About a month ago I reopened an old writing project of mine that I had been neglecting for far too long. In this project, I had been examining the effect of stupidity on what we have come to view as the “great events of human history.” The following is adapted from the “Introduction” to what I hope will become my magnum opus: A History of Stupidity.
Before we can begin to objectively study the history of stupidity it is necessary to first define what stupidity is, if undertaking such a task is not in and of itself stupid.
Barbara Tuchman, the eminent historiographer of the Twentieth Century, once defined human folly as “… the pursuit of a course of action that is inconsistent with one’s own best interests …” This volume will acknowledge her definition as universal (once, of course, “human folly” is changed to read “human stupidity), but will also seek to explain why stupidity appears to be so prevalent in human endeavor.
That stupidity exists is not an issue. As Tuchman so eloquently points out, its existence is historical fact: “Why did the Trojans bring that suspicious-looking horse into the city gates despite having every reason to suspect a Greek trick? … Why did Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler, invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor?” There are, of course, so many other documented examples of stupidity that it would futile to try to list them individually.
Accepting the existence of stupidity, the task then becomes to answer the not-too-simple question: why is there stupidity? Is stupidity innate within the human genetic code or is it, like air pollution and landfills, a byproduct of civilization?
If we are to explain stupidity as a matter of biological inheritance rather than a learned behavior, we must first put forth an explanation regarding how such a trait, one that would apparently offer no survival or reproductive advantage, has managed to avoid extinction over the millennia. In other words why, or how, did our stupid ancestors survive for untold generations rather than going belly up as a species? There are several competing explanations.
One theory holds that stupidity is indeed inherited, although it remains latent from birth and requires some external stimulus or “trigger event” before it is capable of overtly manifesting itself in social interactions. In other words, stupidity is ever-present and is but “a smoldering ember waiting to burst into a bonfire.”
A competing theory holds that although stupidity is far from latent in humans, it can sometimes be suppressed or at least temporarily concealed from others. This theory is attractive from a biological perspective because it easily explains how stupid people appear to be capable of hiding their innate stupidity from potential mating partners, at least until the gene is passed on to yet another generation.
Yet another theory of stupidity is the Infectious Agent Theory, which holds that although stupidity itself is not genetically transmissible the organism responsible for both acute episodes of stupidity and chronic, or relapsing, stupidity is highly contagious and is capable of surviving outside a human host for a period of several years, if not decades. This theory is attractive because it explains why 1) outbreaks of stupidity are practically never isolated events but tend to occur in clusters and 2) why merely visiting the scene of some previous outbreak of stupidity can induce other cases of stupidity to develop. Unfortunately, there appears to be no evidence that one attack of stupidity confers long-lasting immunity to the disease process.
Competing with the biological, or “unnatural selection,” hypotheses are several theories that are loosely grouped into what are known as “Creation Stupidity” or “Intelligently Designed Stupidity.”
Although such theories have been by and large discredited, it was believed for many years that stupidity was of supernatural origin, although there was considerable debate regarding whether or not an omnipotent, Supreme Being would be capable of creating stupidity. Most recently the former position, also known as the Donation by Benevolent Deity Dogma of Stupidity, was summarized by Pope John Paul II, who stated his belief that “… stupidity is a gift of God to man and must therefore not to be abused.” This is contrasted by the Deistic Impotence in the Face of Stupidity Doctrine, espoused by the 19th-Century theologian Friedrich von Schiller, which holds that “… against stupidity, even the Gods Themselves struggle in vain.”
The task before us, to understand the origins of stupidity, is indeed daunting and may itself be a stupid venture. But let us take heart in the words of the great WC Fields who, speaking allegorically, once said “It is time to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”