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Natural History
Sept, 1998

Second-guessing the future. (evolution)

Author/s: Stephen Jay Gould

As the millennium approaches, evolutionary and social trends defy prediction.

From anonymous vice presidents to nameless palookas, a special kind of opprobrium seems to haunt those who come second--"close, but no cigar," in an old cliche I once met "Two Ton Tony" Galento in a bar in upstate New York, a pitiful figure as an old man, still cadging drinks in exchange for the true story of his moment of glory: when he knocked Joe Louis down before losing their fight for the heavyweight championship. And just consider the stereotype of the sidekick--old, fat, foolish, and in servitude--from Gabby Hayes and Andy Devine in the quintessential epic of our pop culture, to Leporello and Sancho Panza in the literary world. (Strong and noble sidekicks like Tonto get cast as "ethnics" to advertise their secondary rank by another route, now happily--or at least, hopefully--fading from the collective consciousness of white America.)

Second in time fares no better than second in status. I was, at first, surprised by a statement that made perfect sense once I punctured the apparent paradox. A composer friend told me that he could easily obtain funding for a premiere performance of any new work, as special grants and scholarships abound for such a noble purpose. A philanthropist who truly loved music, he told me, would endow the most unprofitable and unfashionable of all genres: second performances of new works.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Larry Doby, one of the toughest, most courageous, and most admirable men I have ever met. But how many readers recognize his name? You all know Jackie Robinson, of course; Larry Doby was the second black player in major league baseball. We all recognize the tune when Rodolfo grasps Mimi's cold little hand in Puccini's La Boheme, first performed in 1896, but how many people know that Leoncavallo (who had scored the hit of 1892 with Pagliacci) also wrote an opera with the same title (and tale) produced in 1897?

I can think of only one second-finisher who became more famous (at least among Anglophones) than the victor--but only for special circumstances of unusual heroism in death, mingled with a dose of British patriotism: Robert Scott, who reached the South Pole on January 18, 1912, only to find that Roald Amundsen had been there a month before. Confined to a tent by a blizzard, and just eleven miles from his depot, Scott froze to death, leaving a last journal entry that has never been matched in all the annals of British understatement, and that, I confess, still brings tears to my eyes: "It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more."

In my parish, the dubious (and admittedly somewhat contradictory) status of most famous second-place finisher goes without contest to Alfred Russel Wallace, who, in 1858, during a malarial fit on the Indonesian island of Ternate, devised virtually the same theory of natural selection that Darwin had developed (but hadn't published) in 1838. In a familiar story, Wallace sent his short paper to Darwin, a naturalist he greatly admired and who, as Wallace knew, had a strong interest in "the species question" (although Wallace had no inkling of Darwin's particular, and nearly identical, theory and probably didn't even realize that Darwin had a theory at all). Darwin, in understandable panic, turned to his best friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, for advice. In a resolution known to later history as the "delicate arrangement," Darwin's friends made a joint presentation to the Linnean Society of London in July 1858: they read both Wallace's paper and some unpublished letters and manuscripts by Darwin, establishing his earlier authorship of the same idea.

Conspiracy theorists always stand at the ready, and several salvos have been launched for this particular episode, but to no avail or validity, in my judgment. Yes, Wallace was never asked (but he was quite incommunicado, half a world away, and the issue did press). Yes, Darwin was wealthy and well established; Wallace poor, younger, and struggling for livelihood and reputation (but why, then, grant him equal billing with Darwin for a joint presentation of unpublished results?). No, I think that, as usual (and unfortunately for the cause of a good tale), the more boring resolution of ordinary decency applies.

The "delicate arrangement" was exactly what the words imply: a fair solution to a tough problem. Darwin held legitimate priority, and he had not been shilly-shallying or resting on old claims and laurels. He had been diligently working on his evolutionary views and had already, when he received Wallace's paper, finished nearly half of a much longer book on natural selection that he then abandoned (spurred no doubt by fears of further anticipations) to write the shorter "abstract" known to the world as the Origin of Species (a pretty hefty book of 490 pages), published in 1859.

Wallace, at least, never complained and seemed to feel honored that his exercise of an evening had been so linked with Darwin's long effort. (I do not, of course, base this claim on Wallace's public pronouncements, in which his secondary status to Darwin would have precluded any overt expression of bitterness. Rather, in his truly voluminous private jottings, letters, and conversations, Wallace never expressed anything but pleasure at Darwin's willingness to share at least partial credit.)

