Scales of complexity

Image of Harry Eyres

The developmental biologist Professor Gerald Crabtree of Stanford University recently published a paper in the journal Trends in Genetics arguing that human beings are getting stupider. Civilisation has cushioned the harsh environmental stresses that confronted our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who lived “in a world where every individual was exposed to nature’s raw selective mechanisms on a daily basis”. As a result, we are likely to have suffered deleterious mutations in some of the genes affecting intelligence and emotional stability.

Critics have been quick to point to flaws in Crabtree’s theory. According to the New Zealand psychologist James Flynn, measurable intelligence has been rising steadily over the past 100 years and more.

I am not an expert in genetics, or even a particular enthusiast for genetic explanations of phenomena which are at least partly cultural, so I was especially struck by a sentence from Crabtree’s paper that seemed out of character with the rest. “I would wager,” he wrote, “that if an average citizen of Athens of 1000BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues.”

On the whole I would agree with Crabtree, with the proviso that Athens in 1000BC was still emerging from the dark ages (and his case would look stronger to me if he said Athens in 500BC or 400BC); but I would base my arguments not on the possible deleterious mutations of genes, but on the deleterious – or at least flattening and simplifying – mutations of language and literature and other forms of culture.

The words Crabtree chose, “bright and intellectually alive”, point in that direction. They sound a bit more interesting than, say, the more frequently used “smart” or “intelligent”; or perhaps I should say a bit more human, bearing in mind that these days a phone can be smart and all manner of inhuman devices can be intelligent. Crabtree’s idea of an Athenian citizen, I guess, is of a skilled and lively conversationalist; it is probably influenced by the dialogues of Plato, in which the great conversationalist Socrates goes around quizzing fellow-citizens. It turns out that none is as intelligent as Socrates himself, who at least has the intelligence to know that he knows nothing.

Basing an argument for the intellectual superiority of the Athenians purely on fictional dialogues featuring one of the brightest individuals in history looks shaky, but there is other evidence. First of all, there is the extraordinary complexity of the language. As anyone who has tried to learn it will know, ancient Greek boasts a fiendish array of verb-forms; even the regular ones are challenging enough, with not just the subjunctive mood but also the optative (used for wishes etc), and three voices: active, passive and middle.

A collection of citizens dexterously using this language must have been in certain ways bright and intellectually alive. And fortunately we have evidence of how that language in its most eloquent forms was shared by Athenian citizens in the communal rituals of tragedy and comedy. Although the dramatic festivals in Athens were attended by male citizens of all classes, and quite possibly by women (scholars are divided on this), though not by slaves, there is no trace of “dumbing down”. Aristophanes’ comedies are verbally bright as a button; the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides attain depths of thought and emotion which have rarely been equalled. One place and time they were equalled, in another flowering of great class-crossing communal drama, was Elizabethan England.

If you compared, on the scales of linguistic complexity, poetic depth and ethical grandeur, the communal dramatic entertainments of the Athenians and the Elizabethans with those of our own age, you might conclude that we had suffered a catastrophic intellectual decline. The great communal dramatic entertainment of England at this point in time appears to be the retro “toffs and servants” series (or interminable series of series), Downton Abbey. I have to confess that on the few occasions I have sat down to watch Downton (on the urging of those close to me) I have invariably fallen asleep within minutes, but I think I have seen enough to condemn the series for its dreariness of characterisation (was there ever a drearier dramatic character than Cora, Lady Grantham?), woodenness of dialogue and predictability of plot.

The triumph of Downton, in a land which produced Dickens (whose bicentenary passed last year without ever engaging the mass enthusiasm generated by, say, the Middleton sisters) and Shakespeare looks dismal. But I guess it is a sign not so much of stupidity as of laziness; every event in Downton is pre-signalled not once but repeatedly, and every character looks exactly as he or she will turn out to be.

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