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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Humans, a species in decline

7 Dec 2023

I've written before about the devolution of mankind but it's time for an update.

Religion aside, the vast majority of people understand that life on earth has been shaped by the forces behind evolution.

Each particular form of life has changed and adapted to its environment in a way that makes it better suited to that environment and thus able to thrive.

As the planet has changed over thousands of millennia, so has the life that inhabits it. Those forms of life which have been unable to evolve at the necessary pace have fallen along the wayside and become extinct.

This is the way of nature and the ultimate result of this is that mankind has risen to become the most intelligent of all life forms -- but have we peaked?

Have we become so advanced that we're sidestepping the forces of evolution to such an extent that we are already a species in decline?

Up until the last few hundred years, our genome has been constantly shaped and updated through the "survival of the fittest" -- the key driving force behind evolutionary change.

Those individuals who are less well adapted to their environment tend to die young, often before puberty so that they do not get a chance to pass their sub-optimal genes onto another generation -- or at least that's the way it used to be. However, since we have discovered ways to extend the lives of the unfortunate, we're seeing the gene-pool being diluted with afflictions that would previously have simply died out due to this natural selection process.

Something that, a mere 100 years ago, would have seen someone die in well before their teenage years can now often be threated well enough that such individuals are able to live much longer, marry, have kids and pass on the genetic flaws that would previously have consigned them to an early death.

From the perspective of the individual, this is a great thing. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live as long a life as is possible and to experience all the joys that such life can bring.

However, from the perspective of the resilience of the species, we're ankle-tapping our future by halting, or even reversing the effects of the very evolutionary process that got us to where we are today.

This is of course a huge moral and ethical dillema. Do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few?

Casting aside the physical aspects of this devolutionary process, recent news seems to indicate that we're not only becoming physically less suited to our environment but now we're also getting stupider.

Yes, we're now measuring a global decline in standards of math, science and language -- the very skills that have enabled us to become a technological society that has delivered so many benefits to all.

No doubt a great deal of this can be contributed to the effects of pandemic lockdowns which upset the schooling of a whole generation -- but are there deeper causes at play also?

We know that all aspects of the human body will atrophy and weaken if not exercised. We need regular exercise to avoid our muscles wasting away and likewise our brains need constant stimulation and use if we're not to lose at least some of our ability to reason and think effectively. There's plenty of proof of this in the many studies on dementia. Those who remain intellectually engaged with social interactions and hobbies are far less likely to suffer cognitive impairment as they age because an active brain is a healthy brain.

Sadly however, we've become a very passive society in recent years. Many people, especially school-aged ones, are solely consumers of content -- happy to watch endless hours of Tiktok, YouTube, Netflix or other online content, often with little in the way of hobbies or other social interactions. Then we have a society which seems to be removing the need or desire for critical thinking. "Just do what you're told and everything will be fine" appears to be the directives coming from authorities and governments.

Don't worry... there's no need to think for yourself, big brother will take care of all that for you, just grab your phone and watch some more reels or shorts.

Could this lack of cerebral engagement be partly to blame for the decline in the cognitive and reasoning ability of our kids?

I know the same thing was said about TV when it was first introduced and, to be honest, I think there has been some truth to that. It's my honest opinion that having a television set in the living rooms of most homes in the Western world effectively desensitised us all to crime and violence in such a way that we now accept daily murders as "just a part of life". That surely wasn't the case when I was a kid -- murders were so few and far between that they were massive front-page news for weeks whenever they (infrequently) occurred.

So do we, as a species, simply have to accept that we're the victims of our own evolutionary success and that, as with most things in nature, we're part of a cycle; a cycle that could see us falter and stumble as we ankle-tap ourselves into the future?

Carpe Diem folks!

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