Monday, October 22, 2007


I watched Idiocracy this evening. It bombed in the US and I'm not even sure it went on general release in the UK. The basic idea is that two very average people are put into an extended hibernation and wake up 500 years later thanks to a mistake. A pretty standard sci-fi device. However, instead of a sinister dystopia or a flawed utopia the hero and heroine wake up to a world gone stupid.

While it is very much in the style of director Mike Judge, creator of Beavis & Butthead and Office Space, it is pretty funny. I watched it because I read, some time ago now, a review by The American Scene writer Reihan Salam who asked whether it was actually making an interesting point, there is some evidence that growth in intelligence has stalled, and suggests that it was commercially unsuccessful because it genuinely challenged the people watching:

"If Office Space is about taking responsibility for your own happiness, Idiocracy is about something larger, namely our responsibility for our shared future. Like all the best dystopian fables, Idiocracy is a scathing indictment of our own society. And so it begins in the present with a brief portrait of the villains who are destroying America, represented here by an affluent couple and an imbecile ne'er-do-well named Clevon. The two yuppies are shown agonizing over the decision to have a child. It's never the right time, until the right time finally comes—and the couple is infertile. The yuppies will leave no legacy behind. Clevon, in contrast, lustily and enthusiastically impregnates not only his wife but a bevy of gap-toothed harridans, each one dumber and uglier than the next. The screen slowly fills with his spawn, foreshadowing the nightmarish future to come.


Because Joe occasionally enunciates, he is immediately under suspicion as a "faggy" and otherwise obnoxious person, infractions that somehow lead to his incarceration. Eventually, Joe—with the help of the defrosted Rita—chooses not to "get out of the way." At great personal risk to himself (he narrowly escapes death at the hands of a monster truck built to resemble an enormous metal phallus), Joe saves the world from starvation. But he also saves himself from his own laziness and self-absorption, not least of all when he starts a family with Rita.

Now, Idiocracy isn't perfect. Despite being only 84 minutes long, it drags at points and feels more than a little shaggy. Plus, there's obviously something a little creepy about all this. Is Mike Judge really saying that some people should breed and others shouldn't? Well, sort of. But he's also taking on the laziness and the self-absorption, and the materialism and the willful ignorance, of his own audience. Watch Dogville or Fahrenheit 9/11 or even The Passion of the Christ and you get the distinct sense that you're being congratulated for believing the right things. Rare is the movie that challenges your beliefs. Rarer still is the movie that tells you you're a fat moron, and that you should be ashamed of yourself. The unmarried adultescents swarming the cities, the DINKs who've priced families with children out of the better suburbs, the kids who never read—these are Hollywood's most prized demographics, and Mike Judge has them squarely in his sights. Is it any wonder 20th Century Fox decided Idiocracy would never be boffo box office?"

If you get over the idiotic "what, are you a nazi?" response to anything smacking of eugenics it is hard to argue with the logic of the central thesis here. If evolution means anything then it is that the traits in any species most associated with breeding large numbers of surviving offspring will rise to prominence. It is hard to escape the conclusion that these days less intelligent people are more likely to have more children and with modern healthcare and agriculture even the least intelligent can usually be kept alive through their idiocy and are unlikely to starve to death.

Even the suggestion in the film that the smartest couldn't work out how to save the species as they were too busy inventing hair loss and erectile dysfunction remedies makes some economic sense. What makes capitalism so moral and so democratic is that the best are forced to make themselves useful to the mass market. That market has usually contained enough variety and enough intelligent people that an intelligent person would only have to sacrifice a limited amount of income if they catered for a refined niche, particularly with the smart often - although definitely not always - commanding greater buying power. Dumbing down has been less of an issue than snobs would suggest. However, if the tastes of the masses degrade sufficiently the difference in economic returns between doing something smart and catering to the stupid could be sufficient to drag down all but a tiny minority of the highest minded doomed to irrelevance and slow extinction in ivory towers.

However, the problem I have with all this, and eugenics in general, is that the theory has such a dismal predictive record. I've seen adverts from the early twentieth century, when eugenics was still considered a liberal and progressive thing to believe, that showed a similar complaint that the less intellectual were breeding faster. Despite that no one thinks that the pattern of increasing intelligence stalled in the twentieth century. What happened?

I don't have any answers but with such a glaring failure to predict I think that we need to do some thinking about the complexities surrounding genetic change.

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