nicholas_humphrey's picture
Emeritus Professor of Psychology, London School of Economics; Visiting Professor of Philosophy, New College of the Humanities; Senior Member, Darwin College, Cambridge; Author, Soul Dust

We're easily seduced by the idea that, once the Big One comes, nothing will ever be the same again. But I guess what will surprise—and no doubt frustrate—those who dream of a scientifically-driven new order is how unchangeable, and unmanageable by technology, human lives are.

Imagine if this Edge question had been posed to the citizens of Rome two thousand years ago. Would they have been able to predict the coming of the internet, DNA finger-printing, mind-control, space travel? Of course not. Would that mean they would have failed to spot the technological developments that were destined to change everything? I don't think so. For the fact is nothing has changed everything.

Those Romans, despite their technological privations, led lives remarkably like ours. Bring them into the 21st century and they would of course be amazed by what science has achieved. Yet they would soon discover that beneath the modern wrapping it is business as usual. Politics, crime, love, religion, heroism.. The stuff of human biography. The more it changes, the more it's the same thing.

The one development that really could change everything would be a radical, genetically programmed, alteration of human nature. It hasn't happened in historical times, and I'd bet it won't be happening in the near future either. Cultural and technical innovations can certainly alter the trajectory of individual human lives. But, while human beings continue to reproduce by having sex and each new generation goes back to square one, then every baby begins life with a set of inherited dispositions and instincts that evolved in the technological dark ages.

The Latin poet Horace wrote: "You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always return". Let's dream, if we like, of revolution. But be prepared for more of the same.