People living at the start of the third millennium enjoy a world that would have been inconceivable to our ancestors living in the 100 millennia that our species has existed. Ignorance and myth have given way to an extraordinarily detailed understanding of life, matter and the universe. Slavery, despotism, blood feuds and patriarchy have vanished from vast expanses of the planet, driven out by unprecedented concepts of universal human rights and the rule of law. Technology has shrunk the globe and stretched our lives and our minds.
How far can this revolution in the human condition go? Will the world of 3000 be as unthinkable to us today as the world of 2000 would have been to our forebears a millennium ago? Will our descendants live in a wired Age of Aquarius? Will science explain the universe down to the last quark, extinguishing mystery and wonder? Will the Internet turn us into isolates who interact only in virtual reality, doing away with couples, families, communities, cities? Will electronic media transform the arts beyond recognition? Will they transform our minds?
Obviously it would be foolish to predict what life will be like in a thousand years. We laugh at the Victorian experts who predicted that radio and flying machines were impossible. But it is just as foolish to predict that the future will be utterly foreign-we also laugh at the postwar experts who foresaw domed cities, jet-pack commuters and nuclear vacuum cleaners. The future, I suggest, will not be unrecognizably exotic because across all the dizzying changes that shaped the present and will shape the future one element remains constant: human nature.
After decades of viewing the mind as a blank slate upon which the environment writes, cognitive neuroscientists, behavioral geneticists and evolutionary psychologists are discovering instead a richly structured human psyche. Of course, humans are ravenous learners, but learning is possible only in a brain equipped with circuits that learn in intelligent ways and with emotions that motivate it to learn in useful ways. The mind has a toolbox of concepts for space (millimeters to kilometers), time (tenths of seconds to years), small numbers, billiard-ball causation, living things and other minds. It is powered by emotions about things-curiosity, fear, disgust, beauty-and about people-love, guilt, anger, sympathy, pride, lust. It has instincts to communicate by language, gesture and facial expressions.
We inherited this standard equipment from our evolutionary ancestors, and, I suspect, we will bequeath it to our descendants in the millennia to come. We won’t evolve into bulbous-brained, spindly-bodied homunculi because biological evolution is not a force that pushes us to greater intelligence and wisdom; it simply favors variants that out-reproduce their rivals in some environments. Unless people with a particular trait have more babies worldwide for thousands of generations, our biological constitution will not radically change.
It is also far from certain that we will redesign human nature through genetic engineering. People are repulsed by genetically modified soybeans, let alone babies, and the risks and reservations surrounding germ-line engineering of the human brain may consign it to the fate of the nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner.
If human nature does not change, our lives in the new millennium may be more familiar than the futurologists predict. Take education, where many seers predict a revolution that will make the schoolroom obsolete. Some envision Summerhillesque free schools, where children interact in a technology-enriched environment and literacy and knowledge will just blossom, free from the drudgery of drill and practice. Others hope that early stimulation, such as playing Mozart piano concertos to the bellies of pregnant women, will transform a plastic brain into a superlearner.