Clever, but absent-minded

We are, in general, rather lazy creatures who avoid cognitive exertion wherever possible, and remarkably often fall back on established categories, tropes, and clichés. One can see how, in evolutionary terms, this could have developed: though I am suspicious of evolutionary psychology in general as it is only ever retro-fitting a plausible developmental narrative to the observable phenomena, a few of its basic principles seem pretty reasonable, and the tendency to interpret the world by reacting to novel stimuli using established cognitive categories rather than analysing the scenario from scratch is an efficient use of cognitive resources as (in evolutionary terms) a false positive never harmed anyone, whereas presuming the null hypothesis, or spending precious processing time and resources performing an online judgment almost certainly did. When the long grass waved in the absence of wind, the caveman who consistently interpretted this as the presence of a tiger will have been more likely to survive when it actually was a tiger than the ones who presumed it was nothing, or stood still for a while whilst they decided.

This, ultimately, is the origin of the tendency to believe in the supernatural—because assigning active agency to unexplained phenomena is the safer false positive—but also, for the purposes of this post, is the origin of interpersonal stereotyping: racism, sexism, homophobia, and thinking that all clever people are absent-minded.

Clearly, by asserting an evolutionary origin to these traits, I am not attempting to defend them: merely to explain them. As Richard Dawkins often asserts—when he is not busy applying several of the isms mentioned above, in direct contravention of his very assertion—we are better than our genes: we have arrived at a level of self-awareness where we can say “No, I will not do that, even though it be my instinct.” The fight against the evils of racism, sexism, and cleverism is long and drawn-out precisely because it is a fight against our basic natures. Again, this is not to defend these natures: they are repugnant. But if the Catholic Church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin can all agree that my basic nature entitles me to no more than eternal torment (though whether I escape that through faith, grace, or works I understand is something of a moot point), I feel I can at least assert this somewhat lesser stance of the worser devils of our nature.

All of this goes to explain that, though I understand why people persist in applying the “clever, but absent-minded” stereotype to me, I still feel perfectly entitled to my deep irritation at it. I am clever, yes—I have enough contempt for goddamn English false modesty to feel no embarrassment in asserting that—but it is only lazy, cavemanish cognitive simplicism which leads you to presume that I am therefore also forgetful, distracted, useless at things practical, and generally incapable of finding my arse with both hands.

I mean, a clever but absent-minded person would not be able to run their own business successfully for ten years, would they?

A clever but absent-minded person wouldn’t have the attention to detail to make them a rather good editor, would they?

And a clever but absent-minded person certainly wouldn’t be so spectacularly fucking brainless as to leave their passport in their jeans pocket when washing them barely two weeks before travelling to Australia …

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… would they?

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