Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Alan Aldridge (2000) 'The Scrying Game: The Future of Humanity and the Humanity of the Future'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 23/2/2000      Accepted: 23/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future

Sian Griffiths
Oxford University Press: Oxford
0192862103 (hb)
£12.99 (hb)

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Predictions contains reports of interviews with what the book's subtitle calls '30 great minds'. In each case, the interview is followed by a short statement by them, printed inauspiciously on grey paper, outlining their predictions for the twenty-first century. It is an enterprising project and an interesting read. The book is nicely presented, and has an excellent introduction by Jonathan Weiner. If, unavoidably, it tells us less about the future than about the current intellectual scene, it is worth reading for that alone. The contributors raise a wide range of ethical issues confronting humanity. Several assure us they are 'optimists' - but does this demonstrate their confidence or betray their anxiety? An underlying concern is the enigma, what is it to be human? This engagement with ethics and philosophical anthropology shows that prediction is a humanistic endeavour and not merely a technocratic exercise.

The Thinkers

Who are these 30 great thinkers? A number of key features stand out. First, 80 per cent of them are men. This may reflect differential rates of achievement in public life, with few women breaking through glass ceilings into the category of recognized great minds. Or does the gender imbalance itself imply a prediction that the future will belong to men? At least Francis Fukuyama does not think so: in an echo of Comte, he predicts the feminization of public life, internationally as well as domestically. 'Domestically' means in the USA, where 16 of the 30 contributors are based.

Age is another factor. From the brief biographies, the youngest contributors appear to be two people in their forties. Why so much reliance on older generations? Strikingly, many of these people made their mark when they were young. Carl Djerassi, for example, pioneered the development of the oral contraceptive pill when he was in his twenties. James Watson was in his mid-twenties when he and James Crick published their epochal paper in Nature, proposing a structure for DNA and demonstrating how it could store and transmit genetic information. People can change the course of history in their youth, but appear to have to wait for middle age in order to be asked to pronounce on the future.

The subtitle's reference to 'great minds' is particularly incongruous, given the aversion to mind-body dualism evinced by many of the contributors. One of them recommends that humans become cyborgs. Great thinkers they may be, but not one takes the Cartesian 'I think, therefore I am' as the foundation of their understanding of humanity. Perhaps trivially, each piece is prefaced by a photograph of the interviewee, which may show that a general readership is interested in the body even if high minded intellectuals are supposedly not. A graphic illustration of the body's significance is provided by Angela Dworkin, whose devastating first book, Woman Hating, was informed by her own experience of violence from her partner.

Although most of these thinkers have held an academic post at some point in their career, their relationships with the academy have sometimes been troubled. Paul Davies, for example, was driven out of the UK by Thatcherite cuts in the budget for higher education. He settled in Australia, where he is said to be recognized in supermarkets, a claim no physicist could plausibly make in Britain. Also based in Australia is Dale Spender, who argues that universities are entrenched in an old order resistant to change. One symptom of this, she says, is that the digital revolution is passing universities by. In her version of the future, students will need neither books nor teachers; they will vote with their virtual feet. Despite her critique, Spender has remained within the academy, holding a non-virtual Chair at Queensland. Don Norman, in contrast, quit academic life after serving 27 years at the University of California, San Diego. He has held a series of research posts, beginning as an Apple Fellow, a senior researcher with the freedom to choose his own research programme. This may well leave him better placed to predict the future than academics whose research agenda is dictated by the preoccupations of government-funded agencies. In the UK and elsewhere, bureaucratic regulation has settled like ash on university departments, which are obliged to pretend they welcome banality - for instance, the distinction between 'aims' and 'objectives'. No wonder so many scientists have fled to the New World.

Which disciplines are represented here? The question is difficult to answer, given the wide-ranging interests of the contributors. To take just one example, is Umberto Eco primarily a philosopher, a semiologist, a medievalist or a novelist? Despite such difficulties, some things are clear. The life sciences, especially biology and genetics, are well represented: French Anderson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Susan Greenfield, Lynn Margulis, Paul Nurse and James Watson. There are two chemists (Carl Djerassi and Sherwood Rowland), one physicist (Paul Davies) and one palaeontologist (Chris Stringer). Moving to the humanities, we have three novelists (Chinua Achebe, Arthur C. Clarke and Umberto Eco), three philosophers (Daniel Dennett, Peter Singer and Slavoj Zizek) and one linguist (Noam Chomsky). Three of the contributors are widely known for their commitment to feminism (Angela Dworkin, Elaine Showalter and Dale Spender). No disciplinary surprises in the social sciences, where the conventional hierarchy of credibility is upheld: the lead is assumed by psychology (Daniel Goleman, Don Norman and Steven Pinker) and economics (J.K. Galbraith and Amartya Sen). Unless we wish to claim Francis Fukuyama, the only sociologist is Sherry Turkle.

