(something from years ago I wrote on Vox, which has gone the way of the telgraph)
The idea that humans are devolving is not a new one, but it’s still got legs. A new book (Manthropology, the Science of the Inadequate Modern Male by Peter McAllister) argues that modern men are “the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet” because they cannot run as fast as ancient Australian Aborgines, shoot a bow as well as the Mongol Horde or beat a Neanderthal in an arm wrestling match.
I haven’t read the book, just Deborah Smith’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald. Exactly what his point is is unclear, since he agrees that there’s no genetic difference between modern men and their forebears — the differences are put down to practice. Mongol horseman began training from the age of two and Aborigines began running after food as soon as they could walk. McAllister says that “one aim is to get people to think about how demographic factors, such as the large number of affluent people alive today, rather than some superior human intelligence, underpin modern achievement”, and from this I believe we have the answer to his hypothesis.
In each society men excelled at those things which were required for the society to be successful. For the Mongols it was riding horses and shooting enemies. For the Aborigines it was chasing food*. We can go on, of course: For newly industrialised societies in Western Europe men excelled at being good factory workers, good employees. So what makes a successful society today? McAllister tells us: “Affluent people”. In these times societies achieve success by being filled with good consumers, which is something that modern men excel at.
You may not be happy with this (actually, I’d hope you’re not happy with this), but you can take consolation from the fact that societies are not successful forever, and what makes one society successful is not useful in others…so Mongols didn’t need to run fast, for example. The dominance of the knights was ended by longbowmen. There’s no benefit to running fast once you can hunt prey with a gun. So too, one day being a good consumerist will not benefit society.
* From this argument we can infer that Huichol tribe of Mexico was overpopulated, because the men would tie strings to their testicles so the women could pull on them during labour to share the pain. Thus, every time a baby is born, there is a chance of making it so the father couldn’t have any more children.