Another devastating chapter in our long history of massacres with guns unfolded in Tucson Arizona on January 8 with the ambush of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her entourage and bystanders. Will this shocking tragedy finally deliver a wake-up call to federal and state governments, as well as local communities, for a fresh and courageous re-examination of gun policies?
Several years ago I found myself wondering what Charles Darwin would say about gun ownership in terms of adaptation and intelligence in a presumably civilized society.
I walked into my neighborhood supermarket on the upper east side of Manhattan and promptly found myself in the midst of an armed robbery.
I was standing in line at the checkout counter when a big burly fellow forced his way forward, pushing customers aside. I was annoyed and almost blurted out something nasty. Then I noticed another younger man near the front of the checkout area staring at me. He flashed open his jacket showing an assault weapon. At first I thought it was a toy and almost laughed. Then the big guy grabbed the money from the cash register and the two fled. It all happened too fast for me to get nervous -- until afterwards. The six of us present did not have to say that we could have easily been killed on a whim. Our frozen expressions said it all.
Where does Charles Darwin fit into this scenario? His survival of the fittest theory of evolution would say that we -- the customers -- were not fit to survive, unlike the guys with the guns. Had they killed us, we would have been evolutionary losers -- our genetic lines destroyed in favor of the robbers' genes.
Then, too, the most popular theory about the nature of intelligence built into the most widely used instrument for assessing intelligence, the Wechsler Intelligence Tests, would rule that the unarmed customers were less intelligent, even mentally deficient, compared to the criminals.
According to Dr. David Wechsler's view, intelligence is not fixed but is relative to the environment that you live in. In other words, intelligence is defined by the skills necessary to adapt to a particular society: "Intelligence is the global capacity of the individual to deal effectively with his environment." By this definition, if you were living in an agricultural society and had no farming skills you would be considered low in intelligence and would find yourself at the bottom of the economic and social ladder -- a maladaptive loser.
In a technological society though, farming skills alone would not get you very far. You would need verbal skills, abstract thinking ability, and a host of other cognitive tools for successful adaptation. In fact, today even farming requires technological literacy.
But what if you are living in "gun world" -- a violent society where there are so many gun-toting folks (more than 200 million firearms in private hands) that you have a good chance of getting gunned down? The answer is embarrassingly obvious, but I'll say it anyway. Get a gun and you will instantly raise your I.Q. That will also move you up on the evolutionary scale and place you among the fittest to survive.
Let's revisit the supermarket and see what happens when the patrons are as "intelligent" and as "fit to survive" as the hold-up men. Now all six customers have guns. The moment we see the armed robbers we draw our weapons and open fire. Yes, a few of us might get hit. But maybe not if we are faster on the draw -- or if some of us are. Since there are more of us than them we have a good chance of winning. In any event, we would exhibit glowing proof of our fitness for evolutionary victory -- and our high intelligence by having the tools and skills to "master our environment." Our living bodies and the thieves' dead bodies would prove our evolutionary superiority.
Is this the kind of world we want? Most of us would say no. But like it or not, it's happening, as more and more citizens arm themselves to cope with "gun world" where the "big bang" takes on a new meaning for evolution. Some communities have even introduced ordinances that would require individuals and households to own guns to improve their chances for survival of the fittest in gun world. And the Arizona State Legislature is about to vote on legislation that would permit students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus. I wonder if that will change the meaning of a student gunning for an A. Guns are such a lure that a car dealership in Missouri offered a free AK-47 assault rifle with the purchase of a new truck.
But there is a better and wiser way. Humans have the unique ability to consciously direct evolution. We can choose to have a civilized society in which guns do not define either evolutionary fitness or intelligence. If we applied better oversight, stopped the sale of assault weapons; if illegal gun possession meant stiff prison sentences, and if there were even tougher penalties for using guns in crimes, or illegally supplying them, our definition of fitness, adaptation and intelligence could be turned on its head. Guns would then make you unfit, maladaptive and unintelligent.
We can surely figure out a way to stop the surge of guns into the wrong hands -- if we have the will to do it. We have a choice and the power to make it happen.
You may call it foolish, but I for one will not get a gun. I will remain an evolutionary loser and a mentally deficient member of gun world, hoping that we will have the courage to become truly civilized and turn the tables on those who would lead us down their dark path.
Legislators: the bullets and our national intelligence are in your hands. Charles Darwin's ghost is watching -- and he doesn't have a gun.