The Science News’ article, Don’t trust any elephant under 60, reveals factors elephants use to choose a leader. (Google [Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age].) Surely, their criterion applies to all animals including people. 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 female elephants hold the most sway in the herd. Elephant society is mostly matriarchal. Up until recently, we were more like elephants in our choice for a trustworthy leader. In hunter-gatherer times, the elders knew where the water holes were in times of drought and where other sources of food were in times of shortage. They knew more because they had experienced the ebb and flow of life longer. Experience was the source of knowledge.
Agriculture turned the tide
With the dawn of agriculture (c. 10,000 BCE), we began shifting away from our age-old nomadic way of life where elder knowledge was most valued. The settled life of agriculture favored “young, fit, and aggressive” intelligence over life experience. Brainpower was more suitable for agricultural, industrial, and technological progress. Ever since that shift, cognitive know-how over experiential know-why-when-where has become the most esteemed form of knowledge — especially in the last few centuries!
By valuing intelligence over wisdom, we are turning into a cultural of idiot savants to an extent, with each of us idiots filling some niche or other. (See Why Do Idiot Savants Run Things? ) This extends from science and technology at one end of expertise to sports and arts at the other end. Then there are all the other niches in between, whether lawyers, doctors or assembly line workers, to name a few. Specialization is the way life and modern economies function. Everyone today has a more or less specialized niche to fill, leaving each with some sense of separation. The principle risk in this is the increasing focus we have on short-term gains. Unlike elephants, we are effectively choosing the “young, fit, and aggressive” to lead the way. Chapter 16’s admonition woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant is even more relevant now than when it was first written 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 mess we find ourselves in. I could only imagine we would evolve in some discrete way to bring us into a better balance with nature. Our path, born of our desire for ever-increasing progress, has to be a dead end evolutionarily speaking. However, after learning more about the conditions required for genetic evolution (e.g., genetic bottleneck), that scenario seems very unlikely. That brought me to look elsewhere for humanity’s salvation.
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 Ethics: Do They Work Anymore?, p.594.) As the centuries roll by, life expectancy will continue to increase. Life is a learning process; the longer you live, the better your chances of acquiring wisdom. It’s true for elephants; it’s true for us. As chapter 51 says, Circumstances bring them to maturity. Sure, that’s no guarantee. How much one learns depends on the quality of the student. Nevertheless, the odds improve overall.
In addition, as global living standards rise, the birth rate declines. Altogether, this means the global median age is bound to rise even more rapidly. Today the median age in the USA is about 37. When they signed the Declaration of Independence two centuries ago, the median age was just 16 and not much different from the time of Christ. Interestingly, much of Africa is now at this stage, but bolstered by advances in medicine and public health, that should rise rapidly.
Is there a silver lining or not?
Surprisingly, when I mention this silver lining idea, people remain skeptical. I ask them whether they are wiser now than in their youth. Invariably, they say yes and yet don’t seem able to extend that process, in principle, to humanity as a whole. This is likely due to our innate bias to think the worst when in doubt. It could also be symptomatic of ego bias… we feel we can grow wiser in time, yet doubt others can. In addition, it takes wisdom to recognize wisdom. In other words, “It takes one to know one”, so maybe it is still too early to broach this theory.
In any case, this silver lining shift will happen gradually in a two-steps forward, one-step backwards process because the “young, fit and aggressive” will always be pushing for progress. In addition, humanity is at the very beginning of this shift. After all, the median age hadn’t changed much from the first civilizations up to a few hundred years ago with the advent of better sanitation and medical breakthroughs.
It is ironic that our species’ salvation will come about through our species ‘sins’. I mean, it is only by the willful innovation of science and technology that we can increase our species lifespan enough to find the wisdom to not willfully innovate while ignorant of the constant (#16). Rather than endlessly pursue progress, more people will know it is better to have stopped in time, as chapter 9 puts it. Elephants need only reach 60. Humans, being a more ‘intelligent’ species, may need to reach twice that age before being able to appreciate what chapter 43 hints…
That is why I know the benefit of resorting to no action.
The teaching that uses no words,
The benefit of resorting to no action,
These are beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world.
Who knows, perhaps we’ll even be able to…
Bring it about that the people will return to the use of the knotted rope,
Will find relish in their food,
And beauty in their clothes,
Will be content in their abode,
And happy in the way they live. #80
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