Human Brains and Cleverness -- Eric R. Pianka

Human Brains and Cleverness

© Eric R. Pianka

"We shouldn't be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas." -- Noam Chomsky

We are suckers. Human brains are easily manipulated, hence we have terms such as brainwashing and propaganda. Media and sales moguls take advantage of our gullibility to sell their products. Politicians and preachers exploit human gullibility to their own ends as well. True believers follow their leaders in mass movements ranging from cults to large groups of people (Hoffer 1951). Some refer to people as "sheeple" because we are so easily misled. Political parties, organized religion and patriotic nationalism are all examples of mass movements, as are loyal sports fans. Once such a belief system is in place, it can be extremely difficult to dislodge. People organize themselves into camps of groupies holding similar beliefs. Rupert Murdoch's Fox news channel is designed to appeal to right-wing conservatives, and many watch nothing else. Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Pat Robertson offer confident attitudes and strong opinions, which are adopted by their followers as embraced in the slogan "Rush is right!" Thinking takes work. People are lazy and too many do not make the effort to check out sources, but simply endorse and staunchly defend opinions of others they think they respect. Perhaps one of the biggest threats to civilization is the resulting arrogant ignorance (see pp. 75-76).

Humans are extremely clever animals. We have learned how to use all sorts of tools to enhance our lifestyle. These tools include things as simple as fish hooks, needles, fire, gunpowder, and dynamite, but also more complex machines such as electric, gas and/or diesel powered drills, mills, chain saws, cars, trucks, trains, bulldozers, ships, and airplanes. We break all the rules: humans can cut down gigantic ancient trees, build dams, move mountains, and kill with impunity huge beasts like bears, bison, elephants, and whales, megafauna that should by all rights be protected by their sheer size. Humans have come to think that we are above the laws of nature. Perpetual motion is impossible and there are no free lunches. Using energy in any form creates waste heat that cannot be dissipated.

We interact with our environments in a hierarchy of different ways, ranging from manipulation to knowledge and understanding to wisdom. Let us briefly consider each of these in turn, beginning with a hypothetical scenario. Suppose you had never seen an automobile, but one fine day (Carl Sagan's "last perfect day on Earth" comes to mind), you came around a corner and encountered a brand new car just sitting there, battery charged up, with a full tank of gas and keys in its ignition. Initially, you would be startled at its size and shininess, and might even be a little afraid of it. But, eventually your curiosity would prevail and you would begin to investigate.


We excel at manipulation. This is the simplest and most direct way in which we modify things to our own ends. We pick up a rock and throw it at an animal. Early humans learned to sharpen flint and to make spears and bows and arrows, which greatly enhanced their ability to kill (as well as defend themselves).

Soon you would be touching that bright shiny car. When it didn't bite back, you'd start messing around with it. You might find the door handle and with your extreme cleverness, discover how to depress the latch and open the door. You would be pleased with yourself and continue exploration. Now you'd enter the car and sit on the driver's seat looking out the windshield. You'd wonder what the circular steering wheel was and might even try turning it. Sooner or later, you'd notice the bright shiny key in the ignition -- it might take a while, but eventually, you'd fiddle with the key and might actually turn it. When the starter began to turn over, you'd be startled, stop, jump out of the car, and run for cover. But, given your innate curiosity, you'd soon be back, testing, turning that key once again. Finally the engine would start. It's even louder noise would send you running back into the bushes, but not for long. Soon, you'd be sitting in the car again, but this time with its engine running. You'd fiddle with the gear shift lever and move it from park to drive. The car would lurch and maybe die. But you'd try again until you prevailed. You'd still have to discover the accelerator and brake pedals, but with a little luck and perseverance, you'd be driving around. And, you would be so very pleased with yourself for showing such ingenuity. Manipulation is the lowest form of human cleverness but one of the things we do best. Knowledge and understanding require more than curiosity and mere fiddling around, they require training and learning and must be passed on from person to person.


Now, eventually something in the car must fail. It might be as simple as a flat battery or running out of gasoline, or it might be more insidious such as a broken wire or mechanical part. If it was transparent enough, you might be able to use common sense and wire things together to keep the car running, but if the problem was harder to identify you would find yourself at a loss. This is where prior knowledge of auto mechanics could prove useful. If you had been instructed in how to repair vehicles, you would check the ignition for a spark, then check the carburetor for fuel, etc. You might be able to identify the problem and even replace a faulty part (assuming you had access to new parts).


The difference between knowledge and understanding is subtle but important. A course in auto mechanics might have taught you how a car works and how to repair it, but you would not know how to design one from first principles. Building a car from scratch requires engineering ability, understanding exactly how a complex internal combustion engine works, such as how the camshaft opens and closes intake and exhaust valves in synchrony with pistons moved up and down by the crankshaft, as well as access to high-tech tools and a machine shop, among other things.


Still more advanced than manipulation, knowledge or understanding, wisdom requires thought and involves making difficult decisions, such as "should I drive this car?" Humans have no business hurtling along highways at high speeds in heavy multi-horse powered machines powered by burning fossil fuels. Yet because we can, we do.

Because thought is work, many avoid it. Wisdom is notoriously difficult to attain and is revered and treasured but is outside the realm of pure science. As Noam Chomsky has indicated, we desperately need all the deep thought, good ideas, and wisdom we can possibly muster. As I stated earlier, it is a real tribute to our intellect that we even have words for concepts as alien to our everyday existence as eternity, infinity, and/or hypervolumes! We can imagine things we can't actually experience.

Educated people tend to have fewer children than uneducated people (Wattenberg 1989, Last 2013). Garret Hardin pointed this out. He said those who don't have any conscience about the Earth are going to inherit the Earth (Hardin 1974), because those who cared made fewer babies than those who didn't care but left more progeny. And so human conscience is on its way out, if we persist, we're going to evolve into uncaring humanoids. That's probably already happening and IQs are falling for the same reasons, too (Herrnstein 1989).

We have been called "cave men with cell phones." Humans have built our own complex man-made environments and we live in funny little heated/air-conditioned caves powered and illuminated by fossil sunlight. Our buildings made of concrete, glass and steel, are hooked together by the internet and paved roads. Hurtling along at 70 mph, we are misfits in our own man-made environments. We have replaced listening to stories told around campfires in caves with watching television in darkened rooms. Greed and revenge made sense in the cave: a stingy cave man was more likely to survive to reproduce than a generous one, and a cave man who paid another back for trespassing was respected and less likely to be infringed upon again. Our hunter-gatherer instincts are still in place but now they are out of place: today we worship greed and allow or even encourage runaway greed. Revenge and tribal loyalty may have made sense in the cave, but they make no sense when it comes down to misplaced tribal loyalties and pushing a button to deploy a nuclear ICBM against another nationalistic group (Chomsky 2014). Yet, governments are insanely vying for the ability to conduct nuclear war! If we don't self correct our tribal instincts now, nuclear annihilation might well be in our future.

Last updated 3 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka