About a million years ago, our pre-human ancestors used their fledgling intelligence to conclude that all life, including their own, must eventually face death – and that the world would continue after their lives ended. So far as we know we are the only creatures on earth that have faced this sobering fact.
I sometimes envy the wild creatures that are blissfully unaware of the perils of the future. They live for the moment. Even the squirrel, who diligently stockpiles food to tide him over the winter, is only blindly following the instincts that evolution has programmed into its behaviour. By trial and error evolution has given non-sentient life forms the information needed to make decisions affecting their future – but this “knowledge” is hard-wired. There is no burden of worry.
Our species, on the other hand, is keenly aware that the future is something to wonder and worry about. Every day the obituaries remind us that fame and fortune are no defence against the grim reaper.
Evolution is an additive process. We are the “sum of the parts” of our past. We share a common ancestor with all life on our planet. If you drew a family tree of all life on Earth we would lie on a branch close to the chimpanzee. Further up the tree (‘up’ meaning further back in time) the primate branch evolved as a distinct family and further back the first amphibians emerged from what had been strictly water-dwelling life.
So self-absorbed, live-for-the-moment ways are hard-wired into us by our past. Being concerned about the future is a newly acquired facility – which may explain why many of us are not good at it.
I am sure you know some chronic worriers who always seem to fear that the worst is about to happen. Some are so obsessed with their fears that they forfeit happiness – even to the extreme of suicide. Some depend on chemicals to escape their gloomy view of the future. Others invest time searching for hope in astrological charts or the visions of self-proclaimed prophets. Many others escape into reality shows and identification with sports teams’ fates.
Our ability to contemplate the future is a beautiful thing – but, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The worriers see it is an unwanted burden – but that is a selfish view. If we step out of the shoes of our individual lives (‘our mortal span’) and take a species-wide view, our ability to contemplate our future is a precious gift that we should cherish.
Alone among all the creatures that have lived on our planet we have the ability to shape a future for our species that knows no limit. In the sphere of technology we are becoming blasé as waves of new and exciting consumer goods come ever quicker. The “GNR” revolution (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics) which is just getting into stride, will accelerate the pace of technological advances in all spheres, including medicine. The possibility of extending human life spans by decades and, one day, centuries is no longer far-fetched.
Our technology is close to giving us the capability to survive species-extinction-threatening events such as “NEO” impacts (“near earth objects” e.g. asteroids and comets). We will soon be able to engineer our planet’s climate. In the not too distant future we should have technology that will allow us to leave our planet and colonize others – de-coupling our species survival from that of our planet.
It is even possible that, one day, we could gain the ability to travel in time. The past, scientists are sure, will never be available to us – but travel to the future may be possible on a one-way ticket.
In this article I have been portraying our ability to shape the future as a blessing – a bonanza of yet-to-be realized potential. But a more mature way to view it is as a responsibility.
What we do today will shape the future for our children and their children ad infinitum. If we continue to see our intellectual potential and technological prowess as a cookie jar for our personal gratification we will, literally, be committing a “crime against humanity”. We must accept full responsibility for a future that goes far beyond our individual lives – even beyond our ability to imagine…
To get the right perspective on the issues involved, I ask you to imagine that you are a member of another species of life on this planet. Imagine you are a cat (perhaps your pet). Now put yourself in the cat’s (metaphorical) shoes as it watches you towering over it. You flip a little switch high over its head and incomprehensible light replaces the dark. You touch a button on a piece of plastic and a picture shows on a flat panel and sound comes out of some boxes. You turn a small dial and the environment becomes warmer. These giants are not mere animals – they are gods!
And your cat does not know the half of it… The “gods” that can make cat food appear for its benefit are also re-engineering the planet for their personal benefit – regardless of the cost to the rest of the ecosphere. They are the cause of mass extinctions rivalling the “K-T” event, 65 million years ago, when an asteroid collision eradicated about half of all animal species including all the dinosaurs.
With power comes responsibility. It is time for us to accept that responsibility. Einstein saw this truth over 50 years ago when he said –
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.” (Albert Einstein, 1954)
We are not children. We have to find our own way. We can’t look to our local politician to “see the light” and make laws that will oblige us to carry out our responsibilities. We, as individuals, are responsible for the future of our species.
Nature has a way of dealing with its (evolutionary) failures. Think about it…