Well actually it’s “Don’t trust any elephant under 60“. This Science News’ article is about elephants, but it applies to people, and all species I’d imagine.
Our choices for what to look for in a leader runs the gamut, as this excerpt from the Science News’ article puts it:
“There is an interesting trade-off here, which certainly applies to humans and maybe elephants as well,” van Vugt says. “The group might want a young, fit and aggressive leader to defend the group — the Schwarzenegger type — but at the same time might want an older, more experienced leader — the Merkel type — to make an accurate assessment of the dangers in the situation.”
Though the article doesn’t say so explicitly, it infers that the elder matriarchs hold sway in the herd. Up until recently we were more like elephants in our choices for whom to trust more to know the score. The elders knew where the water holes where in times of drought, where the game was, etc., in our hunter-gatherer days. They had experienced the ebb and flow of life longer, enabling them a better view of the big picture.
Agriculture turned the tide
Then, with the advent of agriculture (c. 10,000 b.c.e.) we began shifting away from our age-old nomadic life style where elder knowledge was the more valued asset. Our new settled life style gave the edge to “young, fit and aggressive” intelligence more suited to ‘progress’: first in agricultural, then industrial, now in technological. Ever since then, know-how, over know-why-when-where, has become the more esteemed—especially in the last few centuries!
By valuing intelligence over wisdom we are turning into a culture of idiot savants, to some extent. This trends from one end of expertise (science and technology) to the other (sports and arts), and everything in between, whether lawyers, doctors or assembly line workers, to name a few. Everyone today has a more or less specialize niche to fill. Specialization is the way modern economies and life function. The principle danger in this approach is an increasing focus on short term singular gains(1). Unlike elephants, we are effectively choosing the “young, fit and aggressive” to lead the way. This makes the admonition, ‘woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant‘, so much more relevant now than when it was first writing down some 2500 years ago.
In time the tide will turn again
For decades I wondered how our species would ever get out of the overall ‘jam’ we find ourselves in. I could only imagine we would evolve in some discrete way to bring us more into balance with nature. Our path, born of our desire for ever increasing ‘progress’ has got to be a dead end, in my view. Upon learning more thoroughly about the conditions required for genetic evolution (bottle-neck, etc.) made that scenario most unlikely. That got me to look even more deeply.
About a decade ago, it occurred to me that humanity’s salvation lies in the fact that the median age of the population is steadily increasing (see, “There may be a silver lining” at the bottom of this post on Ethics). In another century or so people will be living far longer. Life is a learning process; the longer you are alive, the better your chances of learning something significant. It’s true for elephants; it’s true for us. Of course that’s no guarantee. While circumstances are the teacher, how much is learned all comes down to the quality of the student. Nevertheless, the odds improve overall.
Then also, as living standards rise worldwide, the birth rate declines. Altogether, this means the global median age is bound to rise even more rapidly. Today the median age in USA is about 37. When the Declaration of Independence was signed two centuries ago the median age was just 16, not much different from that at the time of Christ. Interestingly much of Africa is now at this level, but bolstered by advances in medicine and public health that should change rapidly.
It there a silver lining or not?
Surprisingly (to me anyway), whenever I mention this silver lining idea, people remain unconvinced. I ask them if they are not wiser now in their youth. Almost without exception, they will say yes, and yet don’t seem able to extend that process, in principle, to the humanity as a whole. That odd disconnect stumps me a little. Maybe this is symptomatic of the ego: While we know we become wiser in time, we doubt others do.
Of course, it is doubtful that many will notice any overall transition of humanity to the maturing effects of an increasing median age. It takes some wisdom to value, look for and recognize wisdom. This whole shift will likely come gradually in a “two steps forward and one step backwards” process. The fact that the “young, fit and aggressive” are currently leading the way makes it even harder to notice. Then also, we are very early into this trend. After all, the median age hadn’t changed much at all from the time of Christ up until a few hundred years ago with the advent of better sanitation and medical breakthroughs.
It is somewhat ironic that our species’ salvation will likely come about through our species’ sins. Meaning that only through scientific and technological advances can we increase our lifespan enough to find the wisdom to not willfully innovate while ignorant of the constant. Rather than endlessly pursue ‘progress’, we’ll know it is better to have stopped in time. Elephants need only reach 60; being a more ‘intelligent’ species, we may need to reach twice that or more before we can do this. Perhaps we’ll even be able to…