Intensifying “selection pressures”  from the Internet and other aspects of modern life may be separating people into two broad cultures — the cognitively strong and the cognitively weak

A dystopian thought experiment:

Suppose you have a population of people, each of whom has a unique set of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  Some have high IQs, and some have low IQs.  Some have outstanding executive functions – self-awareness, self-control, foresight, capacity for persevering with tasks despite pain or distraction – while some are foolish and impulsive.  Some have acute emotional and social intelligence; some are autistic.  And for each of these measures of cognition, there is a normal distribution from low performance to medium to high.

Now suppose that each person’s mix of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is what largely determines – over time – his or her socioeconomic status.  Also suppose that people tend to marry within their socioeconomic status.  And suppose that their offspring get their own cognitive traits via genetic inheritance, quality of education and general upbringing — in such a way that two “high-cog” parents tend to produce higher-cog children, and two “low-cog” parents tend to produce lower-cog children.

Under those assumptions, the “middle class” here will eventually be depopulated, as the rich get richer and the poor, poorer – both in terms of financial assets and cognitive capacity.  As that financial and cognitive separation widens, the high-cogs and the low-cogs presumably will start separating into two cultures, allowing their cognitive and financial separation to happen even faster.

People often complain that something like this has been happening, at least in socioeconomic terms.  The “demise of the middle class” is practically a cliche nowadays.  And as the following chart shows, there is an income gap that started widening after the early-1980s recession.  By now the top 1% of earners take close to a quarter of total income, while the top 10% take half.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how technology such as the Internet can have, on balance, different effects on different people, depending on their cognitive skills.  I seem much more productive now in the Internet age than I did in the early and mid 1990s, but I also waste so much time reading the news, e-mails, and so on, and seem to have so little attentional capacity left for books or other longer-term pursuits, that I wonder if on balance I am better off.  Some other people are, on balance, unquestionably worse off.  I have seen the web essentially take over people’s lives — i-cafes in some places I have travelled have been full of people who, like drug addicts, seem ready to spend everything they have to stay online playing World of Warcraft or whatever it is that hooks them so.  (Elsewhere I have speculated about different effects of media technology on different ethnic groups, which in some cases do have different addiction susceptibilities for genetic reasons.)

My suspicion, in any case, is that the Internet and some other recent developments are speeding up the socioeconomic separation process — here in the US and presumably elsewhere — essentially by (on balance) helping the high-cogs and hurting the low-cogs.

Evolving Prefrontally

This is all speculative, especially because (I believe) no one does the neuropsychological sampling needed to support/disconfirm this hypothesis, and a randomized, controlled experiment would be problematic for a number of reasons.  But let me explain why I think my idea is plausible and even likely.

The three broad cognitive domains I mentioned at the beginning are largely – and especially for executive functions and emotional intelligence – mediated by the prefrontal cortex.  The “PFC” is like a manager atop the rest of the brain, modulating its activity in accordance with the tremendously complex goals of a human being living in an advanced society.  It dials down the fear or anger responses that, in a lower animal, would make modern social life impossible.  It inhibits impulses to chase short-term pleasures that we know (that it knows) will destroy us in the long term; it lets us feel to some extent how we would feel if those long-term consequences came about.  It keeps us focussed on things despite distractions that would hopelessly derail even the smartest chimp.  It dials up pleasure and motivational circuits as needed to fulfill culturally defined goals — and thus, in our Western culture, helps us to be ambitious and self-disciplined to a degree that would have astounded a caveman.  Parts of it also appear to mediate the high social and emotional sensitivity we need to steer ourselves successfully in an environment made hugely complex by the presence of other people.

Unsurprisingly, the PFC seems to be the most uniquely human part of the brain.  In us it seems much more extensively wired into the rest of the brain than it is in other great apes; among non-great-ape primates it is relatively undeveloped; and outside primates it hardly exists (though dolphins are suspected to have evolved a similar executive capacity in other brain structures).

