In the 1951 short story, “The Marching Morons,” science-fiction writer C.M. Kornbluth postulates a far future where smart people have been outbred by stupid ones. As a result the average IQ is 45. Five billion stupid folks sit around, watch TV, and go to jobs where if they screw up it won’t hurt anything, while a few hundred thousand smart ones work desperately to keep civilization going.
Then a salesman of 20th century Florida swampland awakes from several millennia of suspended animation, the result of an electrochemical accident in a dentist’s office. Once he figures out what’s going on, he offers the smart people a solution to their problem: all the stupid people can be tricked into boarding rocket ships bound for Venus. He designs brochures that show it as a tropical paradise where processed ham grows on trees.
The rockets are built and boarded. The ships, having been built by morons, miss Venus and disappear into deep space. When all the stupid people are gone, the smart ones, free of their moronic charges but hating the salesman for the solution he gave them, put him in the final rocket. The world is empty, except for a bunch of semi-remorseful killers with IQs of 175 or so.
I first read this story when I was 16. I liked the way it flattered smart people. At the time I was a Goldwater Republican, one who believed in a cheery social Darwinism where young men who got As in high school rose to the top of the American meritocracy, became rich and famous, and drove Porsches. The story even gave those A students a conscience, but only after they had gotten rid of all the stupid people cluttering their lives.
I recently read the story again, and I don’t like it nearly as well as I did when I was a Republican.
For one thing, the average IQ is 100 by definition, and most people are average. A high school class, a Congressional budget committee meeting, a political convention, rodeo cowboys drawing numbers for bulls, a group of voluptuous vacant-eyed blondes sitting in passenger seats at a Porsche rallye? Average, on average.
Because the results of IQ tests tend to show up as a bell curve, half the people in any group of test subjects have below-average intelligence. That fact may help you to understand why so many Americans watch Fox News.
But there’s another problem with the concept of IQ, and it’s a big one. It compresses lots of discrete intelligences down to a cryptic two- or three-digit number that pays no attention to empathy, intuition, or emotional awareness.
And Kornbluth’s story wasn’t really science fiction, it was history. Six years prior to its publication, the Nazis were marching Jews into gas chambers, a low-tech version of Kornbluth’s Venus-bound rockets. To recapitulate the Holocaust with a satirical science fiction story was, at the least, adolescent bad taste. But adolescent bad taste didn’t bother me when I was an adolescent.
Now it bothers me. It also bothers me that genocide isn’t an aberration in human history, although it was an aberration that the Jews were on the whole better educated and smarter and wealthier than their killers. It bothers me that Kornbluth, reaching for a population figure beyond all human toleration, came up with a little over five billion, two billion less than we’ve got now.
It bothers me that the United States of America is not a meritocracy. Since my high school years, it’s been an oligarchy, a gerontocracy, a kleptocracy, and a moronocracy. Smart people aren’t running things. Maybe they started out smart and became stupid because they were running things, because power makes you stupid. Stealing things also makes you stupid, because you so often have to lie to yourself when you steal, and lying really makes you stupid.
And certainly age makes you stupid. The average 72-year-old has the same size brain he had when he was three. Women’s brain size doesn’t seem to shrink as much with age, but that’s probably because they’re not running things or stealing things as much as men.
But the most disturbing realization that Kornbluth’s story brings up for me now is that being smart doesn’t mean that you have emotional intelligence. In fact, if you look at the really smart people who designed America’s banking system, or wrote torture memos, or ran their companies into the ground, or offshored the jobs of their friends and neighbors, it doesn’t seem as if they have any capacity for empathy, grief, or pity. Their inability to empathize with the suffering of others makes them emotional morons.
I worry that even now, a 16-year-old intern in a Big Pharma biolab, with a straight-A average and a weakness for Ayn Rand novels, is injecting Bird Flu into a lab animal with Swine Flu, just to see what will happen. As for Kornbluth’s “Marching Morons,” he’s read it, and it’s got him in heat.
My library contains books on plagues, biowarfare, and tropical diseases. Most of them came from the Barnes & Noble remainder bin, which indicates that their publishers expected to sell more of these books than they sold. Apparently, people don’t like reading books about bedbug-vectored Chagas’ Disease or weaponized smallpox or more frequent Ebola breakouts as more of the wild world is converted to habitat for humanity.
