I just saw a reference to Kornbluth’s story, The Marching Morons, and I’m also working up a talk on the perils of excessive adaptationism, and together they motived me to repost this article from Scienceblogs. It’s always bugged me: it’s saturated with the unthinking assumption that human diversity is hardwired and fixed, and built on a racially invariant biological foundation. And it largely went unquestioned by science fiction fans.
I was sent a link to this editorial by the science-fiction writer, Ben Bova. I like part of the sentiment, where he’s arguing that it’s worth the effort to try and change the world, but a substantial part of it bugs me.
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.
I detest “The Marching Morons.”
Bova gives an accurate summary; it’s also the primary plot point of the movie Idiocracy. It’s also the premise behind eugenics and behind a lot of right-wing phony elitism. It’s wrong. It was a very popular story, but the reason isn’t complimentary: it fed into a strain of self-serving smugness in science-fiction fandom, the idea that people who read SF are special and brilliant and superior, we are the technological geniuses and far-seeing futurists, while the mundanes leech off our vision. The eugenics movement built on the same us-vs.-them mentality, that there are superiors and inferiors, and the inferiors breed like cockroaches.
The most troubling part of it all is the attempt to root the distinction in biology—it’s intrinsic. “They” are lesser beings than “us” because, while their gonads work marvelously well, their brains are inherently less capacious and their children are born with less ability. It’s the kind of unwarranted labeling of people that leads to decisions like “three generations of imbeciles are enough“—bigotry built on bad biology to justify suppression by class.
People, they are us.
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.
Are you staring aghast at the latest cluster of immigrants in this country, are you fretting that they’re breeding like rabbits? That generation of children will be the people your kids grow up with, go to school with, date, and marry. It may take a while, but eventually, your line will merge with theirs. Presuming you propagate at all, your genes are destined to disperse into that great living pool of humanity. Get used to it.
Furthermore, intelligence is an incredibly plastic property of the brain. You can nurture it or you can squelch it — the marching morons will birth children with as much potential as a pair of science-fiction geeks, and all that will matter is how well that mind is encouraged to grow. Even a few centuries is not enough to breed stupidity into a natural population of humans — that brain power may lay fallow and undernourished, but there isn’t enough time nor enough pressure to make substantial changes in the overall genetics of the brain.
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.
I have to confess to taking these kinds of stories personally. My family was probably what would be called the working poor nowadays, when I was growing up I was called white trash more than a few times, and yes, I come from a large family. My parents did not have the educational opportunities I did, but they were smart and self-taught and made sensible, practical choices in their life, and they cared to give all of their kids a chance. I can testify from personal experience that if there’s a problem, it’s not in ability — it’s in a culture that dismisses broad swathes of the population because of who their families are, or how much money they make, and perpetuates inequities of opportunity on the basis of bigotry and classism.
I knew this article would bring out the pseudoscientific advocates of facile genetics, and there they are, already babbling away in the comments.
I know there are constraints on intelligence; there is individual variation in capacity, and there are almost certainly some biological bases for that, and also for differences in the kind of intelligence individuals express. This isn’t about that. It’s about whether there are significant differences in the distribution of the genetic constraints on human intelligence between subpopulations, and whether we are justified in writing off segments of our population as incurable morons whose progeny are similarly tainted. I say no to both.
You’d be hard-pressed to argue that the diverse groups marked by ethnic and class distinctions in the U.S. even count as distinct populations in any biological sense. There are social barriers to breeding, but they are sufficiently porous that over the course of time needed to set up genetic differences that matter, they’re negligible.
The other premise of the marching morons scenario, that the underclass would sink deeper and deeper into stupidity, is completely absurd. There aren’t any human subcultures that don’t value problem-solving and cleverness, where apathy and dull-wittedness are desirable traits in a mate (again, there are individuals who are contrary, but we’re talking about populations here.) Growing up, I experienced that social pressure that makes getting good grades in school a problem for fitting in with a certain peer group — but that isn’t about despising intelligence, it’s about conforming to the trappings of your group and not adopting the markers of another class, especially when that class has a habit of treating you like dirt and talking abstractly about how to expunge you, your family, and your friends from the gene pool.
And no, eating brie, going to Harvard, and reading the Wall Street Journal are not indicators of ability — they are properties of class. Drinking beer, learning a trade, and reading Sports Illustrated doesn’t mean you’re dumber, or that there are genes driving your choices — it means you are the product of a particular environment. Yet we all practice this fallacy of judging someone’s intelligence by how they dress or their entertainment preferences, and society as a whole indulges in the self-fulfilling prophecy of doling out educational opportunities on the basis of economic status.
There are mobs of stupid people out there. Sterilizing them or shipping them off to Venus won’t change a thing, though, no matter how effective your elimination procedures are, because you’ll just breed more from the remaining elite stock. Similarly, lining up the elites against the wall won’t change the overall potential of the population — new elites will arise from the common stock. The answer is always going to be education and opportunity and mobility. That’s what’s galling about Kornbluth’s story, that it is so one-dimensional, and the proposed solution is a non-solution.
By the way, I also despise the movie Idiocracy.