occur in genes “for intelligence”.
By Tony Rogers
Welles’ subject is what he sees as our flawed intellectual tradition. Greek Stupidity, Roman Stupidity, Medieval Stupidity, Stupidity Reborn, Stupidity Reformed, Reasonable Stupidity, Enlightened Stupidity, Industrial Stupidity, The Age of Arrogance — these are the chapter headings. Drawing heavily on Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy and H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History, plus data derived from over a hundred other cited sources, James Welles ponders the many “mistakes” made in philosophy, religion, science and politics over a period of approximately three thousand years, which errors according to him were all caused by maladaptive thinking.
So what is maladaptive thinking? In ordinary speech we use words like “preconception” and “prejudice” for it, or metaphors like “tunnel vision” and “blind spot.”
 I ran across this book fifteen or twenty years ago and still find the idea to be both amusing and thought provoking. Doctor Welles presents the concept of stupidity as a specific form of maladaptive behavior (i.e. ‘if you do the same thing, even though it didn’t work last time…’).
This sort of classical definition of what stupidity is and does may be falsifiable…but it certainly does not encompass the dumb things we do… In essence this is a fine idea (irrespective of reasonable criticism of Dr. Welles writings (see below)), but only ‘kicks the can down the road’ in that it defines a specific form of ‘dumb’ and provides no answers for the myriad ways we find to screw things up.
One idea I have always taken from Welles’ series of related books (i.e. the history of stupidity) is that conventional history is the summation of the great, the dramatic, and the accomplishments of mankind (pardon the less than PC terminology…). Welles considered that this is only a tiny subset of all of human behavior over the ages…
It’s something to think about.
Understanding Stupidity, by James F. Welles, PhD