Why haven’t intelligent people taken over the world?

(Publiquei este post em português no meu blog)

Let’s suppose a few hypothesis:

1) There are people who are very, very, VERY intelligent in the world.

2) The human civilization doesn’t look so let’s say…  very well organized, it seems like there are important human beings doing stupid things.

3) A fraction of the very intelligent people are also ambitious AND have strong opinions about how the world should be AND care enough to do something about it.

Hence my question is: Why is the world not regularly dominated by very intelligent people???

Ok, I admit that it is a somewhat bizarre question, but I really mean it, and I will try to justify myself.

First, what do I mean by dominating the world?
Domination means that you are able to make your will prevail over others. It doesn’t have to happen by force, far from it, it is enough that one can handle the situation to his side. Dominating the world assumes that someone (or some group) can achieve such a degree of superiority of power that is able to subvert the whole political established hierarchy. This seems to be VERY difficult, as I suppose that the closer you get to dominating the world, the more competent are your competitors aiming for the same purpose (or any other purpose which is incompatible with yours). That is, to take over and keep the power you have to find a way to win, eliminate, or avoid the elite of the political power in the world.

Why would anyone want to dominate the world?
To impose your will. And why would anyone want this? Well, this is a psychological matter. I suppose that it could be to satisfy an insatiable ego, a huge will to power, magnify one’s own image or by a very strong feeling of revenge, which is nonetheless also an imposition of one’s self on others. These motivations would be psychopathic. A more rational motivation could be for an ethical duty, well, it is true that the notion of duty is not rational, but I mean it would be a more objective conduct, to dominate in order to actualize goodness (whatever one understands by goodness…).

Why would anyone need to dominate the world?
Because the traditional social means may not be enough for what you want; for the most common political organizations requires that in order to gain power someone should gather admirers and trust in those who are in control of stabilishing your rank (whether the population or a political aristocracy). This route has many disadvantages, it commits the applicant to the interests of his political supporters (actually sharing his power with them), requires him to maintain a demagogic persona (social image) that somehow motivate or justify his position, and blatantly exposes him to all who might be interested in taking his rank or who oppose his policies to act against him, to overthrow him or simply kill. That is why someone would want to dominate the world through alternative means – which need not be by force (violence), I believe there probably are other ways.

Why someone would have to be intelligent to dominate the world?
Well, it is important to emphasize that I am not talking about a merely academic intelligence, I’m talking about a person with high cognitive ability in many areas, one who is able to face difficult problems of pratically any nature, from metaphysical questions, to social manipulation, to juggling gelatin.
Therefore, I think this would be the most important capacity in order to try to dominate the world because someone in this condition could try to understand and solve any problems that could appear, no matter if he/she was not particularly good at it.

How it would be like if intelligent people dominated the world?
It’s hard to answer, but we would live in noocracy, a government of the wise, or initially a geniocracy, since I am considering that on or a few geniuses would take over the power.  I suppose intelligent people would be better able to solve the major problems of society and to create efficient policies, they would have a more realistic, deep and complete understanding of the social functioning, have ethical concerns and a well-developed ethical system, and would be able to separate their personal interests of those of humanity.
Unfortunately some of these assumptions would probably not materialize.
There is still a complicated issue of how to represent the ethical and political values of the population, which is one of the greatest values of democracy. This would be an additional problem to be solved.

Isn’t the desire to dominate the world a childish, narcisistic and megalomaniac attitude based on a simplistic conception of society?
Hmmm… maybe. But would that really prevent people from dominating the world?

Assuming then that the main questions have been clarified:
Why is that the world is not regularly dominated by very intelligent people???

