Man—500,000 Years From Now

A Scientific Attempt to Forecast What May Occur in the Future Evolution of Man

gorilla, Australian aborigine, and modern European skulls

A Primate Triumvirate: Gorilla, Australian aborigine, and modern European, these three represent important stages in human evolution. Note in the sequence from gorilla to European the expansion of the frontal region, the reduction in the bony ridge above the eyes, the increasing prominence of nose, and the marked reession of the jaws.

It sometimes occurs to the anthropologist, perhaps more often than to others, to wonder what manner of men will replace the mankind he so assiduously studies. His contemplation of the evolutionary series terminating with modern man naturally suggests the probability of its continuation into the future when the contemporary human type will have receded to the position of an ancestor to a still more advanced variety of man. And his concern with the efforts of the human organism to adjust itself to its environment foresees a future when these adjustments will have been made and new conflicts will have replaced the old. But although the anthropologist may permit the play of such speculations in his revery, he rarely ventures to fix them in irrevocable print. Perhaps this lack of temerity comes from a natural reluctance born of the only too apparent imperfections of his understanding of the living man within his calipers and the fossil fragments on his shovel.

But potent as the inadequacy of our knowledge is in discouraging among men of science a free prophetic expression on the future state of mankind, I am inclined to believe that there are other equally effective reasons for their reticence. Among these is the inertia of orthodoxy. Absorbed in man’s present and in his past, anthropologists have become entrenched in the belief that their science is concerned only with these phases of human evolution. Although I share with them their feeling of groping in the dimmest of lights, I cannot but believe that a few rays of this feeble illumination do reveal a little of the way before as well as the path behind us. Nor do I concede that the future is an improper sphere for science. After all, are we to conclude that what we know of man’s past has no meaning for his future? The astronomer does not hesitate to predict in tones of conviction the heavenly events to come, and the meteorologist has made it his business to forecast the state of the weather, occasionally incorrectly, alas. But how often rightly! The anthropologist may aptly reply that these specialists have a better basis for prediction. I admit it, but I still insist that the future need not and should not be a completely alien field. Perhaps we may meet on the compromise that when we know more about the complex variables that sustain and modify the human organism, we may then attempt a few tentative prophecies. But that seems too distant a day. Let me, instead, lift the shroud a little. It is too long to wait for the formal unveiling.

The Dangers of Prophecy But before you step forward to peek into the future, I shall say a few words about the nature of prophecy in general. The rôle of the prophet is a dangerous one. But if you must thumb the Sibylline leaves there are two courses, at least, by which you may evade the judgment of your disillusioned victims. You may follow the wise example of Delphi and a host of lesser and more recent practitioners by couching your predictions in terms so general and so terrifying that any of our ever besetting woes may easily fit them. But it is not a part of acumen, if you hope to profit by prophecy, to rely on the limbo of the human memory to engulf your errors. Inevitably you will meet your Nemesis in some unpleasantly retentive old gentleman who will confront you with your unfortunate mistakes. The other procedure to be recommended is the projection of your field of operation so far into the future that you and your guesses will have been long forgotten when the day of fulfillment comes around. I have chosen this latter method. But the distance I have selected is not a measure of my survival into prosperity, nor is it the result of timidity. It is simply the limitations of my subject.

A Fundamental Premise In all fairness to my readers I must admit that all my prophecies are prefaced by an “if.” I do not very well see how this can be avoided. It would, of course, be much more satisfactory were I able to say thus and so (and no other) is to be. You could then exclaim “Isn’t science wonderful,” while I could be occupied dodging the brickbats of other specialists in field having a bearing on human affairs. For, since man is intimately associated with nature and is definitely fixed in a social setting, it is apparent that a number of sciences converge upon man. Significant alterations in man’s natural or social environments might conceivably change the course of human evolution. It follows, therefore, that any sound anatomical prediction must be made with future man’s natural and social environment in mind. If some astronomer reveals that the earth is due to undergo vast readjustments in the course of the next few millennia, requiring fundamental modifications in man’s manner of living, naturally my prophecies will then be worthless. Similarly, if a distinguished philosopher assures us (and if he is right) that the toxic accumulations of civilization will have completely destroyed all culture in 10,000 years, then, too, my predictions go for naught. For these reasons I must premise my remarks by a brief picture of the world, as I conceive it, in which our man of the future will live.

In the world-to-be I do not see any radical change in man’s physical environment. The earth, we have no reason to doubt, will continue in its orbit at a speed not perceptibly different. Nature, perhaps rather more under control than now, will function The use of our arms and legs, even though it be only for sport, will be vigorous. In this I agree with Aldous Huxley in whose brave new world man employs machines to his enhanced satisfaction but nevertheless enjoys the exercises of his body. in the accustomed way with occasional eruptions to warn man of his human and finite powers. Inevitably in the course of this long period of time civilizations will have declined and new ones will have arisen to take the lead for a time. Perhaps on several occasions civilization will come perilously near to barbarity, but it will ever spring anew and to dizzier heights. There is nothing in human history inconsistent with this view. Nor, on the other hand, do I share the opinion of some that man will have become so enmeshed in machines that he will have lost the function of his appendages through disuse. No, the use of our arms and legs, even though it be only for sport, will be vigorous. In this I agree with Aldous Huxley in whose brave new world man employs machines to his enhanced satisfaction but nevertheless enjoys the exercises of his body.

It is conceivable, even inevitable, in the future society of which our man will be a part that the population will be mated as carefully as the animal breeder now controls his stock. To some extent this may interfere with the direction of human development, but it will not deflect the stream of evolution very far from its course. Finally, it must be understood that my predictions concern Europeans especially, although some of my prophecies may be applied with equal assurance to other stocks.

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