What are we to make of the absences? There are, perhaps mercifully, no management scientists purveying their promotional visions of corporate paradise. There are also no social and cultural anthropologists, which seems hard on one of the twentieth century's most critically acute disciplines. Apart from the novelists, the creative arts fare poorly: no poets, composers, painters, sculptors or architects. Should we not care what the twenty-first century is going to look and sound like? Or is artistic innovation even harder to predict than the progress of science?

Other more 'popular' aspects of contemporary culture are also overlooked. Our bookshops and web sites are full of lifestyle guides, offering advice on such matters as baby and child care, holiday destinations, personal finance, wine and beer, gardening and cookery. Where, then, are the Warren Buffetts, the Robert Parkers, the Delia Smiths? Does philosophizing take priority over eating? Or do their subject-matter and their popularity prevent them from being numbered among the great minds?

It is not my intention to criticize the book for what it does not do. I mention the absences only for what they reveal about the contemporary intellectual scene. In that light, one further absence is particularly telling, not least because it may well have been taken for granted. Theology, once the supreme discipline, is completely ignored. At the dawn of the third Christian millennium, no bishop, theologian or spiritual mentor has been invited to offer an opinion on the human condition and destiny.

The Willingness to Predict

For the book to live up to its title, predictions had to be extracted from the interviewees. This may not always have been easy. I am reliably told by people who have tried it that coaxing predictions out of sociologists tends to generate a sheaf of disclaimers and sarcastic comments about 'futurology'.

A few of the contributors decline to co-operate. Noam Chomsky disappointingly plays the obvious card: 'perhaps the most plausible prediction is that any prediction about serious matters is likely to be off the mark, except by accident'. Stephen Jay Gould uses his grey pages for a disquisition on the futility of prediction. Umberto Eco is a third refusnik. As befits a novelist and philosopher, he provides not an unmemorable diatribe but a narrative and an allegory. He invites us to consider what it was like when the airship was invented. Here was a wonder: to travel through the air, like a bird. The vision came to a dead end, literally as well as figuratively, when the Hindenburg exploded into flames in 1937, killing 35 people. Unexpectedly, the safest way for humans to fly is in machines much heavier than air. The moral he draws is that 'you must be very careful not to fall in love with your own airship' - a warning noted by Sian Griffiths in her preface and Jonathan Weiner in his introduction.

One of these contributors is famous for a spectacularly successful prediction. In 1945, when not yet 30, Arthur C. Clarke published a paper in Wireless World forecasting the use of telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit. In his interview, Clarke is duly modest: if he had not published first, many others would have done so shortly afterwards. All he was doing, he points out, was extrapolating from the work of engineers. His own contribution may have advanced the cause of space exploration 'by 15 minutes or so'. His own grey pages begin with the familiar disclaimer. Sportingly, however, he proceeds to offer predictions about the progress of space exploration, including the delightful conception that Prince Harry will become the first member of the British Royal family to fly in space, possibly stopping off at the Hilton Orbiter Hotel. My first reaction to this was to laugh, but on reflection one might take it seriously. If extraterrestrial travel becomes commercially viable, at least for the rich, royal patronage is only to be expected, with mutual benefit to the charismatic aura of space travel and of the monarchy itself. Would NASA or the House of Windsor fail to grasp the opportunity? Our sociological imagination would be lacking if we thought that space travel will remain forever the domain of Tom Woolfe's brotherhood of the right stuff.

Some of the contributors offer not predictions but hopes and fears. Chinua Achebe is optimistic about the prospects for Africa. His stance is partly tactical, in a secularized version of Pascal's wager. If you are hopeful, he argues, the worst that may befall is some disappointment, whereas pessimism entails perpetual misery. Central to Achebe's vision is the victory of liberty over oppression. The collapse of apartheid in South Africa, and the peaceful transition to a open democratic system, has been a remarkable achievement. Exile and death are fates which have recently overtaken some of the continent's unspeakable tyrants. The end of the Cold War has brought a peace dividend to Africa: the superpowers have lost interest both in self-proclaimed Marxists and in allies of the West. Science and technology provide the means to conquer the scourges of disease and hunger. Achebe's optimism is not facile, since he acknowledges that there is a good deal of work to be done.