But I buy these books. I appreciate the usual 80% discount. I don’t find their subject matter cheering, but I like to keep up with what’s been happening in commercial medical science and its bad-seed child, biowarfare.
It’s a frightening picture, especially when you consider that way back in 1980, as part of a job interview for a medical information company, I had to translate an article on recombinant DNA and monoclonal antibodies, written in near-opaque medicalese, into blunt-force everyday English.
Briefly put, the article described the mechanism by which monoclonal antibodies could make microorganisms produce vast quantities of interferon, which was supposed to be a cure-all for cancer. [They did and it wasn’t.]
My translation got me the job, and I ended up writing a book about myocardial infarcts called So You’ve Gone and Had a Heart Attack. I learned that when you put medicalese into understandable language, a lot of medicine consists of common sense, prevention, placebo, and coming to terms with the sure knowledge that the human body is subject to entropy.
I also learned that almost every medical study is subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences, defined as what happens when factors outside of a study’s parameters overwhelm factors inside of a study’s parameters. The most important thing I learned was that the quality of the language used to propose, run, and interpret a study was a determining factor in how well the study held up over time. Good writers did better science, which is to say that language is the prime parameter of any study.
I left that job when the company I worked for went broke. People did not want to buy books that explained medical conditions in layman’s language. They preferred to place their health in the hands of experts who spoke in a language they did not understand and who prescribed them drugs whose efficacy declined with their familiarity. Newer, more expensive drugs were consistently more effective, suggesting that the active ingredient in most drugs on the market is faith.
Still, medical science marches on. And what do you do when you can operate on a bacterium and change its mechanisms so that it will produce a complex protein? Do you sit back and say, “Well, interferon didn’t work out the way we had hoped, so we’ll just quit and go back to treating cancer with surgery and radiation?”
You don’t. You start looking for other proteins, enzymes, and bioactive lipids. Once you turn your e. coli buddies into little interferon factories, your next move is to retool their assembly lines to make other complex molecules, and hope that one of them will be more effective against cancer. Or heart disease. Or old age. Or you maybe you can teach them to make diesel fuel, although you wouldn’t want them to get loose in the compacted biodebris of a forest floor in any year with a lightning storm.
The huge growth in human population that began in the 20th Century was made possible by putting microorganisms to work to produce antibiotics, in conjunction with advances in sanitation, safer and more abundant food supplies, oil-fueled transport, advances in extractive technology, and go-forth-and-multiply religions and governments. It’s impossible to look at the current human population of seven billion as being in any way separate from the huge system that supports it.
Take away oil, coal, fertilizer, medicines, credit, chainsaws, bulldozers, cement plants, drilling equipment—the entities that allow the preferred contemporary human environment to be made up largely of LED screens—and you face the reduction of human numbers to pre-industrial levels in less than a decade. If studies of animal populations can be extrapolated to the human, such a population crash will take the numbers even below what the planet can support. In human terms, think of a number less than 500 million.
Technological civilization is holding six-and-a-half billion of us hostage. Either it continues, or 94 out of 100 of us die. Is it any wonder that we’ve got the techno-industrial equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome going on?
Consider a coal mine in Wales.
When the mine was discovered, coal seams lay on the surface, and it was a simple matter to dig pits and short tunnels to get the coal out to burn in hearths and crude smelters. Over time, those tunnels and pits deepened, and the energy needed to get coal to the surface increased. So humans carrying baskets of coal up ladders were replaced by draft animals turning windlasses or pulling slip-scrapers. The tunnels and pits continued to deepen. The demand for coal increased as smelters increased in size and began to use coking technology.
Enter the steam engine, a giant machine with a huge riveted cast-iron boiler and a vast coal-burning firebox. Its barrel-sized pistons wheezed and hissed, and drove cast-iron wheels that powered pumps and drilling equipment deep below the surface of the earth, where there were vaster coal deposits. Other steam engines in use in factories, railroad locomotives, and ships provided an ever-expanding market for coal. Profits from the coal spurred improvements in mining technology.
After the steam engine had been hooked up to a generator, the belts and shafts and compressed air that transferred power from the steam engine to the coal face were made obsolete. Cast iron was replaced by steel. Giant electrical shovels and drills and coal trucks were safer and more efficient. Coal production increased exponentially. Pistons in the steam engine were replaced by turbines, but in essence it remained a coal-fired steam engine. The fuel that powered the mine was what the mine mined, even though at the end of the mine’s life, its power came over transmission lines from a nearby coal-fired power plant.
