Culture

'Homo Prospectus' -- Why Humans Look Toward the Future

Fascinating piece in the New York Times today, with all sorts of moral implications, once you stop to think about them:

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

There’s no discussion of the role of faith and religion in the piece, unless I missed it. But the sure knowledge that there even is a future — a future that will be based on the past and is being constructed right here in the present — is what animates all religions. One sure sign of a faith in the future — not simply our own short-term future, but that our of culture and our species — is having children. And on that count, we’re signally failing. This is largely the result of our solipsistic, navel-gazing, “therapeutic” culture, with its emphasis on the Self. Instead, we need to think beyond ourselves: into that future our big brains make available to us. Because it’s coming, whether we like it or not:

If Homo prospectus takes the really long view, does he become morbid? That was a longstanding assumption in psychologists’ “terror management theory,” which held that humans avoid thinking about the future because they fear death. The theory was explored in hundreds of experiments assigning people to think about their own deaths. One common response was to become more assertive about one’s cultural values, like becoming more patriotic.

Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it. He became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.

As the great Satchel Paige famously said: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”