I do not, however, deny the usual assessment of Wallace as a man trammeled by meager circumstances and dogged by hard luck. He spent several youthful years of difficult and dangerous fieldwork in the Amazon only to lose all his specimens in a shipwreck that nearly ended his own life as well. Wallace did not despair but quickly set sail in the other direction and spent several years engaged in similar work around the Malay Archipelago, where he took second place in the greatest biological discovery in history. He grew up in poverty (in a family of middle-class social status but much lower means), and while comfortable enough during most of his adult life, he never accumulated adequate resources to reach his true goal: doing science without impediment and without having to live by his own wits as a writer and lecturer. (A government pension, secured for Wallace by Darwin and his friends--perhaps partly to assuage a tinge of guilt--didn't hurt, but didn't supply solvency either.)

Because Wallace lived a long time (1823-1913), wrote copiously both for his bread arid from his convictions, and held a variety of passionate and quirky views, he left us a vast legacy of varied content and quality. He campaigned ardently for the right and the just, according to his idiosyncratic standards, and he fought valiantly for a set of causes usually deemed "cranky" both in his own time and today--including phrenology and spiritualism (where he nearly came to blows with skeptics like Darwin and Huxley)--and against vaccination, which he called "one of the foulest blots on the civilization of the nineteenth century." His politics defy simple characterization but generally fall into a camp that might be labeled democratic socialism of a Fabian bent but spiced by utter devotion to a few favored causes that did not rank high on most people's lists of indispensable reforms.

I have often called upon Wallace's large body of work for essays in this series, both for his wisdom (in debunking Percival Lowell's ideas on Martian canal builders) and for his crankiness (in claiming virtual proof for the proposition that, throughout the entire universe, no planet but Earth could house intelligent life). But now, for the first time, I invoke Wallace proactively, and after considerable patience in waiting for the appropriate moment.

An impassioned author approaching a public milestone at the height of his own supposed wisdom and maturity could scarcely resist such a temptation for proclamation. The turnings of our centuries may bear no relationship to any natural cycle in the cosmos (I label such passages "precisely arbitrary" in the subtitle to my latest book, Questioning the Millennium). But we construe such artificial transitions as occasions for taking stock, especially at the centurial boundaries that have even generated their own eponymous concept of cyclical Angst--the fin-de-siecle (end-of-century) phenomenon. (The forthcoming millennium might provoke an even greater burst, but we have too little experience for any prediction. I am at least amused by a diminution in the quality of anxiety for the two documented transitions: Last time around, Europe feared all the gory prophecies of Armageddon as recorded in Revelation, chapter 20; for this second experience in Western history, we focus our worries on what might happen when computers misread the great turning as a recursion to the year 1900.)

Thus, Alfred Russel Wallace could not let the nineteenth century expire without presenting his summation, his evaluation, and his own predictions to the world. He published The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and its Failures in 1898, and I have been waiting for several years to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this book near the dawn of our own new millennium. I saved my remarks for this forum of evolutionary essays both because Wallace plays a major role on this particular stage and because ,the genre of fin-de-siecle summations includes two linked and distinctive themes that have served as linchpins for these columns: the relationship between science and society (an unavoidable centerpiece in assessing the nineteenth century, with its technologically inspired industrial and colonial expansions) and the unpredictability of evolutionary and social futures (ironically, the theme that ultimately undermines this entire genre of summing up the past to ensure a better future).

Wallace presents a simple thesis as the foundation for his epitome of the nineteenth century--a standard view about the relation of science to society, stated in the context of a particular time. Science, Wallace argues, has made unprecedented gains, largely expressed as technological advance (at least in terms of impacts upon everyday life), but this progress has been blunted, if not perverted, by our failure to make any moral improvements, especially as expressed in the alleviation of social inequities. Thus, and ironically, the progress of science, however bursting with potential for social improvement, has actually operated to increase the sum total of human misery.

Wallace opens with a statement of his thesis:

The present work is not in any sense a history,

even on the most limited scale. It may

perhaps be termed an appreciation of the

century--of what it has done, and what it

has left undone. . . . A comparative estimate

of the number and importance of these

[material and intellectual] achievements

leads to the conclusion that not only is our

century superior to any that have gone before

it, but that it may be best compared

with the whole preceding historical period.

