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How Will Humanity Survive Its Shrinking Brain?

What are the implications for those of us striving for self-reliance in our lives? I would suggest that it lies at the heart of preparedness.

Try to imagine your ancestors for a moment. Those cave dwelling brutes that managed to carve out a bleak existence before the dawn of civilization. Are you imagining a few hunched over guys, learning to talk through dirty teeth and bad odors? Do you think our ancestors lived a bleak existence of malnutrition and disease? Well that may be a better description of us, if recent research from Cambridge University has anything to say about it. According to anthropologist Alison Macintosh:

“…male mobility among earliest farmers (around 7,300 years ago) was, on average, at a level near that of today’s student cross-country runners…” and that “with technological innovation, physically strenuous tasks were likely made easier. The overall result is a reduction in mobility of the population as a whole, accompanied by a reduction in the strength of the lower limb bones.”

Basically, as a species we’ve gotten significantly weaker than our ancestors at the genetic level. Though, this might not be that much of a problem. After all, the average chimpanzee is at least twice as strong as a your typical human, but that doesn’t mean I’d rather be a chimp. Humans have been trading their brawn for brains for quite some time, and it’s paid off. The only problem is, now we’re losing our brains as well. We’ve lost nearly 10 percent of our gray matter since the dawn of civilization. Though there’s a few theories for this alarming trend, I think the most likely culprit is specialization.

After researching population densities throughout history, scientists from the University of Michigan have found “When population numbers were low, as was the case for most of our evolution, the cranium kept getting bigger…The observation led the researchers to a radical conclusion: As complex societies emerged, the brain became smaller because people did not have to be as smart to stay alive.”

Essentially the division of labor is making us dumber. For the uninitiated, the Division of Labor is the stuff of mass production, commerce, and factories. It’s when people specialize in one skill, and work together with other specialists to produce a desired product or service (It is the godsend of free markets and progress, and apparently also a curse).

As an example, people living in small towns and villages have a very limited division of labor. In small societies you need to be proficient in many tasks to survive. You need to grow your own food and fix your own stuff. You need to be smarter. Paradoxically, if you live in a large high tech urban area you don’t need to be as intelligent. It’s easy to be highly skilled in one field, and use the money earned from that specialization to outsource tasks to other specialists. This is why a shocking number of people now don’t know how to replace a tire or fix a toilet. They’ve been paying other people for that job.

So what are the implications for those of us striving for self reliance in our lives? I would suggest that it lies at the heart of preparedness. After all, any scenario involving the collapse of our society is, in a nutshell, a collapse of the division of labor and all of its benefits. Self-reliance is essentially stepping away from society’s network of specialization. That means, if you want to survive outside of that network, you need to have a flexible mind.

You need to have a grasp of academic subjects such as medical care and nutrition. You need to have the instincts and knowledge to stalk an animal or catch a fish. You need to get your hands dirty fixing a car, growing a garden, or building a shelter. This is a pretty broad set of skills, and we can’t be experts at all of them, (I’m certainly not) but we do need to find a basic grasp of these subjects if we expect to be prepared for the worst. While our ancestors probably carried an incredible breadth of survival knowledge in their larger brains, I fear we may be slowly losing the ability to do the same.

While specialization has given us fantastic technology and an astonishing standard of living, is it really the best solution going into the future? High specialization tends to make organizations vulnerable to instability. If any specialized member is removed or damaged, the whole system is liable to fall apart. As the world is hurled towards globalization, and the average person is faced with a division of labor that encompasses the entire planet, we are stuck with a complicated global system prone to disruption and chaos. If this specialization continues, our species may become nothing more than a hive mind, not unlike insects.

Even with all of the safety and benefits, specialization isn’t the reason Humans are so special, as it were. Mother nature is a vast trove of specialized species, many of which go extinct under changing conditions. Our brain’s ability to be proficient in so many tasks is what separates us from the herd. It’s what allowed us to adapt to so many environments, because small groups of humans could carry so many skills with them. It’s the guarantor of our survival.

We live in a world that is so highly specialized it’s now vulnerable to collapse. And when it does, those who are strictly specialists won’t inherit the Earth. Don’t be among them.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly…

…Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein (author of Starship Troopers)

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on May 13th, 2014

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