What happened next is more fact than controversy. Exponential production curves worked their wonders, and the coal ran out sooner than anyone expected. Mine maintenance slowed and stopped. The mine filled with water when its pumps were turned off. The nearby company towns emptied. A few years later, all that was left was a smoke-blackened landscape marked by poisonous streams, piles of ash and waste rock, and the poorly-repaired remains of machines too big or too obsolete to move to other coal deposits.
Still, after a generation, vegetation began to reappear on bare and eroded hillsides, the blackened foundations of arson-destroyed houses began to shelter small trees, and the wild descendants of once-tended roses began to form thorned thickets. Animals denned in boilers and moss grew in the dark interiors of old fireboxes. The place began to have a kind of delicate archaeological beauty. It wasn’t at the level of temples overgrown with jungle, but it was enough to allow a sensitive visitor a moment of contemplation of the conversations, dreams, hopes, lives and deaths of miners and miners’ families, and to reflect on the adaptability of life in a hostile environment.
Consider the earth as a coal mine in Wales.
I live in an area of the United States—like a lot of areas in the United States—where most people keep arsenals in their basements. There is a kind of psychology of previous investment here, where men and women who have spent most of a decade’s discretionary income on guns and ammunition and freeze-dried food keep buying more and more guns and ammunition and freeze-dried food and giving time and effort to inventing the scenarios that make them necessary. Civilization’s collapse is looked forward to, not because it will end of our destruction of the world and our fellow creatures, but because it reinforces a we’re-going-to-live-you’re-going-to-die-tribalism. That’s the headspace a lot of people occupy after a decade of thinking about the end of the American Empire as we know it.
There are four-year-olds in nearby towns whose wardrobes include flak jackets, and basements and crawl spaces full of food, and plans to use our local mountains and their usual heavy snowfall to create a geographically gated community. There are contingency plans that include shooting enemies, and those enemies look like ordinary suburban Americans a week or two away from full supermarket shelves and electricity and gasoline.
So you overhear late-night barstool discussions about the merits of a scoped 30-06 BAR loaded with WWII surplus armor-piercing ammunition versus an open-sight .308 assault rifle with a 20-round clip. Which one will be better against a mob of starving urban refugees?
My usual contribution to these discussions is to ask, from a barstool or two down the bar, “What about germs?”
“What about germ warfare? Don’t think that The Powers That Be will release weaponized smallpox into the population? Don’t you think there are plans to deal with all these ‘surplus eaters,’ as you call them? You’ve got a whole nation of people who are armed and no way to feed them? What are you going to do?”
“They wouldn’t do that.”
“Of course they would. You think they’d rather go to all the trouble to put people in concentration camps and feed them surplus cheese? There isn’t going to be any surplus cheese. Besides, the Powers that Be like cheese. They’re going to come after the freeze-dried cheese you’ve got in your basement. It’ll help if you’re already dead of smallpox or anthrax or something else they’ve got in the freezer.”
“You’re just a troublemaker, Rember. You’re not one of us. When civil authority evaporates, you’re going to be the first to go.”
“The next time you watch Fox News, take a look at some of their vacant-eyed anchor persons. Check their upper arms for smallpox vaccination scars.”
It’s not good for your long-term safety to mess with the minds of paranoid survivalists. But if you want to know what might really happen it’s useful to bring Occam’s Razor to bear on the machinations of the Masons, Bildebergers, the Trilateral Commission, the Bohemian Club, and whatever other group you think might be running things behind the scenes.
Occam’s Razor is a way of preferring one hypothesis over another. It states that in the absence of certainty, you should prefer the explanation with the fewest amount of variables. In practice, this means that the simplest solution is more often than not the right one, although you can spend a lot of time arguing about the meaning of the word simple.
The usual example used to illustrate Occam’s Razor is the replacement of the Ptolemaic view of the cosmos by the Copernican view. It was more elegant to place the sun at the center of the solar system than the earth, even though astronomers could construct complex models of the Ptolemaic solar system that explained the night sky just as well as Copernicus’s theory.
As long as one’s perspective was confined to earth, that is. Once we were able to set cameras and transmitters in orbit around the earth and sun, we had photographic evidence that Copernicus was right.
