Would Humanity Be Better Without The Big Brains?

“If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal,” a new book, suggests we “reconsider our ‘unshakeable belief’ that intelligence, however we define it, is a good thing.”  From it we have gained fear of death, the ability to lie, war, and perhaps “’… our own extinction, which is exactly how evolution gets rid of adaptations that suck.’” 

Evolution, of course, has no intentions behind it.  Adaptations that enable organisms to survive better will be propagated, those that hinder survivability will die with their species, and some just hang around.  Humans’ big brains evolved because thought processes helped our ancestors harness the conditions of nature.  

As it happens, apparently, those processes also brought cognizance, and just maybe some extra capacity for abstract impulses that just might lie at the root of curiosity, greed, ambition, wonder, and creativity.  From these capacities we have an ability to understand something of our circumstances.  Life, per the Buddha, is suffering, or in the author’s words: “’animals … do not suffer as much as we do for the simple reason that they cannot imagine their deaths.’” 

Could we have had the instrumental capacities of the brain without the extra impulses?  Maybe or maybe not, so far as we can tell.  But whether our emotions, creativity, greed, and other impulses are necessary by-products or superfluous tag-alongs, we have them.

Taking ourselves as we are, humans do have the ability to understand the dangers that we create for ourselves and the idea of immorality that applies to some of our impulses.  We can draw inferences: Have our brains out-industrialized our planet’s capacity to support us?  Should we govern ourselves to suppress some of our impulses?  

We alone on this planet can formulate questions and imagine answers.  Like anything else, we likely cannot know the ultimate answers – is there meaning to life?  Do ultimate truths exist?  Is there value in this capacity?

America conceived itself on the premise of unalienable rights of all humans.  Rights only have value if humans have impulses beyond the needs of physical survival.  We hold the truth of those rights as self-evident – which is the definition of an article of faith.  This faith (which is not necessarily tied to or in conflict with any faith of ultimate Truth, i.e. religious faith) implies a faith that something about free will, those extra unexplained impulses of the brain, brings some sort of value to existence.  Is this a reasonable article of faith to hold?  

More to the point, can the idea survive, that people must have their rights?  Should they, and a number of our impulses, be suppressed for the sake of the endurance of our species?  Let us assume – and it is a huge assumption – that we can know which impulses should be suppressed, and that suppression is necessary for survival.  Would survival at the cost of that ‘something more’ in our psyches have value?  

We probably cannot answer this last question  – “value” is a construct of those same impulses in question and we may be wired to want them left in place.  We are committed, then, as an article of faith, rights and freedom.  Americans are explicitly committed to them by our self-conception, as a “People” identified only by our holding of the truths of universal and equal endowment of the unalienable rights, and that governments are created to secure them.  

Nietzsche was not a narwhal, and none of us can be.  America was created so that humans can utilize those paradoxical, magical, and vexing brains to the fullest.  We may face truly Herculean challenges to ensure our survival, and we may be making the effort all the harder by insisting on our freedoms.  But we have no choice.


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