Other contributors join Achebe in ostensibly prioritizing hopes over expectations. Thus Angela Dworkin's agenda covers a list of specifics, including international legislation against rape and prostitution, and treating as pariah states those countries in which women are sex-segregated, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Underpinning the specific items is the hoped-for overthrow of patriarchy and the achievement of 'the primacy of women in every culture and every area of culture'.

The Global Triumph of Democracy?

It is left to the economist Amartya Sen to emphasize the link between aspiration and prediction, otherwise known as the unity of theory and practice. What we long for is what we may get, particularly if we work for it. Sen's own hopes and predictions flow from his concern for democracy and reason. Like Achebe, he points to the beneficial impact of the end of the Cold War on Africa, where democratic forces are no longer subverted by East or West. He also points to the collapse of the myth of the East Asian economic miracle. Superficially plausible but sociologically unfounded assertions that the spectacular growth in the Tiger economies was due to autocratic 'Asian values' crashed to earth along with their stock markets. The exposure of corruption and cronyism in Japan has also caused some rethinking. Liberal democracy may be set to become the only acceptable form of political order in practice as well as in rhetoric.

Francis Fukuyama's predictions are not dissimilar. Globalization is not a western imposition, but reflects the aspiration of ordinary people to share not only in consumer affluence but also in political freedom and human rights. Like Sen, Fukuyama contests the myth of Asian despotism as a route to prosperity.

Fukuyama is essentially optimistic. He holds that political and economic history is progressive, tending towards an extension of democratic freedoms. Moral values, in contrast, are cyclical, and due for an uplift after the nadir of the 1990s. In terms of economic prosperity, the outlook is strong for those Anglo-Saxon countries that have shown themselves capable of overcoming declining rates of fertility through their greater openness to immigration and their relative success in the social assimilation of migrants. In contrast, countries such as Japan and Germany, whose concept of citizenship is bound up with visionary notions of ethnicity and 'race', are destined for trouble. As for France, its former liberalism is threatened by the resurgence of the far Right Front National and by 'thick-headed economic policies' that guarantee a high rate of unemployment. Tellingly, there is no contributor from France to speak up for l'exception française.

The tone of J.K. Galbraith's contribution is darker. Western capitalism is not an unqualified success. It can spiral out of control, as in the Russian republic and parts of Latin America. The same fate may befall the United States if the Wall Street bubble bursts. Poverty is a scourge not only of the Third World but of the urban heartlands of the West. Western colonialism left in its wake some of the world's most abject political regimes, as in the Congo. The International Monetary Fund has continued the exploitation by other means, bailing out the bankers and industrialists while imposing financial restraint on everyone else. Galbraith is also the only contributor to mention the threat of nuclear war.

The Defence of Reason

For Amartya Sen, and for others, the victory of democracy is inseparable from the victory of reason. He argues that the Enlightenment is misinterpreted if it is seen as a parochial European affair. The Enlightenment did not constitute itself as exclusively European, but drew amongst other sources on Chinese science and engineering, and Indian and Arabic mathematics. Nor does Europe have a philosophical monopoly on the concept of enlightenment; for what does 'Buddha' mean, if not 'the enlightened one'? Attacking reason is not the way to overthrow Western imperialism or deconstruct Orientalist discourse.

In the view of a number of contributors, religion is among reason's most insidious adversaries. None of them makes a robust confession of religious faith. Paul Davies and Arthur C. Clarke do speak of their personal spiritual quest, but quickly make it clear that this is not derived from organized religion or a system of revealed faith.

The attack on religion is more prominent than any defence of it. For example, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, confesses that he dislikes religion intensely. The more we learn about the universe, he has declared, the more pointless we discover it to be. Equally trenchant is Richard Dawkins, who flatly equates religion to obscurantism. Like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett argues that progress in biology is continually under attack from inexcusably ignorant Christian fundamentalists. Evolution is a 'universal acid' that strips away religious veneer. Another voice in this vein is Peter Singer, for whom 'the vestiges of a Christian ethic that most of us do not really accept' prevent society from taking humane decisions on life and death. His hope is that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide will be legalized, and that we will confront the reality of persistent vegetative states and, still more controversially, the plight of children born with severe disabilities.

