Arrested development
December 16, 2011 11:19 PM   Subscribe

What are humans no better at now than they were in the past?

People seem to be getting better at just about everything. Chess, violin, poker, the list seems indefinite. In some cases there are obvious reasons - better technology/teaching methods/new research/some combination/etc. etc. etc.

My question: what aren't people getting better at? What is humanity no better at now than it was, say, two hundred years ago?
posted by resiny to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Certain kinds of visual art, perhaps - some of the materials may be improved, better pigments, chisels that don't have to be sharpened as often - but within certain types of art there aren't new techniques that I'm aware of.

I've heard it argued that perfume is no better and probably worse than it was some time ago due to laws restricting some materials (natural and early artificial ones) and the technology to clone those scents isn't there yet.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 11:34 PM on December 16, 2011

Walking. I think I remember reading on MeFi somewhere that walking (distances, not speed) is the one thing that humans do better than other mammals. I think most of us still have the capability to walk long distances if we need to, but overall it hasn't gotten appreciably more skilled.

100 AD: Emperor Hadrian tours his whole empire on foot, marching 21 miles a day in full armor. The measurement Mile = 1000 military paces, paces being two steps.

1589: Sir Robert Carey walks 300 miles from London to Berwick on a wager.

1860-1903: the Pedestrian Age - walking is the leading sport in Europe and America. Big money comes to walking as long distance walkers earn more per race than today's basketball players, the equivalent of 100 years of salary of the day.
posted by HopperFan at 11:40 PM on December 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Sex. Just as neat as it ever was, but judging by the literature of the past, probably no more so.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:01 AM on December 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

hitting a major league curveball.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:18 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Horseback riding, now that we have cars. Rowing, now that we have motor boats. Flying kites, now that we have remote control airplanes. Shouting, now that we have cell phones. Talking on the phone, now that we have cell phones. Maybe not the angle you wanted, but those are things, right?
posted by oceanjesse at 12:28 AM on December 17, 2011

Long term thinking.
posted by benzenedream at 1:02 AM on December 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

I suspect our memories haven't got any better than they used to be. It used to be part of education to memorize a lot of poetry, even plays, long speeches, etc. Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and countless more long epics began as oral recitations. I think it is probably no easier for us today to learn these sorts of things off by heart than it used to be, and maybe harder in that a lot of techniques for memorisation have probably been lost, or are not as widely known as in the past.
posted by lollusc at 1:30 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

We don't seem to have performers with talents like Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly anymore. Fred Astaire had so much dignity as an actor/dancer/performer. Not a lot of that anymore.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:39 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

writing? learning languages? giving speeches? dressing?
posted by misspony at 2:38 AM on December 17, 2011

writing? learning languages? giving speeches? dressing?

Seriously? If by "writing" you mean "handwriting", I'll give you that. But if you mean prose, novels, poetry, articles, etc: absolutely not.

Why do you think we're worse at learning languages? I bet with the internet, TV, and movies we're better than ever. The wide exposure to different languages is greater than at any other time in history.

Giving speeches? There are modern orators that are just as good as an past one. Martin Luther King. Winston Churchill. Orson Welles. Both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in Berlin. Many people are mesmerize by President Obama.

Dressing? We're less formal, that's for sure. But most people, myself included, think that's an improvement (otherwise it wouldn't be the trend).
posted by sbutler at 3:08 AM on December 17, 2011

For Americans, long-form nonfiction reading. Fewer people seem to read for pleasure, and even fewer read nonfiction for pleasure. They may watch documentaries, but that's a different set of skills.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:12 AM on December 17, 2011

We might be about to add running to the list [pdf].
posted by cromagnon at 3:53 AM on December 17, 2011

What are humans no better at now than they were in the past?

Every form of creative and/or cultural expression? Inasmuch as something is a game or sport, bounded by rules, one can study and refine the techniques used previously and attempt to improve winning percentage. Inasmuch as something is a cultural or creative expression, something that aims to delight or awe or terrify, to get across a feeling to another human, then I don't think we're any "better" at that than we ever were. Shakespeare's not better than Ovid, Austen not better than Flaubert, Joyce not better than Foster Wallace. Beethoven is not better than Chopin, Balanchine not better than Graham, Rodin not better than Sera. Etc. Given art forms may fall in and out of fashion; the size of their audience might shrink and grow, and therefore the average person might be more or less ignorant of them. But I think our innate capacities are the same, they merely require the opportunity to flourish. There was an article in the New Yorker a while back about a guy training Rwanda's first professional bike racing team, and dinging some surprising success. Has there ever been such a team before? No. Has there always been, sprinkled among the Rwandan population, some people with the requisite athleticism to compete at an elite level? I'd say yes. The things we improve at we don't improve at because humans as a whole are innately better than we ever have been. It's because in some fields of endeavour the beginner can start having eliminated many of the mistakes of the past through study, building on what went before. If I get places on average quicker than my great grandfather did, it's because somebody invented a car.
posted by Diablevert at 4:09 AM on December 17, 2011

Violin-making seems to have peaked in 17th-18th Century Italy, with instruments made by a handful of makers from that time still seen as the pinnacle, despite subsequent attempts to reverse-engineer the techniques. This might, however, be luck more than skill: one theory is that the wood available at that time was just right for making the best violins due to environmental conditions.
posted by Jabberwocky at 4:10 AM on December 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Interpersonal relationships. Politics.
posted by litnerd at 4:20 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

At least in the western world - lighting fires.
posted by kjs4 at 4:36 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Long term planning.
posted by plinth at 4:55 AM on December 17, 2011

The ability to bear pain.

