Thursday, August 13, 2009

History and the Movies: Eugenics and the "Dumbing Down" Factor

William Shockley died 20 years ago, August 12, 1989. He brought computers into the modern age by co-inventing transistors, an achievement that earned him a Nobel Prize in physics and spent decades bringing about further innovations that make the world we live in the electronic interconnected world it is. He also believed that intellectually deficient undesirables were reproducing at a far faster clip than those deemed to be intellectually sophisticated and should be sterilized. This despite that fact that going back to the earliest moments of eugenics there were biologists arguing that intelligence could breed stupidity and vice versa. He ignored facts in favor of belief and dressed it up in a cloak of pseudo-science to convince himself he was right. And many people, from Francis Crick to Roger Pearson, were likewise convinced. Convinced despite the Flynn Effect which states that intelligence as measured by intelligence tests continually improves over time as does semantic and episodic memory. Convinced despite the fact that all around them are examples of parents smarter than their children and others of children smarter than their parents. Convinced despite the fact that perfectly healthy individuals have children with Down Syndrome (gaining higher possibility as the woman ages. Intelligence of the mother is not a factor). Convinced despite the abundant knowledge that breeding only certain traits leads to a loss in genetic diversity which leaves a population vulnerable to biological and environmental factors that can lead to their extinction. In the end, all of this simply goes to prove once again that an individual can possess a high order of intelligence in one area and still be fundamentally lacking in overall reason, logic and common sense.

Recently on these pages I reviewed Homo Sapiens 1900, a documentary on the history of Eugenics. The very next day Roger Ebert published his post on the gathering Dark Age of Cinema, a post fundamentally lacking in overall reason, logic and common sense. It falls into the same traps that Shockley and company fell into: We're all getting dumber and if we don't stop it now it will be too late. The post has already been covered and analyzed and dissected by far better writers than yours truly but what hasn't been called to the fore is the disturbing nature of these types of beliefs, and I find his post both disturbing and insulting. I am not implying that Roger Ebert or any of the well over 700 people who agreed with him in his comment thread are ready to start sterilizing people. I am simply suggesting that a worldview based on ones intellectual superiority to the great huddled ignorant masses is not only egotistical but intellectually counterproductive (how could it not be counterproductive since you're never engaging those you look down upon - they're simply not worthy). Ebert uses no hard evidence or scientific study to support his point, merely the box office numbers for the film The Hurt Locker. It is a searing drama about a bomb squad unit in Iraq. Like multitudes, hell, legions of other searing dramas made in the last 100 years, teenagers are not flocking to see it. No big surprise there. And yet, somehow, this spells doom for the future of cinema. Why this film? It's an unanswerable question. When one decides that the world is filled with dolts common sense usually goes out the window. Inadvertently funny is the post-script in which Ebert writes, "There has been an overnight outpouring of response to this entry, and most of the posts are from young readers who sadly agree with me about their generation." He has written a post on the lack of intelligence in the next generation and then receives an overwhelming response from the very members of that generation, responses he calls "eloquent and reasoned." The very response itself disproves his entire piece and yet... well, I think that speaks for itself.

I would like to ask a question now, one in which I believe there is no answer but I will leave that up to you: From 2000 to 2008, America apparently went through a "dumbing down" period due to our President George W. Bush. I was certainly no fan of President Bush and viewed him, quite frankly, with contempt, but I would like to know what exactly got "dumber." I did not. I continued to read daily and educate myself in multiple areas of interest. My youngest son went from six years old and a basic understanding of the world to 14 and an active interest in politics, science and art. If one would like to discuss current government policies with him, one could. It would not be in-depth but it would suffice for casual conversation. Television, literature and film look to my eyes to be about the same. In fact, one of the movies that Ebert and others have been railing against, Transformers, was released under the current administration, after the supposed dumbing down ended. The point being that casual assumptions based on beliefs and not fact can lead us all down a very divisive and hostile road in which have and have-nots (in this case, intelligence is the desired item of possession) are sectioned off.

As I stated in my review of Homo Sapiens 1900, the idea of a society constantly diluting the intellectual gene pool until stupidity runs rampant may make amusing fodder for a film like Idiocracy but in reality it just doesn't work. The idea makes the assumption that when a societally deemed "stupid" couple has a child that child will never have the intellectual ambition to move beyond his parents level of intellectual curiosity. Abraham Lincoln's father not only refused to learn to read but tried to stop Abe from reading. And yet, few people would consider Abraham Lincoln a stupid man. But how could that be? His father was unintelligent, uneducated. Shouldn't Abe have been as well? No, because biology isn't that simple but there is a danger in thinking it is. A century ago eugenics was looked upon, briefly, as a possibly valid method of insuring a brighter future for the human race. Today there is no danger of falling into a eugenics program again but the same intellectual smugness remains. And I find it sad. I find it sad that a critic I once admired has fallen so far and is spewing such mindless, ageist garbage. When someone decides to exalt belief over fact, to hold on to cherished assumptions over verified data, it becomes difficult to see the reality of the situation: We're not "dumbing down" we're "smarting up" if you'll excuse the awkward phrasing. And we have been, for millennia.