The Wiki Man

Email needs eugenics

Francis Galton was wrong about how people breed – but right, I suspect, about information

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

You won’t read much about Sir Francis Galton nowadays because, while it’s inarguable that the man was a giant in scores of scientific fields (many of which he invented), it is hard to deny that he was a teensy-weensy bit racist. That he wrote a letter to the Times in 1873 entitled ‘Africa for the Chinese’ is probably as much as you need to know.

At the moment, I can’t find my copy of his 1869 book Hereditary Genius; possibly, along with the rest of my vast library on eugenics, it’s at Der Roryhof, my holiday home perched high on a crag overlooking the Bavarian Alps. But I remembered it when my company updated its email interface last week so ‘Reply all’ was now the default mode of reply.

Galton (who invented the term ‘eugenics’) argued that, in the absence of any Malthusian constraint, people of low-quality stock (cyclists, joggers, etc) rapidly outbreed people of high-quality stock (fat, Jag-driving advertising executives, say). There were two factors driving this trend: the inferior sort of people had more children and — just as important — they bore children younger. In a given unit of time you might have three generations of ad executives with two kids apiece, and six generations of joggers with four children apiece; at which point the joggers’ descendants outnumber the advertising executives’ by 1024:4.

Now it’s clear that Galton can’t have been completely right here; for one thing human intelligence seems to be rising. And, with the lone exception of Anni-Frid from Abba, who was the product of a wartime programme where SS officers were paired with Norwegian women ‘to enrich the Aryan gene pool’, attempts to apply the theory to humans did not go well.

However, when I saw the ‘Reply all’ button it occurred to me that we shouldn’t discard Galton’s theory just yet. You see, while it may not apply to human genetics, it may be highly applicable to email — and information in general. Bullshit, like Galton’s low-fitness individuals, may outbreed sense by 1024:4, and for the same reasons: bullshit is more fecund than truth, and it starts breeding sooner.

Email, for instance, is highly dysgenic. The value of the information an email contains is inversely related to the number of people it is addressed to; any email copied to more than five people is usually worthless. And the more trivial the email is, the faster people reply to it. So ‘Reply all’ as a default is a disaster; absent some Malthusian force, my inbox will be trampled by an unthinned herd of irrelevant emails at the expense of anything important.

How would you create a eugenic email system based on Galton’s principles? Try these rules to start: 1) the more people an email is addressed to, the longer it takes to arrive; 2) bcc, not cc, becomes the default for copying people — a bcc is infertile; c) Only emails marked urgent will arrive in real time, the rest will be delivered in batches thrice daily; d) mortality: all unread emails not marked ‘important’ will disappear after 24 hours; e) simple ‘thanks’ and ‘like’ buttons should be devised to kill needless replies.

Additionally, on social media, all posts with pictures containing the author’s children or pictures of cakes would be deleted after 30 minutes, and all posts expressing outrage at someone’s supposed comments would be deferred by 72 hours to allow the provost of University College London time to determine whether the incident in fact occurred before anyone was forced to resign. (Building a time buffer into communication can be beneficial: it is a profoundly stupid assumption of technologists that instantaneous always equals good.)

Social Darwinism was a bad idea. But Social Media Darwinism? It could work.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • I want to send this around the office, daily, from now until I die.

    • david

      Surely it’d die pretty quickly though? You know, 5+ CC = bullshit.

  • Jacqueline Steel

    If we have to get rid of our children’s pics on social media within 1 hour, please could we also sift out all the ‘Map my run on Go-Pro’ vids and the ‘Here’s me after a 25k bike ride’ pics. Leave the cakes though.

  • rtj1211

    I’ve not quite worked out why advertising executives are of superior stock? Most of them secretly lust after the celebrities they hire for their campaigns, which shows a quite astonishing lack of quality. I’ve also not quite worked out why joggers are uniquely working class, it being a pretty darn middle/rich class past-time judging by who runs in the London marathon every year. Not very good at market research, are you?

    So my assessment of this article is that you have the intellect of your kind of jogger, and the waistline of a fat advertising executive.

