Intellectuals Like Us

Re-reading The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky (marvellous book), I came across this passage in a letter to the protagonist:

At that time you were interested in palaeontology and you had discovered the hypothesis of someone called Dollo – I think you called it overspecialization. It dealt with the mystery of extinction. Dollo, as far as I can recall, claimed you could paradoxically explain the dying out of some species by a too successful struggle for the sur­vival of the fittest. It seems that some animals underwent a rapid development of certain anatomical features that seemed at first to give them an advantage: herbivorous reptiles grew to such a size that smaller carnivores could not harm them. The sabre-toothed tigers developed huge tusks which could pierce even the skin of a dinotherium. But sometimes things go awry and the development of advanta­geous features doesn’t cease at the point of greatest advantage. The brontosaurus keeps on growing, the sabre-toothed tiger’s tusks get longer. This growth continues ad absurdum until, according to Dollo, “there appear animals which are no longer adapted to survival, and these die out.” The four-metre sabre-tooth’s tusks curl round and close its jaws so that in the end it can only feed on mice. The brontosaurus reaches gigantic proportions and its brain, which is the same size as a cat’s, can no longer manage the huge body; another brain develops in the pelvic region, but the two never manage to get coordi­nated and the brontosauri die out as a result of anatomical schizo­phrenia.

Thus far Dollo. You, ever the cynic, applied this to mankind. In the struggle for survival man’s brain has grown, giving him an undisputed advantage, but once again this growth has not stopped at the point of maximum advantage. His rational abilities have grown, while his emotional and volitional capacities have remained unchanged. Thanks to this hypertrophy of the rational part of the brain, reality has become more and more complicated, leading to increasingly irresolv­able conflicts of the reason with the emotions and the will, in turn pro­ducing individuals incapable of action – which can only be the product of the instrumental, not the reflective intelligence. Such individuals are no longer able to deal with life. Their numbers are increasing. Today there are already whole classes, or more precisely, whole strata of them. And when this overspecialization overtakes all mankind, Homo sapiens will die out.

I know you didn’t mean it entirely seriously, Dan, but perhaps you happened on the trail of a disease that Marx and Engels were clearly aware of too. Fortunately all of mankind hasn’t yet been afflicted -only intellectuals like us.

4 thoughts on “Intellectuals Like Us

  1. I’m no expert, but I don’t believe evolution actually works like that in the natural world. The demise of species that appear to us to have become ‘overspecialized’ can, in most cases, be attributed to changes in the environment. In the absence of environmental change, natural selection should regulate the development of characteristics that are detrimental to a species’ survival.

    [Having said that, I have no idea why sabre-toothed tigers developed such bizarre-looking teeth!]

    As far as applying this view of evolution to human intelligence is concerned… it’s a very dodgy road that leads to eugenics… and worse.

  2. Roger, I’m with you that natural selection shouldn’t work that way, but there are many examples in the natural world of cases where it has worked that way – I forget the example they always used to teach in ethology, some bird where the males have vastly over-developed and unwieldy head-parts, I think.

    I also understand that natural selection ought to weed-out such abberations, but there is also evidence that evolution is not a constant process, but rather that it proceeds in fits and starts. For millennia at a time, there may well be no evolutionary pressure against over-specialisation, and so over-specialisation may proceed apace because of sexual preferences or whatever reason. It is only when environmental factors change that a species finds to its cost that what used to serve it well has now become a burden.

    I’m not explaning this very well, but what I am trying to say is that when I first read this, my thoughts were similar to yours, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw ways in which this sort of scenario could come about.

    I certainly wouldn’t propose it as a basis for eugenics though. I can sort of see how you could reach that conclusion, but by the same stroke I can sort of see that any argument in favour of evolution could also be an argument in favour of eugenics.

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