Unless, of course, those photos were faked. Unless the complex formulas used to slingshot Voyager I and II around the planets and into instellar space were cooked up in a Madison Avenue advertising agency by guys who drank martinis and drove Porsches and had affairs with their voluptuous vacant-eyed secretaries, never thinking to lift their eyes above their concrete-and-steel horizon.
But back to more familiar conspiracies. I don’t worry about the JFK assassination being a CIA-Mafia joint venture, or 9/11 being a false-flag operation designed to create the emotional climate necessary to get the United States into Iraq, or guillotines being set up in newly-constructed FEMA concentration camps. That’s because the mundane official accounts of such matters don’t require elaborate logistics or cabals of secret-keepers or the perfect execution of the malignant intentions of a whole class of human beings who lack neocortexes. Besides, the official stories are just as full of deadly implications for the future, plus they include human laziness and incompetence in their makeup. Any story that doesn’t include human laziness and incompetence probably needs an extensive rewrite.
Bioclasswarfare is a good example. On the surface, it’s a simple Marching Morons solution to the problems of the rich. Find a disease you can vaccinate against, inoculate members of your tribe, and release it in the world’s airports. A few months later you have a bunch of bodies to dispose of, but your children have lebensraum and you have your pick of nice houses in resort areas all across the world, and maybe a yacht or two.
I’m not saying bioclasswarfare can’t happen. In fact, starting with the anti-vaccination memes now circulating among the scientifically illiterate, and the de facto denial of medical services to the poor, you could argue that it’s already happening.
But the rich—and their children—share DNA with the rest of us. That’s no small Achilles’ Heel. Vaccinations fail or become ineffective as engineered viruses and bacteria mutate. Vaccines can be given to the wrong people. Biolabs can defect to the other side. Antibiotics that worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. Telomeres shorten, and merciless movers-and-shakers end up demented in hospital beds, crying for someone to empty their bedpans.
Human empathy, which some of us are born with and is only a few years of unemployment away from most of us, assigns the deliberate release of pathogens into the human environment to psychopaths. Of course psychopaths exist. But—given the cautionary example of the Nazis—your average psychopath won’t deliberately destroy the edifice of capitalism, nationalism, and resource extraction that he thrives in.
Other ways of getting rid of “useless eaters” present similar complications. As the Nazi Tribe found out, there are logistics problems involved in killing huge numbers of people. Thus far, no tribe, rich or not, has found ways of dehumanizing Americans to the point where they can be killed in FEMA slaughterhouses, and the chances are they won’t, as half of all Americans are above-average and are more articulate than they’re given credit for. They can appeal to the softer side of FEMA employees, who, after all, might have gotten into their careers out of an inclination to help people.
Following Occam’s razor, it is far easier to simply ignore people who are starving and dying of disease than it is to go to all the effort to dehumanize and then murder them. Take away the benefits of civilization from the folks who bother you, and eventually they will go away. If you’ve got shelter, clean water, an adequately defended local community, stored and/or stolen food, and patience and a cheerful outlook, you’ll still get all their stuff.
That doesn’t mean you can relax. When I think about the near future—say, 2015—I think of all the non-average psychopaths, sitting on stocks of weaponized anthrax and smallpox and nuclear and chemical weapons. I think of India and Pakistan, where two peoples who well and truly hate each other, are getting to the point where a sun-bright day of 120 million deaths is beginning to look like a preferable alternative to sharing the world with each other. I think of the Aum Shinrikyo Tribe, stymied in its effort to cause mass death in the Tokyo subway system by sarin gas distribution problems, problems that were solved by the world’s militaries fifty years ago.
I don’t think any nation-state will survive the breakdown of the social contract occasioned by the failure of its financial systems, and a quarter million years of hunting and gathering have made tribalism our genetic default position. There’s an ever-present danger that a group of people will take the reins of power, define themselves as a tribe, and start dealing with the rest of us as lesser tribes. Lest you think I’m picking on the Nazis, the Bolsheviks were also a group that defined themselves as a tribe and began exterminating other groups. Mao did it. The Hutus did it. Mugabe seems to be doing it in Zimbabwe. Without getting into the specific politics of the ruling class, tribal outlooks are dictating events in Iran, Afghanistan, China, most of Europe, and Mexico. And don’t forget Arizona.
