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Is the human species deteriorating?

January 7, 2012

[23nd J.P.'s Moment of Common Sense on Broad View, KBZZ 1270 AM Reno.]

Yesterday, someone named Mike, from Hawaii, sent a comment to my website which said, in its entirety, “You are kind of a jerk. Don't be so close minded to others ideas. I feel sorry for you.”

Normally I love negative comments, but this one bugged me. In three, short, uninspiring sentences, this man seemed to coagulate all that is wrong with the universe, and as I look at the people running this country right now, I seriously wonder if the human species is deteriorating.

The notion that Harry Reid, John Boehner, Barack Obama, and the current crop of nincompoops running for the Republican presidential nomination, are the best we can do is frightening. Not one of them is bright enough to light up a sixth-grade remedial reading class, and not one of them has had a new idea since they were potty trained. It’s like aliens from another planet have a large processing center in Washington, D.C., where the leaders of the nation line up to have their brains sucked out.

Mike-from-Hawaii’s comment to my website demonstrates three characteristics of a poorly-functioning mind: one, he thinks it matters that someone I don’t know considers me a jerk; two, he conflates compromise with virtue; and three, he expresses pity for me because... well, apparently because I don’t agree with him about something, although he never got around to mentioning what.

Anybody who thinks I’m overly pessimistic about humanity, here’s some bad news: human brain size has been shrinking for the last 20,000 years. That’s right, for 20,000 years. The Cro-Magnon era was apparently the pinnacle of our mental power, and in another 20,000 years we’ll have brains the size of Homo erectus. We’ll be a new species at that point, which they’ll probably name "Homo anthony weiner."

This little shrinking-brain secret has been percolating through the paleontologist community, but they aren’t broadcasting it to the rest of us. Either they don’t want us to worry, or they’re afraid our brains are so small they’ll explode if we learn the truth. Brains aren’t just shrinking in the modern, high-tech, fiber-optic-connected, video-game world, they’re shrinking everywhere, on every continent, in every race and every culture. It’s like those afore-mentioned space aliens have a satellite orbiting Earth that sucks brains from a distance, reserving the primary brain-sucker machinery in Washington for special cases like Joe Biden.

20,000-year time-spans are difficult to relate to our personal lives, but we can see the problem manifesting itself over much shorter time-spans. Test scores for high school students have been plummeting for decades. When I graduated thirty years ago, the average SAT reading score was 525. Now it’s officially about 495, but actually worse than that because test makers keep dummying down the tests to hide the decline. They call that “re-centering the median.” They felt compelled to “re-center” the SAT test for the first time in 1995, when reading scores were all the way down to 428.

An eighth-grade final exam from 1895 recently circulated via email around the Internet, and the questions were so far beyond what current eighth-graders are capable of answering, people were stunned. Here are four typical questions from the forty five on the test:
From the arithmetic section: “What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft long at $20 per metre?”

From the U.S. History section: “Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, [and] 1865.”

From the Orthography section: “What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, and linguals?”

From the Geography section: “Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. [Then] name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.”
Scary, isn’t it? The next time you see some college kid puzzling out the words on a Fruit Loops box at Wal-Mart, you’ll understand what the problem is and why he plans to vote for the re-election of Barack Obama this fall.

That's... today’s dose of common sense..

"The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant is alone enough to upset Darwin." – Henry Adams

"Such is the human race, often it seems a pity that Noah... didn't miss the boat." – Mark Twain

From Reno, Nevada, USA       

July 30, 2013 - I've enjoyed your coverage of the changing human brain. I recently just finished working on an infographic that looks at the shrinking human brain and explores interesting questions and statistics on the topic. I thought I would share it with you in the hopes you might make some use of it. Here's the link. – Jack K., Tennessee
J.P. replies: Very nice link and thanks for the verification (although I notice the link in my column claimed the brain has been shrinking for 20,000 years and your site says 10,000).

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