In today’s modern age, we feel like we’re living in a time of unprecedented intelligence and growth. Every day, we wake up surrounded in urban bubbles full of technological advancements. Every year, we’re surprised by the next new discovery created by our innovative minds hard at work.
In this world, it’s easy to look back at past societies and earlier humans as primitive and ‘other.’ It’s easy to dismiss them as simply not being capable of the same intellect as we are.
But this is 1. false and 2. dangerous…
Why Past Humans aren’t Less Intelligent
Firstly, it’s false because our brains have been mostly the same in the past tens of thousands of years (except they’ve gotten a little bigger in the past 100 years due to better nutrition — Source).
It’s not that we’re smarter than the first farmers ten thousand years ago. It’s that we now understand how to better predict weather and have better tools to work our fields. We’re benefiting from the accumulation of knowledge across many millennia in a way that humans weren’t able to in the past (in part due to more time being present to accumulate knowledge, but more so because it’s easier to spread knowledge to more of the population).
To paraphrase Dr. Vincent Geloso (an economic historian I interviewed), it’s not that we’re any more rational than past humans. We’re just working with different constraints when making decisions than they are.
It’s much harder to explain to someone in the mid 1300s why it’s a good idea to wash their hands during the Black Death than to tell people to do the same thing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This isn’t because they’re more stupid or irrational, it’s because more people today have been educated about how pathogens can spread and why that necessitates hand sanitation.
Why It’s Dangerous to Think We’re Smarter than We are
Once we realise that we’re not any smarter than past humans, this also means we can still make the same mistakes or have the same biases as people from 10,000 years ago.
There are lots of these biases, in fact. You can find 24 of them with examples here (Source). I’ll describe just one to really highlight how similar we are today to humans thousands of years ago.
Looking at our beliefs on death, philosopher Stephen Cave points out four recurring (but unproven) biases that people have had about death for millennia:
- We believe in resurrection. Some saviour will bring us back to life later. Christians have believed Jesus can do this for thousands of years (Source). And some people today believe that miracle-working humans with better technology in the future can do this after they’ve been preserved with cryogenics (Source).
- We believe in magical elixirs. This could be the fountain of youth that the Greeks, Christians, Spanish, and others have sought after for centuries (Source). Or it could be the proponents of longevity treatments today that are searching for ways to increase life and healthspan (Source).
- We believe in souls that live on after our physical bodies. Like the Hindu idea of reincarnation that is thousands of years old (Source). Or modern proponents of brain-machine interfaces that want to upload our experiences and memories to the cloud after we die (Source).
- We believe in legacies that succeed us after our deaths. This is what motivates me to make an impact in the world. It’s also the moral of myths about ancient warriors like Achilles, who leave behind legacies of their bravery in battle for centuries after their deaths.
I found it chilling when I first learned about all these psychological biases (especially the ones where Stephen Cave so easily pointed out the similarities between us now and past humans). It was hard to accept that we can still make the same mistakes and have the same biases from such a long time ago.
But the danger comes in not accepting this.
If we don’t have the humility to accept these common biases, then we can’t at least be aware of our limitations or try to correct our mistakes to make better decisions.
And not being aware of these biases/trying to correct them can be disastrous given the important consequences of our actions today:
- We literally CAN change our planet enough right now to cause mass extinctions of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of species on Earth (Source).
- We literally CAN make changes to human germ-line DNA that changes what it means to be human (Source).
- And in the future, we might even be able to replace humans as the most intelligent species on the planet with the advent of artificial superintelligence (ASI) — which we can barely only conceive of as some sci-fi vision today (Source).
If we compared our brains to computers, it’s like we’ve been running very similar software for tens of thousands of years, but we have more and more complicated data to handle within the past hundreds of years.
Today, it has become more important than ever for individuals to make good decisions based on all the ways we’re connected to others and the impact we have on the world (Source). Yet, it is even more important for us to collectively come together and make good decisions.
That can’t happen when most individuals in our network are not only prone to making the same mistakes as ancient humans, but also unaware of this reality. That’s why it’s so crucial to keep a humble look at cognitive biases, our evolution/intelligence, and maintaining the right mindsets to grow from our biases as best we can.
And that’s why thinking we’re smarter today than we actually are is a mistake just too dangerous to make.