It must therefore be held to constitute the

beginning of a new era in human progress.

But this is only one side of the shield.

Along with these marvelous Successes--perhaps

in consequence of them--there

have been equally striking Failures, some

intellectual, but for the most part moral and

social. No impartial appreciation of the

century can omit a reference to them; and it

is not improbable that, to the historian of

the future, they will be considered to be its

most striking characteristic.

In his first, and shorter, section on scientific and technological progress, Wallace even tries to quantify the relative value of nineteenth-century achievements, reaching the conclusion that this single century surpassed the summation of all previous human history in weight of accumulated progress:

In order to estimate its [the nineteenth

century's] full importance and grandeur--more

especially as regards man's increased

power over nature, and the application of

that power to the needs of his life today,

with unlimited possibilities in the future--we

must compare it, not with any preceding

century, or even with the last millennium,

but with the whole historical period--perhaps

even with the whole period that

has elapsed since the stone age.

The chapters of this first part then detail the major inventions, spurred by advancing science, that brought such great potential improvement to nineteenth-century life' control of fire (with wide-ranging implications, from steam engines to generating plants), labor-saving machinery, transportation, communication, and lighting (culminating in the incandescent bulb). Wallace's examples often combine charm with insight:

The younger generation, which has grown

up in the era of railways and of ocean-going

steamships, hardly realize the vast change

which we elders have seen. . . . Even in

my own boyhood the wagon for the poor,

the stage coach for the middle class, and the

post-chaise for the wealthy, were the

universal means of communication, there

being only two short railways then in

existence. . . . Hundreds of four-horse mail

and stage coaches, the guards carrying horns

or bugles which were played while passing

through every town or village, gave a stir

and liveliness and picturesqueness to rural

life which is now almost forgotten.

I confess to a personal reason for intrigue with Wallace's best example for regarding the nineteenth century as exceeding all previous history in magnitude of technological improvement: The trip from London to York, he states, took less time during the Roman occupation than in 1800, just before the advent of railroads--for the Romans built and maintained better roads, and horses moved no faster in 1800 than in A.D. 300. (I am amused by the analogous observation that rail travel on my frequent route between New York and Boston has slowed during the last hundred years. A nineteenth-century steam engine could make the journey faster than Amtrak's quickest train, which now runs by electricity from New York to New Haven but must then lose substantial time in switching engines for the diesel run on a nonelectrified route from New Haven to Boston. Yes, they tell us, vast improvement and full electrification lie just around the temporal corner. But how long, O Lord, how long!)

In reading Wallace's examples, I also appreciated the numerous reminders of the central principle that all truly creative invention must be tentative and flexible, for many workable and elegant ideas will be quickly superseded--as in this temporary triumph for receiving news via the newly invented telephone:

Few persons are aware that a somewhat

similar use of the telephone is actually in

operation at Buda Pesth [sic for Budapest,

a city then recently amalgamated from two

adjoining towns with Wallace's separate

names] in the form of a telephonic

newspaper. At certain fixed hours

throughout the day a good reader is

employed to send definite classes of news

along the wires which are laid to

subscribers' houses and offices, so that each

person is able to hear the particular items he

desires, without the delay of its being

printed and circulated in successive editions

of a newspaper. It is stated that the news is

supplied to subscribers in this way at little

more than the cost of a daily newspaper,

and that it is a complete success.

But Wallace's second and longer section then details the failures of the nineteenth century, all based on the premise that moral stagnation has perverted the application of unprecedented scientific progress:

We of the 19th century were morally and

socially unfit to possess and use the

enormous powers for good or evil which the

rapid advance of scientific discovery had

given us. Our boasted civilization was in

many respects a mere surface veneer; and

our methods of government were not in

accordance with either Christianity or

civilization. This view is enforced by the

consideration that all the European wars of

the century have been due to dynastic

squabbles or to obtain national

aggrandizement, and were never waged in

order to free the slave or protect the

oppressed without any ulterior selfish ends.

Wallace then turns to domestic affairs, with the damning charge that our capitalist system has taken the wealth accrued from technological progress and distributed the bounty to a few owners of the means of production while actually increasing both the absolute and relative poverty of ordinary working people. In short, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer:

One of the most prominent features of our

century has been the enormous and

continuous growth of wealth, without any

corresponding increase in the well-being of

the whole people; while there is ample

evidence to show that the number of the

very poor--of those existing with a

minimum of the bare necessities of life--has

enormously increased, and many

indications that they constitute a larger

proportion of the whole population than in

the first half of the century, or in any earlier

period of our history.

