Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Big Brain Theory

The most highly rated sitcom in the US at present is The Big Bang Theory, now in its 6th season.  The main characters are scientists who are brilliant in their various fields, but who (despite their charmingly child-like affection for comic books, video games, and scifi) lack basic social skills and common sense. The comic foil is Penny, the actress/waitress who lives across the hall, and who is their opposite in almost every way.

Outside of sitcoms, is there any truth to the stereotype of eccentricity and everyday ineptitude among the brightest of the bright? Most of us know someone who fits the description, and we’ve all heard anecdotes. Mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, was unable to follow his wife’s directions for steeping tea while she was away. Albert Einstein filled his closet with identical shirts, pants, and jackets in order to avoid making a fashion mistake. Dean Kamon, who has hundreds of patents and inventions (including the Segway Scooter), has declared the Connecticut island on which he lives to be the independent Kingdom of North Dumpling, and has issued currency in units of pi. Are they exceptions? Not really. A bit extreme, perhaps, but otherwise unsurprising.

An interesting and readable book on the subject is The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One by Satoshi Kanazawa. Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and is Associate Editor of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. Much of what he has to say is controversial, but none of it is simple assertion; he bases his conclusions on studies (a few of them his own) and data, and cites his sources. At the core of his analysis is the Savanna Principle, which states that humans evolved instincts and mental predilections to suit our hunter-gather ancestors prior to 10,000 years ago (the beginnings of agriculture), and that these continue to motivate us today. In the aspects of life that are not novel in evolutionary terms – making friends, dealing with enemies, caring for offspring, finding mates, etc. – high intelligence is no advantage; “common sense,” which is another way of saying our evolved predispositions, serves us better. High intelligence is useful in dealing with novel situations for which behaviors could not have evolved, since evolution requires long-term repeated exposure over many generations to work. It would be useful, for example, in figuring out how to cross a swollen river with a raft, which would not be a daily occurrence. Today, nearly all of us live in a deeply unnatural environment – an evolutionarily novel environment – and intelligence is highly correlated with success in laboratories, academics, business offices, and so on, none of which existed on the savanna. On the other hand, the tendency of intelligent people to bring intellectual analysis to aspects of life that are not novel in evolutionary terms often leads them to behaviors and opinions that are at the same time clever and boneheaded. They fail to employ common sense.

One would predict from the Savanna Principle that very bright people would have no advantage in the age-old pursuit of mates and reproduction. They don’t. Quite the contrary. As an example, 5000 gifted Americans have been tracked since the 8th grade by The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth – they scored at age 13 more than 700 (out of 800) on the math SAT or more than 630 on the verbal. Nearly all have had exceptional career success, many of them in academia. Yet, 64.9% of the men and 69% of the women remain childless at age 33 compared to 26.4% of the general population. Across the intelligence spectrum – and adjusted for differences in fertility among different cultural groups – from very dull to very bright (very bright = 125 or higher on a standard IQ test, which is to say less than 5% of the population) fertility and likelihood of marriage are inversely related to IQ. Very bright people are the least likely to marry and reproduce, and they have fewer children when they do. You might argue that this difference is by choice rather than from social ineptitude, but that reinforces the point: such a choice is an evolutionarily novel one.

Bright people make plenty of other choices about novel things and circumstances. They are more likely to be vegetarian. They drink more than duller folk, and are more likely to binge drink. (Naturally fermented fruit was part of the diet of our ancestors, but it’s hard to find enough of that to get drunk; purposeful brewing began with farming, which supplied the necessary abundance of fruit and grain, and distilled hard liquors came along only after 700 AD. Without distilling, wine maxes out at 12-15% alcohol, at which point it kills off its own yeast.) They use more illegal drugs. Bright people commit fewer violent crimes, but violence (directed outside of one’s own clan of 20-150) was common on the savanna, and remains so today among modern hunter-gatherers. Such violence predates people. (See October blog Tea and Chimpanzee for video of chimps raiding a neighboring group of chimps and eating the one they catch.) Bright folks commit more white-collar frauds however.

Kanazawa concludes, “Yes, intelligent people make better physicians, better astronauts, better scientists, and better violinists, because all of these pursuits are evolutionarily novel. But these are all the unimportant things in life.”

One could debate that point, but, to return to the first question, the sitcoms might well have it broadly right.

Penny Accompanies Sheldon and Amy on Their First Date. (Video embedding disabled by request, but follow this link to the clip: )

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