As you must be aware, if you've been following columnists, bloggers, reporters, and TV talking heads, the past few years have been punctuated by hundreds of commentaries about the "decline" of America and its influence. That decline is real. But it's almost always described as a relative weakening of the US. as an international political and economic player. A lot of it is explained as due to the rise of China as an economic power, or of India as a cheaper competitor in the realm of medical and high-tech jobs, or of Korea and Taiwan in heavy industry.
Not mentioned is the possibility that the declining physical and mental fitness of individual Americans may be a primary determinant of how well our kids are doing in math and science, compared with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or European kids (and increasingly with ambitious kids in 150 other countries). High numbers of young Americans are fat, clueless (they can name more airhead celebrities than great scientists or inventors), and often lacking in any sense of purpose. Why are we alive? Is a young American's goal in life to have all the right brands of shoes and clothes, and to make at least $500,000 a year in slick financial services or drugs or weight-loss schemes that don't require working up any sweat?
This is now a critical question, because anyone having that kind of dream (or illusion) is headed for a crash. Politicians like to speechify about the "American dream," but that dream is now a tragic delusion. When the majority of a country's people are personally passive or weak (as perhaps as many as 200 million Americans are), their country is headed for a fall.
How can I say this with any assurance? I'm not a prophet of doom, by any means. But I've had long experience in two fields that come together in a critical way: the physical and mental endurance of humans as individuals, and the long-run sustainability of human civilization. I've been a competitive endurance runner for the past 56 years, and I've worked as an editor for environmental scientists for most of those years. And I'm familiar with a phenomenon of human history that isn't given much attention in our educational institutions but really should be: that the great regional civilizations of the past have often collapsed because their leaders were unaware of certain basic principles of sustainability that our scientists are familiar with. Now we have not a regional but a global civilization, and it is increasingly vulnerable. (Past collapses were isolated by by the geographical barriers of oceans, deserts, mountain ranges, and the long times it would take for diseases or other dangers to travel.) America is still the single most influential country in determining the human future, but with about half of the population still largely oblivious to the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, and ecological failure, the U.S. is falling behind--and the whole world is faltering.
So, what's this connection I keep harping about, between individual and societal strength? It's dauntingly complex (one of the reasons it's being ignored, in a culture that favors simplistic explanations), but here are a few of the connections being studied by scientists who are now deeply alarmed by our withering prospects.
- As mentioned in my book The Longest Race, a study of thousands of youths in Sweden found that boys who get serious cardiovascular exercise (such as cross-country running or skiing) between the ages of 15 and 18 test higher on IQ and reach higher levels of academic achievement than those who don't.
- Also as discussed in that book (and in this blog), a study by Canadian and British researchers found that taxi drivers who rely on their own mental mapping skills to navigate city streets have a significantly larger hippocampus (the brain's center of navigational memory) than those who rely on GPS.
- Hundreds of studies confirm that vigorous physical and mental activity greatly reduces the risk of debilitating illnesses or dementia in old age. People in their 50s, 60s, or 70s can provide wisdom and leadership to society if they are mentally and physically healthy, but may be dead weight to anyone but their families and a few friends if they become senile.
It has been well established, though very little publicized, that the human brain has actually diminished in size since the beginning of civilization. I had grew up believing that it is getting ever bigger, and I can remember science-fiction speculations that some day, centuries from now, humans would have evolved into giant heads--super-brains with vestigial legs and hands. As it turns out, though, the brain of a 21st-century human is 10 to 20 percent smaller than that of the prehistoric Cro Magnon people who lived around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. Evidently, our brains have actually shrunk since civilization began. Why?
There are several theories, but an emerging possibility I've been exploring is that the decline has something to do with our technology. It's technology that has most distinguished civilized humans from the hunter-gatherers who preceded us. And while technology has increased our original powers vastly, it has also made us increasingly dependent it to get things done and to keep us satisfied, entertained, and protected. Evolution no longer weeds out weakness in humans as it did for hundreds of millennia. It no longer culls the herd. The cumulative effect may be an increase in weakness--physical, mental, and moral--that now poses unprecedented challenges to our long-range survival. And the countries where technology is most advanced and available to make life easier and safer may be the ones where the weakness is growing fastest. If that turns out to be true, it will provoke some of the most soul-searching and contentious debate we humans have ever experienced. Stand by.