Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The emotional morons


In the 1951 short story "The Marching Morons," science-fiction writer C.M. Kornbluth postulates a far future in which smart people have been outbred by stupid ones, and as a result the average IQ is 45. Five billion stupid folks sit around while a few million smart ones work desperately to keep the world going.

Then an evil salesman of 20th-century Florida swampland awakes from several millennia of suspended animation. Once he figures out what's going on, he offers the smart people a solution: 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, 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 the story when I was 16. I liked the way it flattered smart people. At the time I was a Goldwater Republican who believed in a cheery social Darwinism where people who got As in high-school English rose to the top of the American meritocracy. The story even gave those A students a conscience, but only after they had gotten rid of all the stupid people in their way.

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 budget committee meeting, a political convention, rodeo cowboys drawing numbers for bulls? Average, on average.

Well, maybe not the bull riders. Maybe not the political conventioneers.

But there's another problem with the concept of IQ. It compresses lots of discrete intelligences down to a cryptic two- or three-digit number that pays no attention to emotional wisdom.


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, though it was an aberration that the Jews were mostly better educated and smarter 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 also bothers me that America's not a meritocracy. For the last decade or so, 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 3. Female 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 a conscience. 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, it doesn't seem as if they have a conscience at all. Their inability to empathize with the suffering of others puts them in the category of emotional morons.

I worry that even now, someone with an IQ of 175 and the emotional development of a 16-year-old Goldwater Republican is working in a Roche biolab, and 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 he thinks it's really cool.

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