Humans Know a Lot, This Author Concedes, and Most of It Is Useless

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

Gregg studies animal behavior and is an expert in dolphin communication. He shows how human cognition is extraordinarily complex, allowing us to paint pictures and write symphonies. We can share ideas with one another so that we don’t have to rely only on gut instinct or direct experience in order to learn. But this compulsion to learn can be superfluous, he says. We accumulate what the philosopher Ruth Garrett Millikan calls “dead facts” — knowledge about the world that is useless for daily living, like the distance to the moon, or what happened in the latest episode of “Succession.” Our collections of dead facts, Gregg writes, “help us to imagine an infinite number of solutions to whatever problems we encounter — for good or ill.”

“If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal” is mostly fixated on the ill, or the way that humans insist they are improving things when they are ultimately mucking them up. There is already a stuffed shelf of books about how we aren’t as smart as we like to think we are, or how our smartness can lead us astray: David Robson’s “The Intelligence Trap,” Leonard Mlodinow’s “Emotional,” books in behavioral economics by Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely. But Gregg makes a bigger case about how human intelligence has deformed the planet as well. He explicitly ventures into the conflict between optimists like Steven Pinker and pessimists like the British philosopher John Gray.

More here.