Terry Fowler

Collective Stupidity

How did we evolve? More generally, how did evolution happen? The standard explanation was that genes periodically made a mistake in reproducing themselves. Every once in a while there was a “random mutation” and the new version of an organism turned out to work better than the old.

This has turned out to be a distortion, less than half the truth. Laboratory experiments show that bacteria change their genes to meet new challenges in their environment. Or, sometimes they just seem to change for the fun of it. Life, as Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan put it, is matter that chooses. And organisms don’t mutate one at a time. The mutation is cooperative. It seems to happen with a lot of bacteria – or plants, or mammals – at once.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that unexpected challenges combined with a little playful experimentation helped humans to evolve as well.

My concern as I go through the day is that, for humans, this process is grinding to a halt. How many examples can you think of humans’ collective stupidity? Rush hour on the 401? Scarfing down Chicken McVomits at lunchtime? A boom in the housing market that creates more homeless? A conference to confront the looming disaster of climate change that decides to put off action for a while? Individuals may still be coming up with brilliant and ingenious inventions, but collectively we are hitting the wall.

We are in some kind of trance, which has us thinking that “technology” will solve our problems. Our food can’t be produced without machines. Our entertainment is increasingly computerized. When it comes to health, we treat our bodies like machines. We fix the part that doesn’t work with surgery, try to kill the cancer with a pill, but ignore the body as an integrated organism. Global warming? Don’t sweat. We’ll find a machine to fix it. But technology won’t solve our problems because technology is us. Designing a machine to fix global warming is a blast from the past.

If we are going to start evolving again, we need to emerge from our technological cocoon and expose ourselves to the unexpected challenges of the natural world, or the natural world is going to expose us to the ultimate challenge: an ungraceful exit from this planet.

Now what do I mean by “exposing ourselves to the unexpected challenges of nature”? I mean getting out of buildings and machines. Collective stupidity comes from surrounding ourselves with stuff we’ve built ourselves, which is to say surrounding ourselves with the past. Malls are a perfect illustration. Yes, they’re awfully nice to have in January, but just look at the sleepwalkers they have produced. Cars are another example. Humans spend hours inside their cars and trucks every day, polluting clean air and wiping out thousands of pedestrians and cyclists, because malls and housing and workplaces are so far from each other.

In North America this kind of city building is everywhere. However, anyone who has been to a modern European city can find the older sections of town. Here one can experience relief and confront the unexpected in small scale, diverse neighbourhoods, with cafés, quirky stores, and crooked streets. Even Toronto and New York have a few such districts.

These districts were also built by humans, of course, but they represent another age, when we weren’t quite so transfixed by the wonders of our own creations. In any case, being out in the forest, even in city parks – any place with no right angles – is even better. It not only revives us mentally, it stimulates our mental capacities. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, presents abundant evidence that spending time in the wild improves our intelligence.

One more thing. Living in harmony with the rest of the natural world isn’t just about surviving, but about living a more joyful life. Regularly surrounding ourselves with trees and the sounds of nature picks up our spirits and celebrates our mystical union with other organisms, and indeed with the rocks and water of this magnificent country. Such intentional behaviour will help us to evolve, which is truly the ultimate amusement park. It is also the ultimate form of collective intelligence.