We people are smart, all right, but not smart enough.
The change in the global climate currently underway is the most significant danger humankind has faced since we became a separate species some 200,000 years ago. We have never had catastrophic global climate change driven by human activity before. Most of us know about it, but the ones still doing damage pretend it isn’t really happening. They say stupid things like, “Climate change? Of course we have climate change. We’ve always had climate change.” Or Trump, who says he’s “not a believer”. Ironically, whether one believes is irrelevant. Reports come in every few days with worse news.
Extinction happens all the time, but normal background extinction means one extinction during a lifetime—maybe. The Sixth Great Extinction, now in full swing, with species becoming extinct about 1,000 times too fast, is the other major danger like none humankind has ever experienced. Global climate change, created solely by the things humans do, is a powerful force behind these extinctions, but there are also habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overhunting, all driven by the things humans do. All are interconnected, as is all life, and a change in any species on the web of life will affect other species, and that includes species we can’t even see. We may not even know about it until an extinction of some unknown insect causes a collapse of the entire interconnected habitat.
All but a handful of us don’t even know there is a great extinction going on, because the extinctions that make the most difference are invisible to most of us, and involve unobtrusive species we probably never heard of. Others are large animals we know about, but know little about how they fare in their changing world. Our ignorance is huge.
What is a Great Extinction? Well, most of us have heard of the great crater at the coastline of Belize, where a large asteroid crashed some 56 million years ago, causing worldwide disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs very quickly. That was the Fifth Great Extinction. The Sixth is happening more slowly, but it’s no less deadly, and this time humans are around to suffer the same fate. Only our ignorance prevents us from knowing we are expendable.
The great rhinoceros herds are down to small numbers, and at least two of the five species are extinct or functionally extinct because the few remaining individuals will not be able to reproduce.
The cause of rhino extinctions may be one of the greatest human stupidities of all time. The great rhinos are being killed off for their horn. And what magical powers is rhino horn thought to have? All sorts, including curing of various diseases, which it doesn’t do. But what drives the market is that rich Asian men believe that ground rhino horn makes them virile, and they will pay any amount to be virile.
Rhino horn is identical to your fingernail. You can get the same magical powers by chopping up and eating your own fingernail. That is, none. For this superstition the millions of rhinos that once thundered across great parts of Africa and elsewhere will soon be totally extinct, found only in books, along with the many others gone, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Yangtze River Dolphin, and the Pinta Island Tortoise—just a few of the many we have driven to extinction in recent years.
It’s probably too late to save the great rhinos and most others, but conservation programs for certain other large species, the California condor, for example, have been so successful that several animals have been removed from the endangered list. We need to grossly expand such efforts.
Ignorance and superstition are rampant all over the world, and we can’t afford the dangers. Even in highly educated settings there are lots of people who believe in absurd conspiracy theories, most of them on prominent Internet display.
Some superstitions are harmless. Tennis pros, famous for superstition, will wear “lucky” socks, lucky because they once won a tournament while wearing them. How they settled on socks, rather than any of thousands of other trivial items is a mystery, and of course socks don’t win tennis tournaments anyway. Germans will not speak of a person’s birthday until that day has passed, lest the speaking bring death. Oddly, that bit of bad luck never happens anyplace but Germany, not to mention that it never happened in Germany either.
Unfortunately, lots of people believe outrageous superstitions that hurt people, ruin their lives, even cause death. Women are often on the receiving end of these cruelties. Some are literal atrocities, as in the murder of women in the Islamic world because they are raped, and are blamed for the violence against them. (OK, that’s not quite a superstition, more like a particularly egregious stupidity.) Or the shunning of women who become widows, or who are believed to have caused evil with their mysterious powers, and are forced to live lonely lives of penury. Or the murder of women accused of witchcraft. Or the killing of albino people in order to eat their flesh, believed to bestow super powers. There are many, many others.
Such ignorance and superstition is one of the most important reasons the world desperately needs good education, and especially education in science. Science explains why superstitions and other misbeliefs are impossible and stupid. If you show someone living organisms in pond water they are less likely to blame their amoebic dysentery on magic.
So, there are people smart enough to plan space exploration or run governments, but then there are others…
In Texas (ah, Texas), a woman campaigning for the state school board believes in a whole raft of stupidities, among them: President Obama was a drug-addicted bisexual prostitute in his twenties; Muslims bribed textbook publishers to put Islamic propaganda in their books; Karl Marx started the global warming theory to topple capitalism; Planned Parenthood was behind terrorist shootings… And so on. There are a lot of people in the world who believe loony stuff like this, but not many might be in a position to put it, as well as their creationism beliefs and their favorite Bible passages, into school textbooks that could be used all over the US.
We are smart, we people. I believe much of what we call “stupidity” would vanish if everyone in the world reached the highest level of education they were capable of. But sheer intellectual power has not been enough to prevent the drastic decline of life on Earth, from global warming and species extinction caused by human activity, a decline that could in time make the planet barren and too hot for complex life.