    Should Ogilvy UK be looking for a new vice-chairman??

    Because if this is the quality of advertisement of your own personal qualities, I don’t think the ROI is going to be too far into the black, sonny jim…….

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  • Tamerlane

    ‘people of low-quality stock (cyclists, joggers, etc)’ Now, now, we all know people on welfare don’t jog or cycle.

  • trace9

    Only idiots would think human intelligence is rising. There are about 7 billion of Them – & rising.. You’re a fool, Suthermind.

    • david

      ‘Only a true scotsman’ logical fallacy and questionable grammar – fool, really?

  • Lemniscate

    Galton’s theory of eugenics was basically correct: intelligence is heritable, and the genetic variants that are associated with intelligence have been declining in frequency in the developed world. The data exists to prove it and will be published soon. The majority of the effect in the 20th Century can be shown to be due to more intelligent women delaying the age at which they bear their first child in order to gain further education. Measured IQ scores have risen because the environmental component of intelligence has been improved by increasing wealth, which has temporarily masked the genetic decline. Improvement of the environment has hit diminishing returns and the Flynn effect has stopped in recent years in developed countries.

    • Clive

      There are a lot of assertions in there. This seems to be a fairly new area of study with limited resources – because it’s in the ‘social sciences’ arena and suffers from political correctness of the ‘should we be studying this at all’ ilk.

      It’s important but it looks to me as though it is far from proven that ‘intelligence is heritable’.

      It also depends on what you mean by ‘intelligence’ which is one of the most disputed areas of all. One of the major consequences of this area of study has been a questioning of the value of IQ tests.

      • If you don’t know that intelligence is heritable, then you have not read the large body of research that shows that it is. Quite apart from the research, just think about it for a moment. Why would it not be? Do you look like your parents? Do you inherit their tendency to certain illnesses or to long life? Why would your brain be different? Intelligence in any individual has been shown by quality research to be between 60% and 80% dependent on their genetic make-up inherited from their parents. Of course environment also plays a part – a significant part and since it is the only part of the pie that we can control after the fact (of birth) we focus on it in devising good nursery and school provision. This does not however negate the massive contribution made by your parents genetic contribution.

        Of course this whole area is these days very un-pc because we are not allowed by the fascistic left to even enquire into such matters, and no more so than the question of the population level IQ of different races. Suffice it to say that white European races have a population level mean IQ of 100 (by and large) and the east Asian population mean IQ is higher at 105. You can see the results of this in international school performance scores such as PISA. Of course the other end of this discussion must not be mentioned or the world will fall on your head – but suffice it to say that the European mean IQ is far from the lowest. Why would we ever think that while in manifold ways, races differ in athletic performance, predisposition to particular diseases, reaction to drugs used in medicine, appearance and physical characteristics BUT THEY ARE ALL ASSUMED TO HAVE BRAINS THAT ARE THE SAME…… Sheer stupidity and with a massive evidence base to the contrary from IQ results, educational performance, cultural and economic development of societies and crime rates.

  • Clive

    The trend most noticeable in companies in recent times is that of senior managers wanting less emails. I believe there are several causes:

    (1) Senior managers want ‘plausible deniability’ for things that go wrong
    (2) Senior managers frequently get their jobs through politics and sociability and they want personal contact which helps to promote their cause
    (3) Senior managers frequently do not understand what is going on in their bailiwick and do not want to be ‘put on the spot’ for this lack of knowledge
    (4) Senior managers, like everyone else, want less to do

    Well, hard fucking luck. You get paid the bucks, do the job.

    I have been a senior manager, lest bitterness be attributed as the only cause of this tirade.

  • The stupid overlay of distortion imposed by Sutherland, perhaps as an attempt at humour, completely distorts the fact that Galton’s assertion was right; people of low intellectual quality DO outbreed the more intelligent. It is true. What is wrong with saying it?

  • ABCD1234

    OK how about simply getting rid of To: Cc: and Bcc: altogether. They can then be replaced by Do: Reply: and Info: