People living at the start of the third millennium enjoy a world which would have been inconceivable to ancestors living in the previous 100 millennia during which our species has existed. Ignorance and myth have given way to a detailed understanding of life and the universe. Slavery, despotism, blood feuds and patriarchy have vanished from great expanses of the planet, driven out by the idea of human rights and the rule of law. Technology has shrunk the globe and stretched our lives and minds.
How far can this revolution in the human condition go? Will the world of 3000 be as unthinkable to us as the world of 2000 would have been to our forebears a mil-lennium ago? Will science explain the universe down to the last quark, thus extinguishing mystery and wonder? Will the internet turn us into loners, doing away with families, communities, cities? Will electronic media transform the arts? Will they transform our minds?
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 laugh also at the postwar experts who foresaw domed cities, jet-pack commuters and nuclear vacuum cleaners. The future, I suggest, will not be unrecognisably exotic, because across all the dizzying changes which shaped the present and will shape the future, one element remains constant: human nature.
After decades of viewing the mind as a blank slate on which the environment writes, neuroscientists, behavioural geneticists and evolutionary psychologists are discovering instead a richly structured psyche. Of course, humans are ravenous learners, but learning is possible only in a brain equipped with circuits which learn in intelligent ways and with emotions which motivate it to learn. The mind has a toolbox of concepts for space, time, living things and other minds. It is powered by emotions about things-curiosity, fear, disgust-and about people-love, guilt, anger, pride, lust. It has instincts to communicate by language, gesture and facial expression.
We inherited this equipment from our ancestors; 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 pushing us towards greater intelligence; it simply favours variants that out-reproduce their rivals. Unless people with a particular trait have more babies, worldwide, for thousands of generations, our biological constitution will not radically change.