Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Marching Morons and the Inheritance of Intelligence

In March of this year science fiction writer Ben Bova wrote an editorial about the prescience of science fiction, in which he invokes the classic short story "The Marching Morons":
The most prescient — and chilling — of all the science fiction stories ever written, though, is “The Marching Morons,” by Cyril M. Kornbluth, first published in 1951. It should be required reading in every school on Earth.

The point that Kornbluth makes is simple, and scary: dumbbells have more children than geniuses. In “The Marching Morons” he carries that idea to its extreme, but logical, conclusion.

Kornbluth tells of a future world that is overrun with dummies: men and women who don’t know anything beyond their own shallow personal interests. They don’t know how their society works, or who is running it. All they care about is their personal — and immediate — gratification.
It turns out to have been a poor choice of example on Bova's part, simply because the greatest differences between the teeming masses and the "bright men and women slaving to keep society from falling apart" are cultural and educational, and often based on class, not genetics. I would even argue that here in the U.S. there are actually fewer people in the "marching moron" category today than there were 100 years ago, because there are more opportunities today for a bright kids to get an education and for intelligent "lay people" to teach themselves about science, history and other subjects. I don't have any data for that though, so I can't really say that's more than a supposition.

P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula) has a great take-down of the genetic assumptions in Kornbluth's story (and Bova's op-ed).
There are no grounds to argue that there are distinct subpopulations of people with different potentials for intelligence. Genes flow fluidly — if you sneer at the underclass and think your line is superior, I suspect you won't have to go back very many generations to find your stock comes out of that same seething mob. Do you have any Irish, or Jewish, or Italian, or Native American, or Asian, or whatever (literally—it's hard to find any ethnic origin that wasn't despised at some time) in your ancestry? Go back a hundred years or so, and your great- or great-great-grandparents were regarded as apes or subhumans or mentally deficient lackeys suitable only for menial labor.
Myers points out that there is a solution:

That's where the Kornbluth story fails. It assumes the morons are unchangeably moronic, and treats the elite as unchangeably special. The only solution to their problem is to get rid of the morons, launching them into space to die. Bova's editorial, while not as cynically eliminationist, still pretends that the only answer is perpetuation of a distinction that doesn't exist biologically.

Here's the real solution to the "marching moron" problem: teach them. Give them fair opportunities. Open the door to education for all. They have just as much potential as you do. Bova complains that people aren't willing to work for change, but this is exactly where we can work to improve minds — but we won't if we assume the mob is hopeless.

As Matthew Cheney (The Mumpsimus) points out that Bova may have missed the point: Kornbluth was really more of a satirist than a predictor of the future.
There is a Straussian strain to science fiction, a desire for rule by an enlightened elite (of which, of course, the proponents inevitably consider themselves members), and Kornbluth's "Marching Morons", as entertaining as its vision of a future of idiots can be, offers grotesque flattery to its readers, saying: You who read this story are not morons, of course. You would be with the elite. The story asks us to laugh at the "moron" characters, it puts us in a position of superiority to them, it lets us feel the euphoria of power over them. By the end, it gives us a choice: disagree with its premises, or agree with them and side with the genocidal desires of the story's final pages.
We science fiction readers like assume that we are smarter and more aware of the future than the mob (that was, in fact, the point of Bova's editorial). For every science fiction story that made a prediction that has come to pass (and I wouldn't include "Marching Morons" on that list), there are many more that have turned out to be wide of the mark. We science fiction readers shouldn't be so smug.

For more discussion of genetics and intelligence, head over to the Pharyngula. For more on Kornbluth, science fiction and satire, head over to The Mumpsimus.

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  1. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Really interesting entry. I've never read "The Marching Morons," but your summary reminded me of the recent movie "Idiocracy," which basically has the same premise. (I wonder how Kornbluth felt about eugenics...?)

  2. I don't know how he actually felt about eugenics, but I think we've all had days where it seems like everyone else has misplaced their brains somewhere.

  3. Anyone who thinks that morons can be taught to think has never tried to do exactly that. It is easy to talk political nonsense when you are not living within the environment which Kornbluth depicts. Look around yourself today especially in the Urban areas. His ideas are approaching a critical mass...Let us see how the people forced to live in that hell deal with it. Somehow, I think this all may not end nicely...Yes our leaders may yet experience the last words of Kornbluth's work.

  4. Anonymous9:25 PM

    The Marching Morons is not advocating what was done to the masses of idiots. It is black humor that is satirizing the entire absurd spectrum of humans, from the intellectually lazy masses all the way up to the exclusive intelligentsia and its inability to connect with humanity - in fact, the biggest twist in the story was how they ended up being more callous and and grotesque than the morons, who for all of their faults and stupidity, never actively took part in the mass murder of others.


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