There is a tendency in science fiction writing to assume that our civilization will progress far into the future, but that humanity will retain all its current flaws. That is, we will acquire increasingly advanced technology, but will never really evolve into creatures of greater intelligence with fewer of the social and emotional problems that cause conflict among us. How are we likely to evolve? Will we improve, stay the same, or get worse over the next few million years?
Are we destined to become a society of idiots with blasters and flying cars? Will we spend our time gossiping, watching the Kardashian girls take naked yoga lessons, going to see boxing robots, or going to the Jersey shore while robots do all the real work? Can we look forward to a life of leisure where everything is provided for us, so we have nothing better to do than act like a bunch of spoiled, lazy high school brats? How will this make us happier if we still have the same flaws as ever? Or will we become even more depressed without the distractions of work and family responsibility?
Statistics seem to show that suicide is on the rise worldwide, with a 60% increase in the past 45 years. It is natural to want to know why this is happening, but I prefer to ask a different question. Will this trend continue and, if so, how will it help or hurt our evolution as a species? Could suicide be a major evolutionary factor?
One of the core tenets of evolutionary theory is that those who are best adapted to their environment will thrive and those who are not well adapted will fail. Does that mean that suicide is another indication that a creature is maladapted to its environment and another way of strengthening the gene pool? If so, it is just a normal part of evolution and can be expected to continue indefinitely. Hopefully, I don’t get flamed for this, since suicide isn’t a trivial issue and it can be devastating to those left behind. But I still have to ask the questions anyway.
A recent study showed that African Americans had a far lower suicide rate than Caucasian Americans. Since African Americans have generally lower levels of wealth and opportunity, and poverty is correlated with lower levels of happiness, some have asked why suicide rates would be lower rather than higher. No, I’m not going to suggest that there is an inverse correlation between wealth and happiness. One theory is that the suicide rate is actually masked by a higher homicide rate, because many of the homicides may actually be suicides where the victim takes advantage of a dangerous environment to allow himself to be killed. At a minimum, the victim may simply disregard the risks of a situation because he just doesn’t care. If this is true, it follows that, as homicide rates decline within a community, thus reducing the opportunity for an easy way to die, intentional suicide rates will rise.
This seems plausible because there are other indications that suicide rates are masked by other forms of death. Deaths from single car accidents, where only one car is involved, increase at approximately the same times of the year that suicide rates increase. This correlation is significant because it indicates that people are intentionally killing themselves with their cars or engaging in uncharacteristically risky behavior.
In Scandinavia, where an obsession with safety has resulted in lower deaths from accidents, suicide rates are among the highest in the world. This is another possible indication that people kill themselves by other means rather than the traditional methods, which include firearms, hanging, suffocation, and poisoning.
If people commit suicide because they are not well adapted to their environment, then it follows that one way to reduce the suicidal tendency is to provide sufficient social mobility for people to move to a different environment to which they are better adapted. But social and physical mobility today is greater than it has ever been before. People are, in many cases, able to move from their home to a new city or country more easily and quickly than ever before. In addition, people can communicate with other like-minded people via the Internet more effectively than ever before. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense that suicide rates should go up rather than fall if they are more able to change their environment. Unless, greater connectivity provides an even greater feeling of isolation when we compare ourselves to our perceptions of everyone else.
Could it be that suicide rates increase with level of intelligence? If so, it might be a limiting factor in the evolution of our brains. Some studies do show a correlation between IQ level and suicide, but others show an inverse correlation between IQ and suicide. Some studies show that wealth is correlated with greater happiness and lower rates of suicide. A major study conducted in Sweden appears to indicate that people with mid-range IQs have higher suicide rates. Maybe they are smart enough to understand that there are opportunities available to intelligent people that are not available to those of low intelligence, but they just aren’t quite smart or skilled enough to take advantage of them.
