Friday, June 5, 2009

Beware of rampant stupidity


Jewish date:  13 Siwan 5769.

Today’s quasi-holiday:  World Environment Day.

Worthy cause of the day:  “Stand with Obama: Support a Public Health Insurance Option” and “Tell Sarah Palin: Don't Reject Energy Efficiency Funds!”

Relevant to Divine Misconceptions:
  1. More intolerance:  “Ahmadiyah mosque fire was arson, say police”.
  2. “Church's cash handout part of `faith stimulus'”:  This is an interesting tactic.  There is more to charity/ṣedhaqah than merely dropping money in a box, jar, or basket.  Giving the congregants money to give to people in need themselves helps get them into directly helping other people.
  3. Pointless governmental bureaucracy getting in the way of freedom of religion:  “SD County: Couple needs permit to hold Bible study at home”.
    funny pictures of cats with captions
    This, of course, is a joke.  However, I know that the association between black cats and evil goes back long before Basement Cat and LOLcats in general.  Does anyone out there have any idea how this idea got started?
Today’s news and commentary:
Today’s weird thing is submitted by Malcolm NC-17 and included below.  Enjoy and share the weirdness.


Movie Review:  Idiocracy (2006)
4/4 Stars
Few people in the United States actually understand evolution.  Coverage of the topic is spotty in public education and many people, often fundamentalist Christians, vocally oppose any decent discussion of the topic.  Science fiction might be a venue for discussing the topic but generally fails in this respect.  For example, Mimic (1997) had the intriguing concept of insects evolving into something which resembles humans but failed to give any reason for why they would do so.  It’s little wonder that perhaps the greatest popularizer of evolution in recent years has been the late Stephen Jay Gould; he’s had little competition.
It is therefore surprising that one of the best movies to deal with evolution in recent years is Idiocracy.  One of the writers is Mike Judge (creator of Beavis and Butt-head) and the premise is disturbingly simple.  Intelligent people tend to have few children, while stupid people tend to have many children.  As a result, over successive generations, the population tends to have an increasingly large proportion of stupid people.  The protagonist of the film is put into an experimental hibernation chamber, and when he awakes 500 years later, the level of intelligence in the population has dropped to the point where he is the smartest person on the planet.
The premise makes an excellent starting point for discussing the basic principles of evolution.  Any decent discussion will note four principles:
1) variation (organisms are different from each other)
2) selection (the environment makes it more likely for some organisms to survive than others)
3) reproduction (organisms make more organisms and pass on their characteristics)
4) mutation (new characteristics sometimes appear)
Mutation was not addressed in the film, but the others were.  The film notes that humans vary quite a bit on an important characteristic:  intelligence.  In earlier times, intelligence was important for survival and success in the environment; people who could not adapt to its challenges would die and have fewer children.  However, in the current situation, there environment humans live in has been restructured so intelligence is no longer as important.  People who earlier would have been easy prey would now survive.  In other words, the selective pressures that favored intelligence no longer exist.  (Something similar happens to the Eloi in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.)  And, as these less-intelligent people also reproduced more, the conclusion naturally follows that in the future humans will be much stupider.
That’s not to say that our species actually is doomed to stupidity.  The premise can be reasonably disputed at every point.  One serious objection (which has been hotly debated in psychology) is over how genetically based intelligence is.  Obviously there is some genetic basis; humans are genetically different from other species and no other species is known to have the same intellectual abilities as humans.  However, “intelligence” is a broad, poorly defined term, and much of what it covers may be strongly influenced by the environment.  Furthermore, the movie depicts the society propped up with technology that allows people to continue functioning despite their stupidity.  (For example, there is a scene at a hospital where the person manning the admissions desk at a hospital merely presses a button with a picture on it to record the medical issue, much like orders are taken at some fast-food restaurants.)  Arguably as humans get stupider, technology
will ultimately fail and intelligence will once again be selected for because all the stupid people will starve and die.  Indeed, the movie may be argued to be making this point as, because of their stupidity, the future humans are shown threatening their own existence.  Even the relationship between intelligence and number of children may be disputed, and in some countries which properly support people having children (e.g., Israel), people with greater education may actually be the ones having more children.  Regardless, even these questionable points are housed within a decent understanding of evolution and may make an excellent starting point from which to discuss the topic.
If you haven’t heard of this movie, you shouldn’t be surprised as it was barely promoted.  The connection with evolution probably was not the reason as the word “evolution” does not occur in the movie and it’s not likely people who don’t understand evolution in the first place (most people) would recognize it anyway.  More likely is the movie’s highly critical tone towards commercialism and popular culture.  The future culture is the worst of today’s taken to its logical conclusion, with everyone becoming vulgar and profane and interested mostly in sex and immediate pleasures.  Popular entertainment is degenerated to its lowest forms, not only outright pornography, but also plotless suffering and crudity (there is a program with nothing but a man being repeatedly hurt in a manner popular in clips on America’s Funniest Home Videos, as well as an award-winning movie which consists only of a single, long shot of someone’s buttocks).  Commercialism has run rampant, including advertisements being prominently displayed in the House of Representatives.  The warping of real life to commercial interests becomes so dangerous that it becomes an important plot point when it threatens human life itself.  Everything, of course, is played for laughs, but the satire is of a deep and biting nature, something of the order of what’s found in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  It’s not hard to see some humorless executives somewhere, seeing their reason for being mercilessly attacked, resulting in a few polite phone calls and  only those actions absolutely required by contracts being done to promote the film.
And that’s a pity.  Most of what passes for satire these days is not.  There’s certainly a lot of “parodies” out there with a lot of profanity and stupid stuff in them, usually with “Movie” in the title, and none of them are worth anything.  Idiocracy certainly has its share of vulgarity, but to a very different effect.  It rails against crudeness and  shows vividly the results of stupidity, making the argument against them with both intelligence and humor.  And it is extremely funny, with lots of laughs coming from genuinely funny situations instead of the “shock” laughs common in the “Movie” movies.  Prudish people may be reasonably concerned about a movie in which the name of the restaurant Fuddruckers morphs over time into a rather obvious profanity, but for an amazingly smart film that is actually food for thought, it is more than worth it.  See this film immediately.
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