At his best, Wallace writes with passion and indignation, as in this passage on preventable industrial poisoning of workers:

Let every death that is clearly traceable to a

dangerous trade be made manslaughter, for

which the owners . . . are to be punished

by imprisonment . . . and ways will soon

be found to carry away or utilize the

noxious gases, and provide the automatic

machinery to carry and pack the deadly

white lead and bleaching powder; as would

certainly be done if the owners' families, or

persons of their own rank of life, were the

only available workers. Even more horrible

than the white-lead poisoning is that by

phosphorus, in the match-factories.

Phosphorus is not necessary to make

matches, but it is a trifle cheaper and a

little easier to light (and so more

dangerous), and is therefore still largely

used; and its effect on the workers is

terrible, rotting away the jaws with the

agonizing pain of cancer followed by death.

Will it be believed in future ages that this

horrible and unnecessary manufacture, the

evils of which were thoroughly known, was

yet allowed to be carried on to the very end

of this century, which claims so many great

and beneficent discoveries, and prides itself

on the height of civilization it has attained?

Wallace offers few suggestions for a new social order, but he does state a general principle:

The capitalists as a class have become

enormously richer. . . . And so it must

remain till the workers learn what alone will

save them, and take the matter into their

own hands. The capitalists will consent to

nothing but a few small ameliorations,

which may improve the condition of select

classes of workers, but will leave the great

mass just where they are.

I doubt that Wallace harbored any muscular or martial fantasies about armed revolt sweeping through the streets of London, with the apostles of a new and better World, himself included, leading a vanguard, rifles held high. Wallace was far too gentle a man even to contemplate such a style of renewal. At most, he looked to electoral reform and unionization as means for workers to take "the matter into their own hands." His final chapter, entitled "The Remedy for Want," goes little beyond a naive proposal for free bread on demand, financed by a voluntary (albeit strongly suggested) governmental tax upon people with the highest incomes.

Wallace's summary of the nineteenth century--a steady inexorability of technological progress derailed by failure of our moral and social sensibilities to keep pace--underscores the second evolutionary theme of this essay, while undermining the entire genre of fin-de-siecle (or millennium) summations: the unpredictability of human futures and the futility of thinking that past trends will forecast coming patterns. The trajectory of technology might offer some opportunity for prediction--as science moves through networks of implication, and each discovery suggests a suite of steps. But even the "pure" history of science features unanticipated findings and must also contend with nature's stubborn tendency to frustrate our expectations--factors that will cloud anyone's crystal ball. Moreover, any forecast about the future must also consider the incendiary instability generated by interaction between technological change and the weird ways of human conduct, both individual and social. How, then, can the accidents that shaped our past give any meaningful insight into the next millennium?

I think that the past provides even dimmer prospects for prediction than Wallace's model of history implies--for another destabilizing factor must be added to Wallace's claim for discordance between technological and moral change. Wallace missed the generality of an important pattern in nature because he remained so committed to Lyellian (and Darwinian) gradualism as the designated mode of change for both the history of the earth and the evolution of life. His book devotes an entire chapter (in the first section on scientific progress) to arguing that the replacement of catastrophism by uniformitarian geology--the notion that major features of the earth's history and topography "are found to be almost wholly due to the slow action of the most familiar everyday causes" and should not be "almost always explained as being due to convulsions of nature"--"constitutes one of the great philosophical landmarks of the 19th century."

Wallace knew that the discordance of technological and moral change could produce catastrophic disruption in human history, but he viewed such a result as exceptional among the ways of nature, and not subject to generalization. Now that our modern sensibilities have restored catastrophism as an important option (although not an exclusive pattern) for nature as well, this theme gains ground as a powerful argument against predictability. Not only as an anomaly of human history but also as a signature of nature, pasts can't imply futures because a pattern inherent in the structure of nature's materials and laws--"the great asymmetry" in my terminology--too often disrupts an otherwise predictable unfolding of historical sequences.