I'd need some time to come up with evidence to back that up, but given how quickly people turn to meds these days, I think it's a good bet.
posted by Paris Elk at 5:13 AM on December 17, 2011

Getting our priorities straight - we still have as many starving, poverty-stricken, uneducated people in this world as we have ever had, and yet what do we, as individuals and nations, spend our money on?
posted by brownrd at 5:18 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Humans are no better at not being cruel, selfish,violent, heartless creeps. They are no better at not justifying their bad behavior because of religion, nationalism or just "Us against Them".
posted by mermayd at 5:33 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Delayed gratification
posted by blue_beetle at 6:13 AM on December 17, 2011

Humans are not better at anything. We are, as always, standing on the shoulders of giants.
posted by swift at 6:59 AM on December 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

One thing we are seriously worse at is our memory - you have to exercise it to remember the long texts and the many songs and stories people just knew.

But we're better at all sorts of spacial and visual skills - thank you, video games!

(moral of the story - environments change people)
posted by jb at 7:05 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

According to Steve Pinker, we are actually getting better at being peaceful and indulging less in reactive violence:

Quite a step forward I'd say.
posted by dannyl at 7:24 AM on December 17, 2011

Not to your timeframe, but we don't make calculators as well as we used to.

I'd also argue that we don't eat food that tastes as good as it used to. Admittedly, we traded this for more reliable food supplies, and feeding way more people.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:43 AM on December 17, 2011

Memorization - In the past there was a lot more emphasis on this skill which, sadly, is no longer true.

How we treat elderly people - Removing our elders from family life and sticking them in a "home" where we seldom visit has made life for the elderly worse emotionally (though it is much much better physically.) Of course, some of this is cultural.

Politeness - Reading literature of two hundred years ago, I am struck by how much more polite - reticent to say things that may be offensive to others - we were then than now.

Able to endure discomfort - Sea voyages, stage coach rides, sleeping arrangements; all these seem to have been much more uncomfortable than their modern equivalents. How did people put up with that stuff?
posted by eleslie at 8:11 AM on December 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'd also argue that we don't eat food that tastes as good as it used to. Admittedly, we traded this for more reliable food supplies, and feeding way more people.

Some people (Jared Diamond, Daniel Quinn) say that our food supply was healthier, more reliable, and easier to procure 10,000 years ago, before agriculture became widespread. We've achieved a larger population through agriculture, but that has brought widespread famine and malnutrition (as well as harsher wars, much longer working hours, and the other perks of civilization).
posted by gray17 at 8:26 AM on December 17, 2011

A friend of mine once complained that humanity has had storytellers for thousands of years, but there are still very few good stories. I argued that storytelling isn't analogous to, say, bridge-building, and he retorted that at its heart, storytelling is all about structure and making connections. "Why are there still shitty stories?" he cried.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:44 AM on December 17, 2011

Humans today aren't inherently smarter than the first Homo sapiens. The clovis point was high and subtle technology that few, if any, can replicate today. Because it was very early technology we think of it as primitive, but it required just as much dexterity and ingenuity to invent and produce as anything we make today if not more.

Nobody knows how to build a Roman ballista that performs to the Roman army's standards. Nobody is sure what Greek fire was, but it was surely a fully functioning flame thrower. No one knows if and how Archimedes made his heat ray. The Celts had thousands of miles of wooden roads. You think we could pull that off today? The pyramids? People we would call cave men made up numbers and ways to write down sounds. As far as I know the significance and mind-bending subtlety of this wasn't considered very vigorously again until Godel. Who of us could invent counting?
posted by cmoj at 9:46 AM on December 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

Learning from their mistakes.
posted by Leezie at 10:42 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Relationships. There's a reason why Shakespeare is still relevant hundreds of years later.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Comprehending very large or very small numbers. It's an ability we need much more today than we did when our brains first evolved, and you see the consequences of our general ineptitude at this skill alll over modern life.

And, yeah, long-form memorization has taken a huge hit in the last few decades. My mom used to make her students memorize short poems but I think that left her curriculum a few years back when she just couldn't justify the time and effort anymore. It's wild to me to think that school curricula used to involve memorizing, say, Eugene Onegin.
posted by troublesome at 11:03 AM on December 17, 2011

Being happy/fulfilled. Nobody's figured out formula for happiness. Instead, the definition of happiness has changed throughout the ages. As much as I hate to reference in a serious context, this piece is actually pretty relevant.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:00 PM on December 17, 2011

Map reading, both in the backcountry and on the roads. We heavily rely on GPS and navigation software.
posted by ye#ara at 1:32 PM on December 17, 2011

Writing and handwriting. If you watch Ken Burns' The Civil War, most of the people, even ordinary soldiers with little education, write beautifully since letters and notes were their only form of written communication. Our society's increasingly less formal and there are more channels for written communication, and email and Twitter encourage shortcuts and informality. Similarly, since most current forms of written communication are electronic, people's handwriting isn't as nice as it used to be.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:22 PM on December 17, 2011

(ms. Vegetable)
I vote for neighborliness and community.
In America, living without indoor plumbing or electricity, cooking a real family meal on a daily basis, talking to God, raising a large family.
This is all my opinion; i am not sure we do those things as often or as well as/any better than we used to.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:38 PM on December 17, 2011

Comprehending very large or very small numbers.

I'd agree that we're not very good at that, but are you claiming that we used to better at this, as the OP asked? Because I'd say this is something we're getting better at.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:08 PM on December 18, 2011

The OP asks what we're "no better" at. Not necessarily worse at.
posted by cmoj at 3:49 PM on December 18, 2011

« Older Help me get couple-y   |   I'm asking what to ask... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.