In an apparent reflection of its late evolution, it undergoes a key developmental phase from human puberty and adolescence into early adulthood.  Its basic performance is influenced by genetics, but because it is still developing — and thus very malleable — even beyond childhood, upbringing and societal culture can affect it tremendously.  A separation between lower-cognition and higher-cognition hominids, driven by genetic and cultural factors and centered on PFC functions, could have been the key event that led to the speciation of H. sapiens in the first place.  (Neanderthals, for example, apparently had significantly less developed PFCs than early humans.)

The evolvability of PFC-dependent executive functions has also been invoked to explain even the very recent divergence of Western and other economies.  Gregory Clark, a respected economic historian at the University of California at Davis, reported evidence that the Industrial Revolution in England was preceded, made possible, and probably driven by cognitive changes in the English population:

[During 1250-1800 in England] economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success.  The richest men had twice as many surviving children as the poorest.  The poorest individuals in Malthusian England had so few surviving children that their families were dying out.  Preindustrial England was thus a world of constant downward mobility.  Given the static nature of the Malthusian economy, the superabundant children of the rich had to, on average, move down the social hierarchy in order to find work…  The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism – patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education – were thus spreading biologically through the population. [p. 7-8, my italics]

Clark doesn’t get into the neurobiology of this, but the attributes he lists are largely mediated by the PFC.  And by implication in Clark’s argument these attributes did not spread very quickly, or at all, through the populations of less settled societies, particularly the societies still stuck in hunter-gatherer mode and frequently roiled by tribal conflicts, genocides, etc.  According to Clark, even within relatively settled and sophisticated agrarian societies, such China’s and Japan’s, modern cognitive attributes did not spread through the population as rapidly as they did in England, for the simple Darwinian reason that the fertility gap between rich and poor was small or nonexistent in those other societies.

Right here, of course, we can see a big difference between my notion and Clark’s (aside from the difference that mine is rather off the cuff and his seems scholarly and rigorous).  Clark sees a more Darwinian dynamic in which selection pressures cause fertility differences in favor of higher-performance cognitive traits, resulting in the extinction or near-extinction of low-performance traits.  In my hypothesized system, selection pressures are not driving the spread of some traits and the extinction of others; they are driving the separation of those traits – with their carriers – into two different cultures.  (Does evolutionary theory yet include this distinction between fertility/extinction effects and separation effects?  Unfortunately, I am not well-read enough to know.)  In fact, the process I think is happening can’t come from a Darwinian extinction effect, because in the modern world (unlike in medieval England) fertility is higher among the poorer and less-educated.

In the animal world, a separation of two groups within a species is a prelude to the emergence of separate species or subspecies.  Fortunately, we are nowhere near that point, but in principle, a cognitive separation such as I have imagined would involve a genetic drift apart, perhaps involving the same genes for PFC and other neural development whose modification or duplication were required for the emergence of modern humans.

Three Drivers

As I suggested in a quick sketch at the beginning, in a free society without pronounced redistributive effects there might be a natural tendency for low-cogs and high-cogs to separate.  In practice there obviously are redistributive effects.  Rich parentage and easy gratification may produce weak-PFC’d Paris Hiltons as often as chip-off-the-old-block Ivanka Trumps.  Many athletes and celebrities probably make it to the upper socioeconomic ranks not for high-performance PFCs but for relatively low-performance PFCs that allow their kinetic or emotive skills to work uninhibited (which could help explain why they and their children seem so susceptible to addictions).  Similarly, physical beauty has presumably been popping up spontaneously at all ranks of society for time immemorial, slowing the march of cognitive evolution by re-inserting lower-cog traits into the beauty-hungry upper classes.

But there are aspects of the modern environment that I suspect are exerting particularly strong selection/separation pressure these days, so that the balance may be tipped in favor of a fast cognitive separation.  One is the advancement of technology, including the Internet and IT, which requires workers or owner/managers to have greater and greater technical know-how, and thus to endure a longer, more expensive and more arduous period of education.  It is very difficult to get through all that education and thrive in a high-tech career without having a relatively high-functioning PFC at the outset.

