Science and technology could transform our world—if it weren’t for human nature
By Steven Pinker
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.
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 contact.
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.
Steven Pinker, professor of psychology in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is the author of How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997).