Any complex system must be constructed slowly and sequentially, adding steps one (or a few) at a time and constantly coordinating along the way. But the same complex systems, once established, can be destroyed in a tiny fraction of the necessary building time--often in truly catastrophic moments. A day of fire destroyed a millennium of knowledge in the library of Alexandria and centuries of building in the city of London. The last blaauwbock of southern Africa and the last moa of New Zealand perished in a momentary shot or blow from human hands but took millions of years to evolve.

The discordance between technological and moral advance acts as a destabilizing factor that feeds the great asymmetry and prevents us from extrapolating past trends into future predictions--for we never know when and how the ax of the great asymmetry will fall, sometimes purging the old to create a better world by revolution, but more often (I fear) simply cutting a swath of destruction and requiring a true rebirth from the ashes of old systems (as life has frequently done--in a wondrously unpredictable way--following episodes of mass extinction).

Thus, I am even less sanguine than Wallace about possibilities for predicting the future--even though I think that he overstated his case in an important way. I don't fully agree with Wallace's major premise that technology has progressed while morality has stagnated. I rather suspect that general levels of morality have improved markedly as well, at least during the last millennium of Western history--although I don't see how we could quantify such a claim. In most of the world, we no longer keep slaves, virtually imprison women, mock the insane, burn witches, or slaughter rivals with such gleeful abandon or such unquestioned feelings of righteousness. Rather, our particular modern tragedy--and our resultant inability to predict the future--resides largely in the great asymmetry and the consequential, if unintended, power of science to enhance the effect. I suspect that twenty Hitlers ruled over small groups of Europeans a thousand years ago. But what could such petty monsters accomplish with bows and arrows, battering rams, and a small cadre of executioners? Today, one evil man can engineer the murder of millions in months.

Finally, a fascinating effect of scale defeats all remaining hope for meaningful predictability. Yes, if one stands way, way back and surveys the history of human technology, I suppose that one might identify a broad form of sensible order offering some insight into future possibilities. The invention of agriculture does imply growth in population and construction of villages; gunpowder does move warfare away from the besieging of walled cities; and computers must exert some effect upon printed media. Unless the great asymmetry wipes the slate clean (or even frees the earth from our presence entirely), some broad pattern of technological advance should be discernible amid all the unpredictable wriggles of any particular moment.

Yes, but almost all our agonized questions about the future focus upon the wriggles, not the broader patterns of much longer scales. We want to know if our children will be able to live in peace and prosperity--or if the Statue of Liberty will still exist to intrigue (or bore) our grandchildren on their school trips or to greet yet another wave of immigrants. At most, we ask vague and general questions about futures not really very distant and not truly very different from what we already know or suspect: will clones and virtual worlds destroy our souls and individualities?

Just consider the most widely discussed pattern of human history since the invention of writing: the rise, spread, and domination of the European world, thanks largely to the auxiliary technologies of gunpowder and navigation. Traditions of Western explanation, largely self-serving of course, have focused upon two successive causes--strikingly different claims to be sure, but strangely united in viewing European domination as predictable, if not foreordained.

The first, as old as our lamentable self-aggrandizement, simply trumpets the inherent superiority of European people, a claim made even uglier in the last few centuries by grafting the phony doctrine of scientific racism upon old-fashioned xenophobia. The second--arising largely from a desire to reject the falsity and moral evil of racism, while still viewing history as predictably sensible--holds that people are much of a muchness throughout the world, but that certain climates, soils, and environments must inspire technological advance, and European people just happened to live in the right place.

This second argument holds much merit and almost has to be valid at a scale of explanation that only treats the broadest patterns. Indeed, no other explanation in the determinist mode makes any sense once we recognize the multitude of recent genetic studies that reveal only trivial differences among human groups, based on an enormous weight of shared attributes and the great variability existing within each of our groups.

But I ask most readers of this essay (published in a Western land and language and read mostly by people of European descent) to look into their guts and examine the basis of their assumption about dominant groups in history: are you really thinking about an admittedly broad inevitability based on soils and latitudes, or are you wondering about a wriggle lying within the realm of unpredictability? I suspect that most of us are really asking about wriggles but looking at the wrong scale and thinking about predictability.

Yes, complex technology probably had to emerge from midlatitude people living in lands that could support agriculture for starters--not from Eskimos or Laplanders in frozen terrains with limited resources, and not from the hottest tropics with vegetation too dense to clear and a burden of disease too great to bear. But which midlatitude people? Or, to be more honest (and for the majority of people who read this magazine), why among people of my group, and not of yours?

