Friday, 9 October 2009

Charlton on the Clever Silly

Bruce G. Charlton, evolutionary psychiatrist, professor of theoretical medicine, and editor-in-chief of Medical Hypotheses, lays on a feast of that oddest animal of all: the clever silly.

Here is a sniff of the starter:
“[M]y suggested explanation . . . is that an increasing relative level of IQ brings with it a tendency differentially to over-use general intelligence in problem-solving, and to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense. Preferential use of abstract analysis is often useful when dealing with the many evolutionary novelties to be found in modernizing societies; but is not usually useful for dealing with social and psychological problems for which humans have evolved ‘domain-specific’ adaptive behaviours. And since evolved common sense usually produces the right answers in the social domain, this implies that, when it comes to solving social problems, the most intelligent people are more likely than those of average intelligence to have novel but silly ideas, and therefore to believe and behave maladaptively. I further suggest that this random silliness of the most intelligent people may be amplified to generate systematic wrongness when intellectuals are in addition ‘advertising’ their own high intelligence in the evolutionarily novel context of a modern IQ meritocracy. The cognitively-stratified context of communicating almost exclusively with others of similar intelligence generates opinions and behaviours among the highest IQ people which are not just lacking in common sense but perversely wrong.” [1]
And here is a whiff of the dessert:
“Yet, whatever else, to be a clever silly is a somewhat tragic state; because it entails being cognitively trapped by compulsive abstraction; unable to engage directly and spontaneously with what most humans have traditionally regarded as psycho-social reality; disbarred from the common experience of humankind and instead cut-adrift on the surface of a glittering but shallow ocean of novelties: none of which can ever truly convince or satisfy. It is to be alienated from the world; and to find no stable meaning of life that is solidly underpinned by emotional conviction. Little wonder, perhaps, that clever sillies choose sub-replacement reproduction.” [2]
If some humility could be taught to the clever silly before he begins to form an idea about a matter of widespread social and political importance, perhaps then he could be persuaded to bear in mind a paraphrase of a line by Groucho Marx: Any idiot could understand this matter; fetch me an idiot!

[1] Bruce G. Charlton, “Clever Sillies: Why High IQ People Tend to be Deficient in Common Sense”, Medical Hypotheses, in press, 2009, p.1. (For more of Dr Charlton’s works, see here and here.)

[2] Ibid., pp.3-4. David Stove was also good on clever sillies. See, for instance, his “Righting Wrongs”, in On Enlightenment, ed. A. Irvine (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2003), and “The Oracles and Their Cessation: a Tribute to Julian Jaynes”, in Cricket versus Republicanism, and Other Essays (Sydney: Quakers Hill Press, 1995).


dearieme said...

He doesn't mention the thrill of the chase when the fancy takes you to destroy the drivel of a silly-clever, publicly, forcefully and conclusively. I've enjoyed it ever since freshman days.

dearieme said...

There's an opportunity here: could BGC be persuaded to write about that Larkin category, the soppy-stern. Or could you, oh wise one?

Bruce Charlton said...

I suppose that soppy-stern meant strict and sanctimonious with it, a combination designed to make children feel always-guilty - like the stereotypical public school headmaster about to cane a pupil with the phrase 'this will hurt me more than it hurts you'.

If so, I think the soppy-stern species is long since extinct.

Soppiness there is in plenty, but never stern-ness. Sternness at least implies a scale of fixed punishments.

Instead, we now have a therapeutic culture, as forseen by CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength (1945) with the organization called the NICE

an acronym which has since - with perfect justice - actually been adopted by a branch of the NHS bureacracy

designed to ration treatments on the basis of cargo cult science 'for our own good'.

James Higham said...

Well done:

to over-use general intelligence in problem-solving, and to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense


Recusant said...

'Clever-silly', 'soppy-stern'. The list is endless:
'Intolerantly tolerant' - as bad as 'Tolerantly intolerant' is good;
'Enlightened -dogmatic', etc., etc..

xlbrl said...

Thanks for the great links. This is a man who would test the maxim that one honest man spreads panic among a multitude of hyppocrites.

Ilíon said...

Speaking of Lewis and the therapeutic culture -- The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

Ilíon said...

... because, of course, "evolution" "explains" everything.

bruno benedini said...


Anonymous said...

"authoritarian avant-garde" should join the list - would require a long piece to explain - the notion that anyone who continues to compose tonal music "after" Schönberg is a reactionary.

let's recall Dickens' "braggart humility" - the kind of thing that leads to auto-genocide of multiculturalism: we are a culture strong enough to erase ourselves and embrace the world without suffering.