In other words, people of low intelligence don’t know what they are missing, so they are happy with what they have, while people of the highest intelligence are generally more able to get what they want. Those in the middle with moderate intelligence fully understand what they are unable to obtain and don’t like it.
Oh, but we’re not done yet. There are more factors to consider. There also seems to be a correlation between lower national levels of fertility and higher rates of suicide. Countries such as Japan and Sweden have a very low birthrate and among the highest suicide rates. The United States and the rest of the industrialized world also have declining fertility rates and increasing suicide rates. It makes sense that people who have kids will feel a greater responsibility to stay alive to ensure their kids survive and thrive, a basic evolutionary trait of successful species.
Even though these are relatively wealthy countries, relative wealth does not seem to be a significant enough factor. While the United States is experiencing a growth in income disparity, Sweden and Japan both have a low rate of income disparity. So, we can’t necessarily say that it is just the have not’s within a society who are the ones more likely to be unhappy enough to kill themselves.
Of course, suicide also must have a lot to do with mood, and studies show that physical exercise improves mood and therefore feelings of overall happiness. I’m sure there are also associations between levels of physical fitness and wealth, nationality, and many other factors that need to be considered. Suicide prevention is really a complicated issue and is probably better addressed in other indirect ways. We can’t just stop an unhappy person from killing himself if he really wants to. Since men have much higher rates of suicide than women, I feel pretty comfortable using “he” instead of he or she.
When you look at what data are available, it isn’t possible to come to a certain conclusion. However, my gut feel is that the factors most likely to decrease suicide rates are wealth combined with high intelligence, physical fitness, and high social and geographic mobility, which may decrease the reasons to commit suicide, as well as high fertility, which may decrease one’s willingness to go through with suicide when the desire is there. The only problem is that the first four factors usually lead to low fertility rates (i.e. fewer kids). Slower population growth is better in terms of resource sustainability, but worse when it comes to suicide.
So, I think the bottom line is this. The intelligent, wealthy people will have less of a reason to commit suicide, but fewer offspring, so they will kill themselves when they feel like it. The unintelligent poor will keep reproducing at a higher rate, but will be less likely to kill themselves in large numbers because they are too busy working and taking care of their kids. Those in the middle will probably just self destruct or slowly disappear. This means that the outlook for a continued increase in overall human intelligence may be kind of low. Just when some of us start to get really smart, we get overtaken by the rest of the dumb masses.
It used to be that the smartest and most powerful people would and could reproduce prolifically, as in the case of Genghis Khan, who is estimated to be the direct genetic forefather of about half a percent of the world’s population. For all we know, the higher scores that Asians get on academic tests could even be traced directly back to the genes of that one brilliant Mongol conqueror himself! Of course, he was also responsible for the deaths of about 11 percent of the world’s population.
The solution? Intelligent, wealthy people should go back to the practices of our ancestors that served us so well. They should stop being monogamous and start spreading their seed around a lot more than they have been lately. We need to get that fertility rate up to help increase our happiness, decrease the suicide rate, and increase the overall level of human intelligence!
“Really, honey, I’m just thinking of the human race as a whole when I say I need to spread the wealth, and my genetics, around a bit more. We can’t possibly spend a billion dollar fortune now, can we? But if I had a couple hundred kids…. Can we do it for the human race? Sometimes you just have to sacrifice a little of yourself for the good of society.”
This theory has also inspired me to come up with some great new reality TV shows. Here are some suggestions: “Indecent Proposals of the Rich and Famous” or “Hollywood OBGYN” or “The Duggar Challenge,” or “The Billionaire Bunch.” Maybe Forbes will have a special issue covering the most prolific billionaires of the year.
The rich and powerful also had a tendency to wage a lot of wars and get a lot of their people killed, but I’m not saying we need to start killing more dumb people. They usually end up doing that to themselves anyway. As long as we don’t get too crazy with new safety regulations, and we reform tort laws so people can’t sue someone else when they do something really stupid, the dumbest of the dumb won’t survive long enough to worry about!