Survival of the stupidest

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Survival Of The Stupidest

By Johannes Koelman

Created Apr 5 2011 — 7:39pm

Is stupidity rising? Are we witnessing an alarming proliferation of irrationality and an exuberance of ignorance?

Stupidity seems a concern to a growing group of scholars. Last month alone two arXiv papers (here and here) appeared that both refer to a 35 year old essay by the Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla entitled "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity". In this humorous yet thought-provocative treatise Cipolla warns against the power of stupidity. Three of Cipolla laws of stupidity I reproduce here. The first provides a definition for stupidity, and the latter two highlight the abundance and the effectiveness of stupidity:
"A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."
"Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation."
"Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake."
Cipolla describes stupid people as an unstructured, yet powerful group. He argues that when you suffer due to the actions of others, it is likely not due to malevolent actions, but rather due to stupid actions:

"Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation — or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid."

Since Cipolla's essay appeared in 1976, several authors have rediscovered his findings. In particular, Hanlon's razor

"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity"

published by Robert Hanlon four years following Cipolla's essay, can be interpreted as a corollary to the basic laws of stupidity listed above.

A Darwinian Enigma

Although the above thoughts on the effects of stupidity might seem compelling, they do leave us with an enigma ignored by Cipolla and his followers: how come stupidity abounds? Should stupidity not have been eliminated long ago by the process of natural selection?

At first sight, stupidity is a characteristic that is expected in natural selection processes to suffer and to become extinct. After all, stupid persons by definition act in ways that tend to yield no gain to them. Place a stupid person in a competitive environment of non-stupid persons, and the stupid person will likely come out as the loser, and certainly not as the fittest.

How then can stupidity survive and flourish?

Let me attempt to provide a satisfactory answer to this question. I do not claim to have reached a definitive answer, but the mechanism I propose, if not fully explaining the survival of stupidity, at least contributes to it. Moreover, and as often is the case, the route towards the answer is interesting in itself.