On the survival of the laziest

19 Aug|Andrew Smart

The Greenland shark lives to four hundred years and does very little

As scientists attribute the long life of the world’s oldest living shark to its leisurely pace of life, Andrew Smart ponders laziness as evolutionary strategy

The world’s oldest living animal might also be the laziest. In what surely seems like a story we at the Idler made up, scientists have found a 400-year old shark in Greenland whose Latin name is – and again we are not making this up – Somniosus microcephalus, which translates roughly as “sleepy small-head”. This somnolent shark glides around at a leisurely pace for hundreds of years in the frigid waters around Greenland, taking in the sights and generally chilling. In an awesome and interesting bit of 1960’s nostalgia, scientists were able to estimate the age of these ancient creatures by using the radiocarbon signatures of test atomic bomb blasts during the mid-20th century – called the “radiocarbon bomb pulse” which leaves traces in the eyes of the sharks as they develop. So this is one positive side-effect of detonating nuclear bombs on small islands in the middle of the ocean– many years later we will be able see the remnants of these explosions in very long-lived sea creatures.

On the human side, it seems that laziness might also be a sign of intelligence. A recent study shows that people who scored high on a “need for cognition” scale – which estimates how much people like to think and daydream, and in general reflects intelligence – were also less physically active. In contrast to people who scored low on the “need for cognition” scale who tend to be more physically active. This could be interpreted to mean that if you are highly thoughtful person who enjoys mind wandering and daydreaming, you like also prefer lying around as opposed to darting about doing pointless tasks.

How could a shark species that lives for centuries and intelligent humans be – of all things – lazy? Could there be some biological explanation?

According to the popular mythology surrounding Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, we are all trapped in brutal and never-ending battle for survival. We are pitted against nature and other creatures in a desperate fight to produce more progeny than the next poor sot. Neoliberals and capitalists love to regurgitate this distorted version of Darwinism, adding flourishes like “you know it’s survival of the fittest” to defend our aberrant economic system without having a clue that Darwin did not invent this phrase, or that being evolutionarily fit has nothing to do with being a banker.

The misunderstanding of Darwin also fits in well with the Neoliberal narrative that we are all at bottom ruthless individuals locked in mutual struggle against one another, and that, as Margaret Thatcher claimed, there is no society. Darwin argued in fact that it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent who survive and reproduce – evolutionary success depends instead on being the most adaptable to change.

Idleness and laziness have been denigrated on similar misguided grounds. We are told that in order to survive and reproduce we must put in insane hours at the office, keep our lives as busy as possible to optimize our value, run eight marathons per year, and produce offspring whose sole purpose is academic and athletic “achievement.”

In direct contrast to the modern perversion of Darwinism, the Russian anarchist-biologist Peter Kropotkin developed his concept of mutual-aid based on his understanding of natural selection, stating;

“In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense — not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress.”

It’s true that Darwinian “fitness” means simply that you as an individual have lots of grandchildren (who have inherited more of your good traits than your bad ones). Humans have lots of grandchildren not because each of us is super strong or smart as individuals- but rather because (despite appearances to the contrary in modern society) we are prone to helping one another survive. And it is this instinct toward mutual-aid that that capitalism – with its insistence on individual struggle – tries to suppress and stamp out. But we still help each other and of course reproduce.

Sexual reproduction turns out to be a very efficient way for nature to arrive at organisms that are highly adapted to their environments (NB that was a somewhat metaphorical sentence – I don’t think nature intends anything but that is another discussion). In fact it has been shown that sexual reproduction (which entails that important traits get passed on to the next generation – i.e., heritability) with random mutation increases the amount of useful information coded by DNA many times faster than asexual reproduction (which oddly some species still cling to). In other words species adapt faster by having sex. Darwin called this “natural selection”. With the discovery of DNA and the explosion of the field of genomics in recent times, Darwin’s ideas have, with some revisions and heated debates over the years, turned out to be remarkably resilient in the face of intense scientific scrutiny.

A simplified way to understand the mechanism of evolution is just: whatever works. Whatever works to keep the species going, surviving and reproducing will get “selected” for over eons of time. This brings us to laziness and intelligence. Humans are very smart but also very lazy. On average, and all things being equal – which they never are – humans tend to prefer being idle. Intelligence on an individual level also seems to be quite heritable, and the tendency toward sloth is also likely transmitted through the genetic material we get from our parents. This indicates that intelligence and laziness have been “selected for” over the course of our evolution. Very crudely, it might be the case that smart and lazy individuals have had more grandchildren than stupid and hardworking individuals.

This might seem somewhat counterintuitive. But an analogy can be drawn to an unwritten rule attributed to Bill Gates from the software industry: hire lazy programmers. Why? Lazy programmers will figure out the smartest way to get something done to avoid having to do it. One must be cautious with these types of evolutionary interpretations of course, because not every trait has a simple evolutionary explanation. For example, why did the Dutch suddenly become so tall? They were not very tall just one hundreds ago, but today if you are of average height –say 6 feet, and want to get an idea of what it feels like to be an extremely short person go to Holland. But we can see that the combination of improved diet, cultural norms that made height attractive, and better healthcare – all combined to produce tall Dutch people in a very short period of time.

Returning to laziness and intelligence, I will pursue this line of evolutionary speculation because I don’t think it’s implausible. Humans have the well-known “fight-or-flight” response to stress. You detect something stressful (possibly life-threatening) in the environment and physiologically your digestion stops, your blood-pressure rises, blood-sugar increases, heart rate increases and pupils dilate – all of this to prepare your body for either a fight or a mad sprint to the nearest cave. But in the absence of threats – your body wants to relax and recover.

In modern societies we rarely ever experience a true fight-or-flight situation, but we are constantly under psycho-social stress in terms of our jobs, our kids and the ridiculous circus our so-called leaders have made out of society. But our brains know only how to prepare to fight or flee- thus when we worry about our jobs, fret about the latest hipster trend that we’re behind on, crave the latest piece of technology – our brains initiate the same stress response.

The problem is that there is then no metabolic demand following our stress response – we’re not engaged in a fight for our lives and we’re not running full-gas across the savannah climbing the nearest tree. We’re just sitting around worrying – and this turns out to be as dangerous to your health as smoking. Over time this kind of physiological stress response for no good reason leads to all kind of horrible diseases – Type II diabetes and obesity and so forth. The key to longevity – as the Greenland shark demonstrates to a ridiculous degree living up to 400 years – is a low stress lifestyle.

The key trick I believe humans (and other species too) invented was mutual-aid – pace Kropotkin. A society that protected individuals from predators and natural calamities improved the genetic fitness of the entire species. And this enabled intelligence and laziness to co-evolve. Once a society can solve the existence problem – individuals might be free to engage in thinking. Once our brains were freed of the stress of mere existence they could become reflective, creative and intelligent. But crucially – the body needed to be in repose.


Andrew Smart is the author of Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing and Beyond Zero and One. A scientist and engineer interested in consciousness, brains and technology, his work traverses the boundaries of neuroscience, philosophy, culture, radical politics and metaphysics. He was raised in the U.S., educated and married in Sweden, lived in New York and Minneapolis and now lives in Switzerland