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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Brainiac

We’re getting dumber all the time

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

It’s easy to think of history as a march of progress, with humans growing smarter and more capable over time. But if you think about how evolution really works, Stanford biologist Gerald Crabtree argues in a new article in the journal Trends in Genetics, the march may be the opposite direction: We’re likely getting dumber.

Crabtree reasons that our intelligence and emotional stability would have developed “in a world where every individual was exposed to nature’s raw selective mechanisms on a daily basis.” Before agriculture and urban society, human beings would have lived or died on their spatial reasoning skills: Learning to build shelters and tools took serious intelligence. By comparison, many contemporary activities that we think of as more intellectually taxing, like doing math problems, are actually computationally simple. That’s why your phone can beat you at chess, but even the most advanced robots are bad at washing dishes.

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Now that evolutionary demands have slackened, so, perhaps, have our wits. Human intelligence must be mediated by many thousands of genes, he argues, and the more genes required, the more likely that some of them have mutated or been selected against over the millennia. (Crabtree’s essay is a speculation, not a finding—an experiment to prove it would be exceedingly challenging, given the potentially thousands of genes implicated and the difficulties of accurately sampling the DNA of our long-dead ancestors.)

The relatively stable societies we live in can make up for a lot of the resulting defects in thinking, he points out. “Community life would, I believe, tend to reduce the selective pressure placed on every individual, every day of their life,” he argues. “Indeed that is why I prefer to live in such a
society.”

Ugly, important, and hard to save

Perhaps surprisingly for such a historic city, Boston has an impressive architectural legacy in the mid-century modernist realm—Harvard’s Peabody Terrace and Gund Hall, BU’s law school building, MIT’s Green Building and Stratton Student Center, the Charlesview Apartments by the Harvard Coliseum. Its greatest monument may also be its most controversial: the massive icon of 1960s brutalism known as Boston City Hall, whose origins and legacy Leon Neyfakh wrote about in Ideas last February.

Mid-century modern architecture, especially the concrete variety, is dear to many a designer, but isn’t necessarily aging well. It can be especially hard on owners and occupants, who complain of drafty spaces, high heating costs, and crumbling exteriors.

Peabody Terrace, graduate student housing at Harvard designed in the 1960s by Josep Lluis Sert.

Bruner/Cott ARCHITECTS

Peabody Terrace, graduate student housing at Harvard designed in the 1960s by Josep Lluis Sert.

So what do you do with “a structure that’s disliked by its users and owners alike, yet may be judged to have historic value by preservationists or architects”? That’s the question raised in an ongoing series, Icon or Eyesore, at metropolismag.com.

In the series, a team of preservationist architects brought in to fix up the deteriorating BU law complex designed by one of their heroes, Josep Lluis Sert, quickly finds that “charged with defending and restoring landmark buildings that we once only knew from a distance, we had to tone down our reverence.”

By doing away with the elaborate flourishes of earlier styles, the architects of 20th-century concrete sought “to eliminate the ‘social evils’ of the past,” they write. But “building science took a backseat to aesthetic considerations for most mid-century American architects. Fossil fuels were cheap. Comfort standards were more forgiving than they are today.”

The result is a collection of respected, movement-defining buildings the region could be proud of for generations to come—if only the insulation worked and they didn’t cost so much to keep around.

Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, and McSweeney’s.
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