E-mail and e-commerce will continue their inroads, of course, but not to the point of making us permanent antisocial shut-ins; only to the point where the increase in convenience is outweighed by a decrease in the pleasure of being with friends, relations and interesting strangers. If our descendants have spaceports and transporter rooms, they will be crammed at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But human relationships also embrace conflicts of biological interests, which surface in jealousy, sibling rivalry, status-seeking, infidelity and mistrust. The social world is a chess game in which our minds evolved as strategists.
If so, the mental lives of our descendants are not hard to predict. Conflicts with other people, including those they care the most about, will crowd their waking thoughts, keep them up at night, animate their conversation and supply the plots of their fiction, whatever the medium in which they enjoy it.
If constraints on human nature make the future more like the present and past than futurologists predict, should we sink into despair? Many people, seeing the tragedies and frustrations of the world today, dream of a future without limits, in which our descendants are infinitely good, wise, powerful and omniscient. The suggestion that our future might be constrained by DNA shaped in the savanna and ice ages seems depressing-even dangerous.
Admittedly, many declarations of ineluctable human nature turned out to be wrong and even harmful-for example, the “inevitability” of war, racial segregation and the political inequality of women. But the opposite view, of an infinitely plastic and perfectible mind, has led to horrors of its own: the Soviet “new man,” re-education camps and the unjust blaming of mothers for the disabilities and neuroses of their children.
Many leaps in our quality of life came from the recognition of universal human needs, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and of universal limitations on human wisdom and beneficence, which led to our government of laws and not men.
Universal obsessions are also the reason that we enjoy the art and stories of peoples who lived in centuries and millennia past: Shakespeare, the Bible, the love stories and hero myths of countless cultures superficially unlike our own. And the mind’s foibles ensure that science will be a perennial source of enchantment even as it dispels one mystery after another. The delights of science-of the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, the unraveling of the genes and the brain-come from the surprise triggered by a conclusion that is indubitably confirmed by experiment and theory but that contradicts standard human intuitions.
Third-millennium futurologists should realize that their fantasies are scaring people to death. The preposterous world in which we interact only in cyberspace, choose the endings of our novels, merge with our computers and design our children from a catalogue gives people the creeps and turns them off to the genuine promise of technological progress. The constancy of human nature is our reassurance that the world we leave to our descendants will be one in which scientific progress leads to delight rather than boredom, in which our best art and literature continues to be appreciated, and in which technology will enrich rather than dominate human lives.