The answer doesn’t seems obvious. I will consider several possibilities:

1) The world has already been dominated by intelligent people and I was the only one who did not notice.
Well, this answer is either a denial of my second premise (that the world does not work very well), or the defense that even though intelligent people have dominated the world, these beings are not able to make it work in a way that seems adequate or worse, they are not interested in that.
This argument is quite similar to the Epicurean argument against the existence of God: if God wants to be good and is not able he is impotent, if he can but does not want he is malevolent, if he cannot and doesn’t want he shouldn’t be called God.
I shall divide this possibility in two:

1.1) The world has been dominated by intelligent people, but they can’t do the trick.
This is possible, but unlikely. However, given my lack of information about the occurrence of exceptional intelligence in ranks of high power, I will assume they probably are in positions of lower public exposition ( “illuminati”? O_O). If it is that so, why is that they cannot do deal with the problem? Is the dynamics of society, politics and the economy so uncontrollable? After all, remember that we are talking about people who were able to dominate the world! Why is it that they could not manage it efficiently? They don’t have enough critical mass? There would exist too much disagreement between them? It seems more likely to just reduce this position to a more usual view that whoever is controlling the powerful society are not as intelligent or competent as we are talking about. In other words, this position denies the first postulate.

1.2) The world has been dominated by intelligent people, but they are not concerned with organizing it, they are worried about other things.
This seems somewhat more likely. But why? In my view, a very intelligent person who has been able to dominate the world should have serious concerns about which direction to take. After all, has he dominated for what? Is it that ethics really does not necessarily lead to a social administration other than that we see today? Does intelligence not necessarily lead to ethical concerns? What are the motivations of these people then? Is it a fact that power corrupts people and that as soon as someone gets in a high position, this person gets overwhelmed by their instinctive and selfish desires?

Certainly in human history very intelligent great leaders have made to the high power and we can analyze the diversity of their behavior in order to see their profile, their motivations and what was their end, i.e. why they were unable to keep the power under the same ideals. So this question remains unanswered: What were the motivations of the great intelligent powerful men of the past?

Possibly the paths that lead someone to power do not usually lead people to deeper ethical concerns. Perhaps these men have been primarily busy with more immediate concerns, as their next conquests and maintaining their own power, without thinking much on a larger scale. After all, ruling empires sounds like an awful lot of work.

2) The world has not been dominated by intelligent people.
Well, this is my main proposal. And why is that the world has not been dominated?

2.1) Intelligent people are not able to dominate the world.
I think this is the best answer. And the main evidence is the lack of competence of the resistance movements throughout the world, even under the most ideologically hostile and absurd conditions.
We could remember the case of the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Nazi Germany. The number of attempted attacks, organized resistance movements and counter-revolutions in history seems to be modestly small in addition to being little effective. Taking into account that a revolution is a great opportunity to change the order of things, for a group to take the power and establish their political ideals, it seems that in fact, what is lacking is the competence (hypothesis 1 must be false in this sense).

And why this lack of competence?
I think it’s because the intelligent people usually have some characteristics that prevent them from being politically effective: they are either insecure, or undisciplined, or impractical, or unrealistic, or not politically skilled, or intransigent, or competitive, or disorganized in excess. Just look at most of the student movements and intellectual groups. This goes a little in the line of thought of a quote from Russell:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Bertrand Russell, Education and the Social Order (1932) Bertrand Russell, Education and the Social Order (1932)

Possibly the life paths of growing up and the personality of intelligent people does not help them to develop so many skills and intellectual and political motivations at the same time.

On the other hand, there were in the history of mankind, some situations in which one or more very intelligent people took over the power. Why were they unable to keep the power in the hands of other intelligent people? Why is the power of intelligent people not stable? Is it that they haven’t had this concern? Is it that their motivations did not favor them to pass the power to other intelligent people? Or they simply could not find successors up to their height? After all, finding suitable successors is not an easy problem.

Perhaps the problem is too difficult for one or even a few humans, to take over the world and still administrate humanity is a too hard job. This also seems quite reasonable. After all, for this purpose humanity is divided into hundreds of thousands of government functions and ranks. I certainly would not expect that they could control everything, just give the main guidelines. But anyway it is a reasonable possibility. Perhaps the problem is a mixture of lack of intelligence, number of people and organization. Interestingly this seems to be feasible. Hum….

Then there is also the possibility that our society is somehow protected against the domination of the intelligent. As if our society was constituted so that whenever someone very clever has this idea and decides to do something about it, it is quickly detected and eliminated (or perhaps distracted by an intellectual problem which will occupy his entire productive life and will not cause anything useful). This strikes me as too conspiratorial for my tastes.

