Is humanity getting smarter? An extract from “Blood Oil” by Leif Wenar

August 10, 2017
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An extract from the book Blood Oil by Leif Wenar (© Oxford University Press 2016. Reproduced here under kind permission). The Italian translation of the volume has been published by LUISS University Press with the title Il re nero.

A simple version of Moore’s Law says that computer processing power doubles every two years. […] What about humanity itself, looking at this very large group as a single intelligence, like a corporation or a country? Is humanity getting smarter, more able to solve the problems that it will face? It might be that an IQ test of humanity would show ever-rising scores over the decades—but maybe not. We know of no natural law that ensures the line on that graph always goes up. Even more and abler individuals might form a less and less intelligent group—if those individuals are less able to work together. (The Neanderthal brain had more neurons than the modern human brain does—but our neurons hook up in ways that make us smarter.)

Human connectivity will be the primary determinant of the trajectory of species intelligence. A second major factor will be the quality of international institutions: the rules, networks, and bodies that coordinate (or fail to coordinate) relations across borders. These institutions will greatly influence how capable humanity will be at the species level, and here we face one of the most intriguing crises of our own invention.

Today’s familiar international institutions have been largely successful in achieving the aims of those who laid their foundations after World War II. Those aims were economic growth and the prevention of major wars. With all of the collapses and catastrophes of the postwar period, the framers of the international system would be gratified if they could see the future that is now our past. Yet success, as so often, brings new challenges. Several of today’s hardest challenges are side effects of the progress made within the postwar institutional order.

For example, the postwar system was designed to stop wars of conquest by making borders force-proof. This design has worked well—the anti-conquest rule is now entrenched in the international system and has contributed to significant reductions in armed conflict. Yet a side effect of this success is that that some states have been frozen in failure. At its independence in 1960, the giant DRC had almost no chance to succeed as a well-governed political entity. In the days of Westphalia, it would have been divided up, sooner or later, by conquering sovereigns better able to control its territory. Because of the modern anti-conquest rule, however, the DRC has survived in a sickly and near-comatose state as crooks, militias, and its neighbors have drained its blood away and so made it even weaker. This doesn’t mean that the world should revoke its anti-conquest rule—a rule the world only learned after centuries of wars over territory. It does mean that we should redouble our efforts to counteract its unwanted consequences.

The same is true of the global institutions of trade and finance. With the exception of the United States, the world’s major economies emerged from World War II seriously damaged. Even in Britain, which was on the winning side, food and fuel were rationed for years afterward. Women in the north of England still remember repairing worn-out shoes with cardboard; an elderly Welshman might tell you he grew up so hungry that he would jump over a farmer’s fence before dawn each morning to suck some milk from the udder of a cow. The world needed growth, and got it, in part, through the Bretton Woods institutions designed by John Maynard Keynes, Henry Morgenthau, and Harry Dexter White in 1944 and rebuilt by many hands thereafter.

This global system of trade and finance has been spectacularly successful in boosting growth. In fact, production and consumption have expanded so much that they now endanger the environment: this is the system spewing the fumes that will worsen the weather. (The original “world trade” agreement in 1947 aimed at “developing the full use of the resources of the world.” Our age would surely replace “full” with “prudent.”) A parallel story of growth in the postwar economy has been the extraordinary enlargement of corporations. Some of these artificial persons have now become so monstrous as to be dreadful to their creators. In the end, these are all predicaments born of our institutional success.

The international system has slowly started to address some of the side effects of its achievements. Peacekeeping has improved and now substantially reduces the risk of armed conflict within countries. International bodies are becoming incrementally more inclusive, as seen in the move from the G7 to the G20. Transgovernmental networks on issues from the environment to banking are becoming more robust. Above them are “metanetworks” such as the Financial Stability Board; below them are private bodies of technocrats such as the International Accounting Standards Board. There are also public-private hybrids such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, as well as legions of civil society organizations that hold states accountable for (and sometimes provide services in lieu of) governance. […] Human rights norms for businesses are slowly solidifying too.

Still, the old, familiar institutions of the international order are locked in and looking increasingly less functional. The UN Security Council still allows vetoes only to five countries from the winning side of World War II. The international financial institutions still mostly serve the West. The WTO strains to move at all. As new powers rise—both state and non-state—they are making demands that these old structures resist. This is again a crisis of invention: the institutions that aided the expansion of peace and prosperity are cemented and so can’t adjust themselves to the results. These institutions now force international relations into shapes that waste a lot of brainpower. Dealing with climate change, financial instability, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, pandemics, and inequality will mean reimagining the postwar institutions. If an apocalypse does charge down on us during the twenty-first century, its horse may be named Gridlock.