In honest and private moments, I suspect that most readers of European descent regard the spread of European domination as a sensible and predictable event, destined to happen again if we could rewind time's tape, say to the birth of Jesus, and let human history unroll a second and independent time. But I wouldn't bet a hoplite's shield or a Frenchman's musket on a rerun with European domination. The little wriggles of a million "might have beens" make history, not the predictabilities of a few abstract themes lying far from our concerns in a broad and nebulous background.

Can we really argue that Columbus's caravels began an inevitable expansion of one kind of people? Surely not, when the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (rendered as Cheng Ho in a previously favored system of transliteration), using a mariner's compass invented by his people, led seven naval expeditions as far as the shores of eastern Africa between 1405 and 1433. Some of Zheng He's ships were five times as long as a European caravel, and one expedition may have included as many as sixty-two ships carrying nearly 28,000 men.

To be sure, Zheng He sailed for the Yung-lo emperor, the only ruler who ever favored such expansionist activities during the Ming dynasty. His successors suppressed oceanic navigation and instituted a rigid isolationist policy. (I also understand, although I can claim no expertise in Chinese history, that Zheng He's voyages must be viewed more as tributary expeditions for glorifying the emperor than as harbingers of imperialistic expansion on Western models. Incidentally, as further evidence for our fascination with differences, I have never read a document about Zheng He that proceeds past the first paragraph before identifying the great admiral as both a Muslim and a eunuch. I could never quite fathom the relevance, for captains don't navigate with their genitalia, and we know that court eunuchs played a major role throughout Chinese imperial history.)

In any case, suppose that Chinese history had unfolded a bit differently. Suppose that the successors of the Yung-lo emperor had furthered, rather than suppressed, his expansionist policies? Sup pose that subsequent admirals had joined another great Chinese invention--gunpowder as weaponry--with their unmatched naval and navigational skills to subdue and occupy foreign lands? May we not suppose that Europe would then have become a conquered backwater?

We must also consider dramatic (and entirely believable) alternatives within Caucasian history. Has any force in human affairs ever matched the spreading power of Islam after a local origin in the sixth century A.D.? The preeminent traveler Ibn Battutah surveyed the entire Muslim world during three decades of voyaging in the mid-fourteenth century. Would any companion have bet on Christianity over Islam at that moment in history (and how would one vote today, despite the intervening success of European doctrines)? The Encyclopaedia Britannica comments: "Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274) might have been read from Spain to Hungary and from Sicily to Norway; but Ibn al-'Arabi (1165-1240) was read from Spain to Sumatra and from the Swahili coast to Kazan on the Volga River."

Islam came close to subduing Europe on several occasions that might easily have led to an opposite outcome. Perhaps the Moors of Iberia never did have designs on all Europe, despite the cardboard tale we once learned in conventional Western history classes--that Islam peaked and began an inevitable decline when Charles Martel beat the Moors at Poitiers in 732. Britannica remarks that "the Andalusian Muslims never had serious goals across the Pyrenees. In 732, Charles Martel encountered not a Muslim army, but a summer raiding party."

But genuine threats persisted for nearly a thousand years. If the great Timur (also known as Tamerlane), the Turkish conqueror of Samarkand, had not turned his sights toward China and died in 1405 before his eastern move, Europe might also have fallen to his form of Islam. And the Ottoman sultans, with their trained and efficient armies, took Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453 and laid powerful siege to the walls of Vienna as late as 1683--a final failure that gave us the croissant as a living legacy, the breakfast roll based on the Islamic symbol of a crescent moon and first made by Viennese bakers to celebrate their victory. (As a little footnote, remember that I have not even mentioned Attila, Genghis Khan, and several other serious threats to European domination.)

Our history could have been fashioned in a million different credible ways, and we have no adequate sense of where we are heading. But a good moral compass, combined with an intelligent use of scientific achievements, might keep us going--even prospering--for a long time by our standards (however paltry in geological perspective). We do have the resources, but can we muster both the will and judgment to hold first place in a game that can only offer possibilities, never guarantees--a game that spells oblivion for those who win the opportunity but fail to seize the moment, plunging instead into the great asymmetry of history's usual outcome?

Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University. He is also the Frederick P. Rose Honorary Curator in Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History.

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