The Latin name for the human species is homo sapiens, meaning 'wise man'. But are we wise? Considering the state of the planet at the present moment it would seem not. Humanity is beset by self-inflicted conflict, persecution, genocide, bigotry, economic failure, bad leadership, appalling crime statistics, ignorance, and God knows what else. It was ever thus of course, but one would think that by the start of the twenty-first century we would have learned a little common sense.
Let's start with man's susceptibility to superstition. And along with that, I include religion. The religious instinct has been installed in our DNA from the beginning of time. Not surprising when, to primitive human beings, the awesome mysteries of the mountains, the seas, the tempests, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions all seemed to be products of gigantic forces that could only be explained by superhuman entities. Now, however, in the modern scientific age, we accept all these as well-explored and explained effects of nature. So why do we cling on to vastly conflicting and unproven 'faiths' in a plethora of deities, when such dogmas often lead to persecution, conflict and war - especially amongst the most zealous peoples, who are prepared to kill for their creed? Why do people pray for hours at a time to relieve themselves of suffering when such appeals have no effect? Why do they trek in their millions to Lourdes or Mecca in the hopes of achieving salvation, often perishing ‘en route’ in the attempt? Why do runners cross themselves before a race, or do footballers thank the heavens when they score a goal? Do they seriously believe that God grants them success as recognition for their devotion? Or that when they fail it is his punishment for some misdeed?
And as to general superstition, why do people refuse to pass others on the stairs, open an umbrella indoors, or mention Macbeth in a theatre? Why do they fear ghosts, cracked mirrors, spilt salt, whistling in dressing rooms, black cats, and Friday 13th - when the origins of such beliefs have long been lost in the mists of time?
The superstitious instinct, as Charles Darwin explained, is rooted deep in our inherited psyches, and it seems impossible to shake off.
Let's move on to the extraordinary phenomenon of the all-powerful dictator, which is itself a form of god worship and is especially relevant at this moment in history. How is it that murdering monsters such as Putin and Xi Jinping can command reverence amongst large majorities of their populations when all the evidence is that those majorities live under conditions of deprivation, oppression and fear? How is it that half of America, supposedly the most advanced society on the planet, still votes for Donald Trump long after he has been exposed as just another egotistical despot, sexual predator, and persistent lawbreaker? How did such tyrants as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Kim Jong-un, etc, etc, command the respect of their masses, when so obviously self-promoted by their control of media propaganda?
The answer is that mankind has an inbuilt and irrational longing for some infallible father figure who can take command of tormented lives and deliver Nirvana. This is why the appellation of 'father' appears so often in the description of such figureheads. God the Father of course, but also Pope Whoever (derivation from Greek pappas), father priest, Father Josef, Papa Doc, Godfather, Founding Fathers, Father of the Nation, etc. And so vast swathes of populations are willing to overlook the flaws in such beings in the superstitious faith that they will nevertheless one day bring home the goods. They reject the responsibility of the democratic vote, even when this has been shown to produce the most thriving societies on the planet, in favour of trusting in the powers of a single self-promoting autocrat.
Yet there is more to human stupidity than mere superstition. Illogical convictions abound amongst even the most sophisticated of beings. The belief in conspiracy theories, the woke revolution, the bigotry amongst the teaching profession that everything about the British Empire, from Queen Victoria to Winston Churchill, was evil, the fear of inoculations, the idea that lizards or aliens or robots are controlling the planet, the conviction that the Royal Family deliberately engineered Princess Diana's death, the persistent belief that the only way to fight the global narcotics industry is by making drugs illegal (cf. prohibition and alcohol), the belief that you will solve your financial problems with just one more throw of the dice, the spin of the wheel, 'sure thing' bet at the races and so on...
Let's have a look at economics in the modern world. This may be a more ambiguous example, but I will discuss it anyway. The original invention of coinage was groundbreaking. Instead of the ancient rough and ready system of bartering; a goat, say, for a week's work on your patch of land. The concept of a physical IOU, which measured more scientifically the worth of goods and services, revolutionised the business of commerce. However, over the centuries, as the world grew steadily richer, money became a bargaining source. Saving and lending, interest rates and currency exchanges, stocks and shares, all leading to the gigantic casino of modern financial orchestration through mutual funds, bonds, and securities in a thousand different forms - not to mention taxation and interest rate manipulation - so that now the welfare of entire populations are at the mercy of their governments and banks handling of what used to be that simplest of bartering tools, the coin. Are we better off for such sophistication? One might argue that it is inevitable in a wealthy world, but somehow, we don't seem happier with it. Could wars be fought if governments didn't have access to vast funds, not to spend on supposed benefits to society, but on armies and armaments?
And on the subject of war, surely this is the ultimate example of human stupidity. Again, it was understandable in primaeval times that one family, one village, might contest with another for land or livestock, simply to stay alive. Going back to Darwin again, the survival of the fittest principle applies to all species. But over the centuries the warring instinct became, not simply the necessary one of protecting one's own, but a means of conquest, of domination and exploitation, developed to such a degree that now it threatens the survival of, not the fittest, but the entire planet.
And finally, to come back to a more mundane level in the assessment of human wisdom, I look at everyday life from the perspective of the grumpy old man. One just has to consider the quality of the newspapers that most people buy, the books they read, the tv shows they watch, the trinkets they decorate their homes with, the junk food they eat, and the stuff they spend all day ogling on their smartphones, to wonder anew at their level of intelligence. And if that makes me sound like an intellectual snob, then so be it.
We may be able to send rockets to Mars, but we still have a long way to go to behave intelligently on Earth.