May/June 2000 Viewpoint
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Life in the Fourth Millennium
Science and technology could transform our world—if it weren’t for
By Steven Pinker
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
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
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.
But an alternative view is that education is the attempt to get minds
to do things they are badly designed for. Though children instinctively
speak, see, move and use common sense, their minds may be constitutionally
ill at ease with many of the fruits of modern civilization: written language,
mathematical calculation, the very large and very small spans of time and
space that are the subject of history and science. If so, education will
always be a tough slog, depending on disciplined work on the part of students
and on the insight of a skilled teacher who can stretch stone-age minds
to meet the demands of alien subject matter.
Our mental apparatus may also constrain how much we adults ever
grasp the truths of science. The Big Bang, curved 4-D space-time and particles
that act like waves—all are required by our best theories of physics but
are incompatible with common sense. Similarly, consciousness and decision-making
arise from the electrochemical activity of neural networks in the brain.
But how moving molecules should throw off subjective feelings (as opposed
to mere intelligent computations) and choices for which we can be held
responsible (as opposed to behavior that is caused) remain deep mysteries
to our Pleistocene psyches.
That suggests that our descendants will endlessly ponder the age-old
topics of religion and philosophy, which ultimately hinge on concepts of
matter and mind. Why does the universe exist, and what brought it into
being? What are the rights and responsibilities of living things with different
brains, hence different minds, from ours—fetuses, animals, neurologically
impaired people, the dying? Abortion, animal rights, the insanity defense
and euthanasia will continue to agonize the thoughtful (or be settled by
dogma among the unthoughtful) for as long as the human mind confronts them.
One can also predict that the mind will shape, rather than be reshaped
by, the information technology of the future. Why have computers recently
infiltrated our lives? Because they have been painstakingly crafted to
mesh better with the primitive workings of our minds. The graphical user
interface (windows, icons, buttons, sliders, mice) and the World Wide Web
represent the coercion of machines, not people.
We have jiggered our computers to simulate a world of phantom objects
that are alien to the computer’s own internal workings (ones, zeroes and
logic) but are comfortable for us tool-using, vision-dependent primates.
Many other dramatic technological changes will come from getting our machines
to adapt to our quirks—understanding our speech, recognizing our faces,
carrying out our desires in accord with our common sense—rather than from
getting humans to adapt to the ways of machines.
Our emotional repertoire, too, ensures that the world of tomorrow will
be a familiar place. Humans are a social species, with intense longings
for friends, communities, family and spouses, consummated by face-to-face
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
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
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
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.
Steven Pinker, professor of psychology in MIT’s Department of Brain
and Cognitive Sciences, is the author of How the Mind Works (Norton,
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