May 6, 2004
My daughter recently had her first baby. And the advent of this child has set me to thinking about what he is likely to experience over the course of his lifetime. In all probability he will live throughout most of the 21st Century and by the time he reaches the stage of life I'm in now he will be in a very different world from the one I have known. The question rumbling around in my head is whether it will be so different he will be cut off from understanding what I thought, or what I felt, or what I did.
The bond between the generations has, up till now, been considered a fairly important part of human experience. I know that I feel strongly tied to the people of the 18th and 19th Centuries. They are in some sense my companions and I believe that I can understand them fairly well. If I were to be projected back to Dr. Johnson's London, and if I had a few shillings in my pocket, I'm convinced I could walk into a tavern and order a meal I would find reasonably palatable. If I drank a glass of port it would have pretty much the same effect on me that a glass of port does now.
Lately, though, the process of change has become not only faster but more radical. We speak of genetic manipulations that might actually modify what our brains do. And, surely, if our brains are modified our feelings will be also. Might it be that my grandson will look back on us as we look back on humans of the Paleolithic era. Though we may know a few things about them, they are pretty clearly outside our range of understanding. And, so, it could be that we will be just as far outside my grandson's understanding.
I hope not, but the curious thing is I'm not sure why I hope not. I don't think we have a perfect world and if the people sixty years hence have been able to transcend those imperfections so completely they've lost sight of who we were, wouldn't that be a good thing?
I don't think it would be, but my reasons are scarcely rational. They may arise from what anthropologists call a "species-characteristic trait," that is, something so fundamental to who we are that to be without it would mean that one was no longer human -- at least in the way we have thought of humanity.
I've never considered myself as being overly enthralled with humanity, but this little new person, before he has spoken a word, has taught me that I care more about it than I had imagined. I want to be in it and I want him to be in it, so that he can, among other things, know who I was. Maybe teaching that lesson is, from a grandfather's point of view, what grandsons do.
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