But I don’t think that even being a member of the tribe in power can ever be better than being a lower-class citizen of a nation or even of an empire. Anthropologists, excavating prehistoric burials, have determined that more people die by violence in tribal societies than in any other form of social organization. Hunter-gatherer bands are a close second. If you want to live apart from a kill-or-be-killed economy, opt for a nation-state. They manage to give meaning and comfort to most of their citizens. They treat women and children and the old as people, not useless eaters. They don’t make every one of their young men into killers. They pay lip service to ethics and altruism, and sometimes even the rule of law.
More worries, already subjected to Occam’s Razor:
—That dumping a bunch of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere of a planet with a history of violent climate oscillation is going to set the climate violently oscillating.
—That nuclear power plants explode and poison broad swaths of farmland in the absence of or failure of civilization.
—That the sudden denial of access to internal combustion engines, television, or the Internet will cause the most mild and empathic among us to become happily homicidal.
—That our cultural stories of wise old men and wise old women will be replaced by kill-the-old-and-take-their-stuff stories.
—That groups of vacant-eyed refugees will show up at the door, wanting food, and if I want to preserve that part of me that is civilized, I’m going to have to share my last few ground-squirrel carcasses with them.
Certainly the people who invented the nation-state thought they were making things better for humankind when they ended the Thirty Years’ War. You can say the same thing about the Dutch traders who invented the tontine and its byproduct of capitalism. You can say the same thing about folks who invented industrial use of fossil fuels, and the Peaceful Atom.
But these fine people ran into the Law of Unintended Consequences, in that the great interlocking system that they created was a great and fecund Petri dish for emotional morons. Call them psychopaths, sociopaths, zombies, vampires, the walking dead, banksters, the vacant-eyed, whatever, these people without conscience, as the psychiatrist Robert Hare calls them, substitute narcissism and greed and intelligence for altruism and community and empathy, and when they reach a critical mass the system goes down.
Some thought experiments:
—Dick Cheney is elected vice-president in 1954, on the ticket with Curtis LeMay.
—The Wall Street of 2008 and the U.S. Congress of 2011 is in place in the United States in November of 1929.
—President Barack Obama is confronted with the shelling of Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861.
—Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas draft the American Constitution in 1787.
—Bernie Madoff moves to Amsterdam, spring of 1625.
There are historians who claim that individuals don’t matter in the broad sweep of history, but I don’t think they can account for the havoc emotional morons can wreak on the rest of us.
Let’s combine Occam’s Razor with Fermi’s Paradox. Fermi’s Paradox suggests that the galaxy should be full of civilizations, since 100 billion stars, almost all of them orbited by planets, should give rise to intelligent life at least some of the time. A percentage of those intelligences should give rise to civilizations that discover capitalism, the nation state, and industrial technology. If one in a million stars produces a civilization, that’s a hundred thousand civilizations. Yet we haven’t seen any evidence of anybody else out there.
Plenty of elaborate explanations have been proposed for our being alone in the cosmos, including the idea that we’re an incurably evil species and have been put in a permanent quarantine. But Occam’s Razor suggests a simpler answer: that intelligence invents the economic, social, and technological conditions that allow psychopathy to thrive, and once that happens, psychopathy expands and kills a civilization. That vast silence that has greeted our SETI antennae has a simple message: You’re Next.
It’s a shame, because our prime directive has been crafted by people who will lay waste to our planet in the name of profit, and as long as there is a coal seam to mine, a strata of hard shale to frack, a deepwater well to be drilled, we’ll keep on keeping on. We’ll keep pumping water into the cooling pools outside nuclear power plants as long as the power is on and the pumps get replacement parts and somebody replaces them. Humans will keep messing with viruses and bacteria until we find one that shares our assumptions about our own tribe. We’ll keep doing the things that make us money, or at least the people who crafted the prime directive will.
It’s not as though you can stop a market economy once it’s been invented, and teach an emotional moron to value feelings over profit. You can remove them from power, but as the current crop of presidential candidates attests, it’s not easy to find someone in politics who is not an emotional moron. It makes you wonder how the species that gave rise to Opus 35 in D Major can give rise to Koch Industries, but it did, and we’re about to find out the consequences of sending more people to Harvard Business School than Julliard.
Whether we end up with a Venus-style molten-lead climate or revert back to being nasty and brutal and short hunter-scavengers living parasite-ridden lives amid the greening ruins of once-great cities, the result will be the death of human consciousness. They look different, but they’re not that different, really, if you imagine yourself listening to nothing but the hiss of static and pondering Fermi’s Paradox from a thousand light-years away, as a member of a civilization that made it a few more years into the future than we did.