2.2) Intelligent people do not want to take over the world.
Finally, perhaps the intelligent people are not so interested or motivated to take over the world.
After all, these people are supposedly perfectly capable of making themselves a very good life in today’s world, so it is just not worth trying to dominate the world. This is consistent with the view that rational people do whatever is advantageous for them, which usually does not involve caring so much with others.
In addition, dominating the world takes a lot of work, is very dangerous, and probably requires the rest of your life, if you eventually succeed.
It neither seems to be psychologically advantageous:
Unless you have a tremendous disturbance of an obsession with your ego or ethics, I think intelligent people get sufficient reward in activities far more feasible, in particular, most intellectuals are very happy discussing ideas, reading and writing and have no megalomaniac intentions.

1.2) Intelligent people who achieves power do not usually worry too much about great ethical issues.
2.1) Intelligent people often have personality traits that prevent coming to power.
2.2) And the intelligent people who could come to power are probably not very interested.
And 2.1 again) If by chance there are people interested, they are in insufficient quantities to manage it, because the problem is so very hard …
Anyway, c’est la vie.

But a question remains, why isn’t the permanence of intelligent people in the power stable? Once a government of intelligent people is established, why can’t it keep its quality? Doesn’t these people usually have a strategic vision for this issue? Or is it that difficult to get suitable successors?

7 opiniões sobre “Why haven’t intelligent people taken over the world?”

  1. As I have posted this text previously in portuguese in my personal blog there are comments there (which I recommend to be looked at). I ask that any comments in portuguese to be posted there and leave this space for comments in english.

  2. I’ve been asked to take the long view (by myself)

    It is not true that intelligent people do not rule the world, It is true that the people who rule the world cannot make the world a better place at the pace people who are intellectuals think is possible.

    George Bush, Obama, Tatcher, Kofi Annan, Hu-Jintao, Pratibha Patil, Umaru Yar’Adua, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

    These are smart monkeys, and I mean it (and yes, I saw the first name)

    Now there are some reasons for this other fact.

    Let me expose a few:

    1 ) There are huge amounts of sociological contingences that interfere with people’s rate of success, as brilliantly exposed by Malcom Gladwell in his best-seller “Outliers”.

    2) There are few intelligent people in the world at all: https://brainstormers.wordpress.com/2009/04/06/why-so-few/

    3) The people who vote for leaders are stupid, for most people are stupid. It is harder to put forth an intelligent plan when it disagrees with your voters, and hard to get voters if your plan’s needed efforts take longer than 1 minute to understand, let alone execute!

    4) The effort someone ought to make to achieve political power is huge and it depends on dedicating an immense amount of time to it (think of Lula, 30 years travelling the country, or Schwartzenegger). This time cannot be used for understanding how to make the world a better place, for it is unavailable.

    5) Nerds are unpopular:

    6) People highly underestimate the inneficiency of public bureaucracy. Suppose that there are 9 levels of command between The States Person and Real Life Working Dude. The top three levels of the piramid being geniuses, you would still have 6 chances of total screw up due to stupidity, lack of motivation, bad salaries, yesterday’s beverages, naked neighbors and bullying children. Better than that, you sum the probabilities.

    7) The market promises what people think, wrongly, would be good for them ($$$) and hijacks most of the best brains. In addition, it also clumps together all those frustrated with sluggish politics.

    8) Scientists and people who reason with their frontal lobes (the rational part, as opposed to the tribal-behavior moral-behavior older parts of the brain) have two options: Either one hedon per year (and 200 frustrations), dealing with political agenda, or 3 hedons a day, feeling the “ahá” feeling of satisficed curiosity by reading papers. These people are usually not religious, so they know they only have this life to live, what option would you take? What option did you take?

    10) Breakdown of will. Atoms, in a cooling molten material, tend to line-up, creating a magnetic field. If you had symmetrical bumping structure in the beggining, one atom turned in one direction could enlist his neighbours, what would increase the field, and therefore enlist more neighbours, and so one, untill all of them looked assymetrically pointing to one direction. There is a stupidity field in politics, it is not worth it trying to disassemble it from the inside, to break it, one would have to intervene from the outside, this is what the new mega-millionaire-nerds are doing. They will win, wait and see.


