Today is the great day—four questions instead of three. And my tentative answers, of course.
7. Are the better angels of our nature taking over? Some people, especially the American psychologist Steven Pinker, think so. They point out that, relative to the global population, the number of people killed in war each year is decreasing; that in advanced countries the number of crimes committed per 100,000 people per year is much smaller than was historically the case; that the number of executions, especially such as are carried out in public, is likewise falling; and that torture, which in the past was often carried out in public and not without a certain pride, is used less often.
All this reminds me of a famous book, Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process. Elias, a German-Jewish sociologist who left Germany in 1933, made an argument quite similar to Pinker’s. The way he saw it, courteous social behavior originated in royal courts. From there it outwards, gradually causing the surrounding societies to become less uncouth than they had been. The volume was published in 1939—just before World War II broke out and, following perhaps fifty million dead, culminated in Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Enough, said.
Specifically, if the number of people killed in war is considerably smaller than it used to be then in my opinion this is due not to any moral advances but to the fear of proliferating nuclear weapons which has prevented large powers from waging large-scale war against other large powers. The decline in crime is probably related to the fact that Western civilizations are aging, with the result that the group most likely to commit it, i.e. males aged 17 to 25, is diminishing in number and in some cases almost literally disappearing. The decreasing number of executions and the declining use of torture—if, indeed, it is declining—may be due not to the spread of love and kindness but to sheer hypocrisy and, ultimately, cowardice. Finally, as the rise and careers of monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tze Dong, Pol Pot, and their countless cronies and collaborators and assistants and followers remind us, we remain what we have always been. Namely, creatures capable of anything.
8. Is life becoming more predictable? Clearly if we are to build a better future we must have some idea of what the consequences of our actions may be as well as the general direction in which things are moving. The role of God, or providence, or accident, or luck, or chance, or fate, or fortune, in human affairs must be reduced; that of calculation and prudent foresight, increased.
It is true that most of us no longer trust in soothsayers, or prophecies, or crystal balls, or Tarot cards, or necromancy (though a surprisingly large number people continue to consult their horoscopes). Instead we employ “experts,” known, in the field of economics, as “analysts,” whose task is to construct models and identify trends. The more “data” and equations the models and the trends contain, the more scientific and the more reliable they are considered to be. But is there any real reason to think that our ability to look into the future has improved, say, since the Pythia at Delphi, sunk in a sort of stupor caused by gasses rising out of the earth, predicted that, if it came to war between Persia and Lydia, “a great kingdom” would be lost? Not if I judge by the fact that such events as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the 2008 recession, were almost entirely unexpected. Not if I judge by the example of President George Bush, Jr., and his advisers when they launched their Iraqi adventure back in 2003. And not if I do so by the repeated, often contradictory, utterances of Janet Yelenn as to whether the economy is or is not “recovering.”
Above all, the basic dilemma remains in force. Very often, a predictable future is one that can be averted or altered; as, for example, when we strengthen our home following a warning that a hurricane is about to strike. In other words, the very fact that we can look into the future is likely to cause that future to change.
Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him what your plans are.
9. Are we proceeding towards a singularity? The way I understand it, a singularity is an event so critical as to completely change the whole course of human history, rendering it irrelevant and bringing about a new start. As, for example, in case we make death lose its sting and start living forever; or when we first contact an extra-terrestrial civilization, especially one that is much more advanced than ourselves; or when our brains will be first replaced, then surpassed, by computers.
Some gurus, such as Google Technology Chief Ray Kurzweil, claim that we are going to see a singularity within the next few decades. For myself, my training as a historian makes me distrust such prognoses. Great and revolutionary events, such as the American or Russian Revolutions, never happen all at once. The same applies to scientific discoveries and technological inventions; let alone long-term processes such as “the agricultural revolution,” “the industrial revolution” and the like. All without exception had roots in the past, not seldom the fairly remote past. So deep were the “roots” of the revolution known as the Renaissance that some historians have tried to push them back all the way to the time of Charlemagne. In the vast majority of cases failure to realize this is simply a symptom of sloppy research. That explains why, for every work that set forth the magnitude of the changes brought about by of the French Revolution there was one which, like Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), pointed to the things that had not changed.
An excellent illustration of the way things work is provided by the history of aviation. When the first flying machines took off a little over a century ago most people considered them toys, entertaining, perhaps, but useless. Some inventors, including the Brothers Wright, were even accused of fraud. As aircraft became more capable and more numerous the doubts disappeared. More and more, they were seen as supplements to existing machines and existing methods. Next, the wind changed. Aviation became the most important thing in the world; taking the latter by storm, it would revolutionize every aspect of life to the point of making it unrecognizable. Slowly but surely, though, people got used to it—and as they did so they realized that, while many things had changed, many others remained more or less as they had been.
Similar stories could be told of any number of other inventions: such as railways, telegraphs, electric light, motor cars, radio, TV, antibiotics, computers, and Viagra. Who today remembers that, when the last-named hit the market in 1998, it was supposed to revolutionize social life by enabling old men to have young women and young women, to link their fate with rich old men even more often than now? Each invention went through the above-listed stages. Sooner or later—quite often, sooner rather than later—each one became integrated into “modern” life while at the same time leaving much of that life intact.
10. Are we, as a species, going to evolve? Physically, given the short timeframe I have chosen to deal with, the answer is no. Biological evolution is a slow process; there is no question but that, mentally and physically our great-great-great grandchildren will resemble us no less than we resemble, say, the first “modern” humans who lived fifty thousand years ago.
We may, however, use other methods to change ourselves. First, given the enormous attention now being paid to tests designed to identify all kinds of defects and diseases and abort the fetuses who carry them before they emerge from the womb, future populations may well display fewer such defects and diseases. That was how the Nazis did it, albeit that for lack of the necessary medical technology they used to kill people after they were born rather than earlier in their development. Second, widespread use of sperm donors and artificial insemination might lead to the spreading of qualities the mothers consider desirable: such as size, strength, blond hair, blue eyes, and, for women, the kind of curves that have always formed, and still form, their principal means of attracting men. Average, though not exceptional, intelligence may also rise.
Third, we may reach the point where we can replace the genes of fertilized eggs so as to make future people more resistant to diseases or endow them with all sorts of desirable qualities. Fourth, we may turn into cyborgs—in the sense that we shall have more and more artificial devices implanted into our bodies so as to sustain or take over or enhance the latter’s functions. Fifth, some gurus claim that we may have our minds scanned, stored on some electronic devices, and activated so as to replace our physical selves and do away with us altogether.
In which case, as I said, there will be neither heaven nor hell.