alison_gopnik's picture
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Gardener and the Carpenter
Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The Scientist In the Crib

New Children Will Be Born

New children will be born. This may seem rather mundane compared to some of the technological breakthroughs that other scientists have focused on. After all, children have been born for as long as the species has been around. But for human beings children are linked to optimism in a way that runs deeper than just the biological continuation of the species.

Optimism, after all, isn't essentially a matter of the rational assessment of the future—it's an attitude rather than a judgment. And it's the most characteristically human attitude, the one that's built into our DNA. The greatest human evolutionary advantage is our innate ability to imagine better alternatives to the current world—possible universes that could exist in the future—and to figure out how to make them real. It's the ability we see in its earliest form in the fantastic pretend play of even the youngest children.

But, in fact, everything in the room I write in now—not only the computer and the electric light but the right-angled wall and the ceramic cup and the woven cloth was once imaginary—no more than an optimistic pipe dream. And I myself, a scientist, a writer, and woman literally could not have existed in the evolutionary Pleistocene past, or even in the only slightly less neolithic atmosphere of the universities of fifty years ago.

This ability to change the physical and social world in unprecedented and unpredictable ways is deeply bound up with our characteristically extended human childhood—that long period of protected immaturity. The radical changes that have transformed human lives for the better never could have been accomplished in a single lifetime.

We change the world bit by bit, generation by generation. We pass on our own innovations and the new worlds they create to our children—who imagine new alternatives themselves. We work to imagine alternatives that will make our lives better, but, even more impressively, over generations we can revise what we mean by leading a better life. Our moral lives are no more determined by our evolutionary past than our physical or social lives. 

I can see only small glimpses of the future and they are all heavily rooted in the past. But it's a good rational induction that my children and their children and all the new children to be born will see the world in new ways, discover new possibilities and find new ways to make them real, in ways that I literally can't imagine now.