Another big factor, I think, is law enforcement, which swiftly and more or less permanently separates young people who have impulse control problems from the rest of society — or at least from high-cog society.  I can see how capital punishment in the pre-modern period – along with more immediately fatal consequences of impulsive behaviors – would have reduced the incidence of impulsives and sociopaths in the population in a direct and Darwinian manner.  However, modern law enforcement probably has an even greater effect, obviously not by killing impulsive people or even by reducing their fertility very much, but instead by forcing their socioeconomic separation from the high-cog world.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that about two percent of the U.S. Caucasian population and nine percent of the African-American population is currently under “correctional supervision,” i.e., in jail, on parole, or on probation.  Historically even the 2% number is huge – and remember that the vast majority of felons are males, so the percentages of white and black males under correctional supervision are nearly double those figures.  These very high and increasing numbers might well reflect the accelerating downward mobility of low-cog people in modern society.

Yet another strong selection pressure in modern life comes from the increasingly addictive products of the modern marketplace, from electronic media content to high-fat foods to crystal meth.  Such products might not be addictive to all users in a neurophysiological sense.  But addiction research has made clear over the past decade or so that some people are very susceptible to addiction.  Even a little exposure hooks them and they may find it impossible to quit until they run out of resources or die – which is basically what one sees in addiction experiments with lab animals.  (Again, note that the Internet and new media tech generally represent a double-edged sword in this sense — an extreme productivity enhancer to the Brins and Pages and Zuckerbergs of the world, but on balance distracting and counterproductive to many of the rest of us.)

There are a number of gene variants that have been linked to these high addiction susceptibilities, but one function that many of them seem to have in common is to weaken the PFC’s inhibition of limbic cravings and impulses.  In effect, these variants largely disconnect the more advanced, judicious, thoughtful, long-term-thinking part of our brains so that the impulsive part can run wild.  So to that extent, products that can addict and (in so doing) impair people’s ability to function within or break into the high-cog world will exert a selection pressure on low-cog, weak-PFC people — and of course will enhance, by their revenues, the performance of the (presumed) high-cogs who sell these addictive products.  Even the seemingly moderate influence of Internet and other electronic media in reducing people’s attention spans is probably going to be relevant – to the extent that one needs a long attention span to thrive in the high-cog world.

Again, this is all somewhat speculative; but as the influence of the Internet and other new media tech deepens; and as accelerating technological development makes it harder and harder for low-cogs to get educated sufficiently to be economically productive; and as the criminal justice system jails a greater percentage of the population; it should become all too obvious whether or not a cognitive separation is under way.

What would it take to prevent this dystopian extreme?  I’m being even more speculative now, but probably a much better, and free, nationwide K-12 education, which emphasizes PFC performance — and repeatedly tests for it (so that hypotheses like mine don’t have to be so speculative!).  Perhaps also a heavy imposition (somehow, despite our libertarian leanings) of high-cog values on families so that children are not ruined before they even get to school.  Maybe also some kind of mandatory National Service for teens or young adults – if we could ever agree on how it would be directed.  In general, there should be a focus on the supreme importance of culture — which as a multi-ethnic, immigrant-dependent society we tend not only to neglect but to deny.  I’m not suggesting that we turn ourselves into an economic Sparta; I think we should set our own humane goals and avoid trying to engage in mindless competition with China et al for higher GDP growth.  But if our culture doesn’t help us all to develop better cognitive skills, we’ll eventually be useless for any high purpose.


Postscript (12-05-10):

Ben Bernanke on 60 Minutes, 12-05-10:  “[Rising inequality in the U.S. is] a very bad development,” he said. “It’s creating two societies. And it’s based very much, I think, on educational differences….  It leads to an unequal society, and a society which doesn’t have the cohesion that we’d like to see.”

Another postscript (01-05-11):

Apparently someone else has had an idea very much like this, and has just published it in a book — We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess.  A newspaper column that helpfully plugged the book noted that the author, Dan Akst, refers to America’s “aristocracy of self-control” — basically what I call the high-cogs.