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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BEING SMART


I used to think I was pretty smart. Well, I figured I was at least in the upper fifty percent of the population as far as intelligence goes. Part of that, I know was a function of youth, when I didn't yet know what I didn't know. But age has brought humility, and more knowledge, such as the recent discovery of the world's first filling. The owner of this cracked left canine was a 24 to 30 year old man living in southeastern Europe 6,500 years ago. This poor neolithic denticle sufferer must have been in agony. Then some shaman pressed beeswax into the crack in his tooth's enamel (above), and the pain ceased. And the filling lasted 6,500 years, until an Italian scientist noticed it under a microscope. Obviously this stone age dentist was not using the generic version of beeswax.
Anyway, that got me to thinking about two other things. First - beeswax seems have been the stone age gaffer tape. Ancient humans also used beeswax to hold their arrow heads to their arrows. Maybe we should re-label the Stone Age. But, secondly, according to South African archaeologists, other neolithic hungry humans with sticks well on their way to being evolutionary dead ends, improved their odds of finding dinner by using chemical warfare. We know this because of the little sharp sticks recently found in a cave the humans occupied. They are identical to the sticks still used by the San people of the Kalahari desert, to apply poison to their arrows, poison made from a pest of the diamphidia beetle. Modern archaeologists have carbon dated these notched sticks to 44,000 years ago. Now, how did the ancient shaman figure this one out?
First they had to notice the diamphidia (above) out of the thousands of other bugs crawling around them, and then they had to notice the even smaller carabid Lebistina beetle, which preys on the diamphidia beetle while both are in the larval stage. Evidently, during the beeswax age, etymologists were as important as computer techs are today – an analogy which got me to thinking about the computer techs who failed to get my wireless working between our office and my wife's lap top in the kitchen. Are modern computer techs that much dumber than ancient shaman?
It is hard to imagine an ancient shaman claiming to produce a magic potion which would bring down a gazelle, but didn't. In the hand to mouth existence of hunter-gatherers; one ineffective spell would be grounds for termination. Those that survived must have been pretty savvy. Except – I firmly believe that people have not changed in at least 10,000 years. We have not acquired any original emotional responses to stimuli, and considering the Republican economic proposals, we have clearly not gotten smarter. This means that there must have been as high a percentage of doofus shaman 44,000 years ago as there are doofus computer techs today. And that large percentage of doofuses would explain why it has taken us 10,000 years to get from the invention of agriculture to Birdseye Frozen Peas. The idea of very cold peas took that long to occur to somebody? Individually we may occasionally be geniuses, But collectively, most of the time, we just aren't that smart.
Part of the limit to human progress has to do with the combination of talent and available technologies. Can you imagine, before numbers were invented about 35,000 years ago, how many Albert Eisensteins must have been lousy shamans? And how sad to be born into a 21st century advanced society, with the skills needed to be a good shaman. Is that even listed on any of the career placement exams anymore?
Of course, any modern shaman could still have a very successful career in televised religion. But would it be of any comfort to know you have a talent, but were born 44,000 years too late to reach your full potential?   What became of all those born in the 14th century with the talents required to be a really good electrical engineer?
Another part of what is holding us back is that most of us follow the rules, we do things the way they have always been done, because most of the time that is what works. But some don't follow the rules, and I think I may have figured out why they do that.  I call it my “pigeons on a wire” theory. Ever notice them on a telephone line, usually in a tight line, and close together. Pigeons group that way mostly because of hawks. A hawk, looking for their dinner needs to isolate an individual pigeon. And a flock, even one sitting on a line, does not offer an individual target. So the hawk swoops, hoping to startle the pigeons into scattering, where they can be isolated. And that is why pigeons on a wire group together – to make it harder for the hawks.
But look again at the pigeons on the wire. No matter how many there are, a couple are always sitting away from the main flock. Now why are they doing that? Since they are making it easier for the hawks, these “loners” are usually evolutionary dead ends, a gift to hungry hawks with chicks. But, what if some human shows up with a spear or a gun? Will this human aim at the isolated pigeons, or at the flock? If the human shoots at the flock, and misses the one he is aiming at, he might hit another. So the isolated pigeons have an advantage in the unlikely event of a hungry human showing up with a taste for squab.
I suspect this is how personality became a factor in evolution. Being a loner myself, I like this theory. Perhaps you have your own, which displays the evolutionary advantages of someone with your personality. That would be a very human way of looking at the world. Albert Eisenstein, it is said, came up with the idea for relativity in physics, while riding on a street car in Vienna. How many hundreds of thousands of passengers had ridden those same street cars and not come up with that insight, just because they did not know enough about physics? Right there, on a telephone wire or a Viennese street car, is evolution explained. Very unlikely does not mean impossible. Given enough time, in fact, very unlikely means inevitable.
We know from the bones in the ground that humans evolved about 2 million years ago. And, it seems, it took us 1, 935,000 years to figure out beeswax would make a good tooth filling. And it took us 1,966,000 years to figure out that grounding up a particular beetle would help bring home a fresh gazelle for dinner.And, it seems, it took us 2 million years to figure out that gravity bends space and time  Does that sound unlikely to you? Because, as a loner, I don't find it that unusual at all. And I just ain't that smart.
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