    I loved your idea of putting pictures with the text, and the theme, and the development, good work!

    For my ideas about what one should do regarding politics (português):

    For Bostrom’s ideas on the singleton, a world governor as they all should be: http://www.nickbostrom.com/fut/evolution.html

  3. I think Diego has reason, the explanations 1 to 10 are good. I think that the “smart-monkeys” mentioned are not so smart, though… I’m not very sure about Obama, because he hides his true views about things (he is extremely conscious of publicity, for example, pretending to be very religious when in fact he is an atheist), he acts very smartly, and he could actually be very smart. He’s surely not as intelligent as Dennett, though. None of those leaders are. They have a lot of experience in what they do, that’s a form of acquired knowledge that looks like smartness.

    1. Diego, just to solve a doubt that kept annoying me, what’s your evidence that Bush is actually intelligent and not just some kind of puppet for more intelligent (at least a little) people?

  4. I have just thought about an answer for the problem of the instability of intelligent governments:
    If we consider that ethical intelligent governments are less politically powerful than unethical (because of the ethical constraints), it’s reasonable to consider that whenever an ethical government is stabilished it is eventually succeeded by an unethical government (say, the prince is not so pure at heart as the king, or some more morally unashamed group just takes over) . And unethical governments have no interest in ethical succession, as it would only do harm to itself (either by risking its power or by harming its image).

    This sounds reasonable, good (ethical concerned) people are much less prone to get to the power because of the contraints of their own conducts. They have much less options, in particular they are not allowed to cheat (say, killing, threatening or deceiving). An alternative could be saying that the end justify the means. And probably many have done that, maybe one could arguably say that Hitler tried to do that. That sounds like a dangerous strategy, because if you don’t achieve your goal you’ll end up doing more harm than good. And even more, people would probably not recognize your efforts as a good action (if that is important to you).

  5. Of course, there are many, many factors, and we can assume that a significant number of the relevant factors are hidden– either because they are so complex, multifaceted and subtle (like the movement of a pair of dice rolling over a table), or because we just haven’t recognized them.

    One factor that IS obvious is what I call the Bruce Lee Effect. In his films, Bruce Lee regularly defeats 30-40 people at one time. He can do this because his attackers always come at him one at a time. If only 5 awkward, clumsey, unskilled people jumped on him simultaneously, he would be a goner. If Bruce Lee can’t hold his own against 5-6 unskilled fighters, how can the intelligent people (a tiny minority regardless of how you define them) hold their own against the teeming masses at the center of the Bell Curve. Admittedly, intelligent people have an advantage (as Bruce Lee does against unskilled fighters), but that advantage only goes so far. The primary reason that intelligent people don’t run the world is that they are utterly out-numbered by the stupid people. It’s very challenging to get dumb people to follow your lead if the followers can’t understand and identify with the goals, perspectives, moral stance, and rationale of the leaders. It’s an overwhelming handicap, especially when you factor in the dunning-kruger effect (stupid/ignorant people are too unintelligent and ignorant to realize the error of their perspective and/or their lack of capacity to understand an issue, and so feel very confident that they are right.)

    This difficulty in leading a group of people whose perspectives, attitudes, level of education, and values are profoundly different from the leaders rather closely related to the geek/nerd unpopularity phenomenon. Sure, the average guy knows that geeks and nerds are smarter than he is, but he can’t relate to them and their habits and values seem twisted and strange to him– so he feels disdain for them– he feels superior to them, in spite of the fact that he knows they are smarter and better educated than he is. To him they are freaks. If he is not in a position to disdain them, he will still think that they are crazy or mistaken.

    Today, in the United States, at least 40-50 percent of the population believes that the Earth is less than 20,0000 years old (according to recent polls), that the Theory of Evolution is invalid, and that angels exist. Good luck to any smart person or faction trying to lead a stupid, ignorant populace without force or threats.

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