To its rationalist founders, sociology was a science destined to replace religion. They would have been dismayed at the fate of sociology in this volume. In so far as it is considered at all, sociology appears to be part of the problem. It is tacitly discarded as unscientific because of its apparent addiction to a social constructionist philosophy of science. The emblematic case is Alan Sokal's notorious parody of pretentious epistemological relativism, which was accepted for publication by a serious academic journal.

The Future of the Human Animal

In writing about the future, many of the contributors are compelled to confront the present and the past. Addressing the human condition entails engaging with philosophical anthropology. What is it to be human? Are we, Chomsky asks, 'a kind of lethal mutation'? Will we succeed in overcoming our destructive impulses? Daniel Goleman refers to the massacres of high school students by their classmates. He proposes that the pragmatic arts of good living - emotional control, motivation, empathy and collaboration - be built into the school curriculum and given the same status as algebra. Abolishing the right to bear arms might also help.

The dominant opinion among the contributors is that we are a clever but unspecial species, and hardly the pinnacle of some Great Chain of Being, still less the wonder of the world or beings fashioned in the image of God. Steven Weinberg hopes that advances in fundamental physics will drive home to everyone the conclusion that nature is governed by impersonal laws, and that these laws give no privileged status to human life. We are an accident even if we were waiting to happen.

For some, this is a necessary corrective to the self-assured philosophical anthropologies of the past. The palaeontologist Chris Stringer predicts that the more knowledge we gain about the course of evolution over the last five million years the more humble our evolutionary 'success' will appear. Peter Singer, the advocate of animal liberation, is well known for equating speciesism with sexism and racism. Being human does not confer a sacrosanct right to live, he argues, and some human lives are so impaired that we should mercifully terminate them, as we do to any other animal.

Scientific progress offers humanity new avenues of self-improvement. Going bionic is one option, favoured by Kevin Warwick. Implanting technology into the human body can enhance our capacities, so that ultimately we can connect our brain via the internet to other brains and to machine intelligence. 'What of the individual then?', he asks. Warwick has himself made a modest move in this direction. A silicon chip, encased in a glass cylinder, was implanted in his arm for nine days, apparently at some risk to his health. It switched on his computer and opened doors automatically. I predict that this technology will not enjoy a rush of early adopters.

A different route opens up with the human genome project. Susan Greenfield fears the outcome. Already we see a quest to discover the gene 'for' supposedly undesirable traits and orientations: criminal genes, obese genes, lesbian and gay genes. Genetic screening, genetic modification, brain imaging, and a retreat into virtuality: for Greenfield, it will be an Orwellian 1984 deferred by a century. Not so for James Watson, who is optimistic. The twenty-first century will see a concerted scientific programme to banish genetic disease, using gene therapy to introduce DNA into somatic cells to correct faulty genes. We should discount the 'doom-mongers' and support the scientific quest for compassionate ways to alleviate suffering. According to French Anderson, by the year 2030 every disease will have a gene-based treatment.

But will we engage in germ-line manipulation, inserting genetic material into human germ cells, sperm, and eggs? If we do, the changes might be passed on to future generations and redirect the course of human evolution. Eugenics could be given a sound scientific basis. Watson reassures us that germ-line manipulation, although currently forbidden, will eventually be adopted, not in order to produce a super-race but 'to challenge the all too often grossly unfair courses of human evolution'. This, I fear, is a hope, not a prediction.

'Know thyself', said Plato. A few of the philosophical anthropologies on display here make human beings scarcely worth knowing. If humanity is so wretched, why should any of us be concerned about anyone else's future? Yet most people - great minds and the rest of us - do care. Understanding the human genome is a necessary condition of our self-knowledge, but it is not sufficient.

The Future of Religion: A Sociological Comment

I have been asked, not unreasonably, to make some predictions myself. If these are to be anything more than guesswork, they have to spring from my individual and our professionally shared sociological imagination, which means a grounding in sociological theory. A principal interest of mine is the sociology of religion, and I shall confine my predictions to that field, and limit myself to Christianity. I shall be crisp, taking up the electronic equivalent of no more than two grey pages, though I have written more fully on these themes elsewhere (Aldridge 2000).

Which religions will flourish in the twenty-first century, and which will decline? To rationalists, religion is being swept aside by science, and good riddance. The contemporary sociology of religion, however, draws less on Enlightenment rationalism than on Weber's theory of rationalization, a fundamental reorganization of society in which all the social and cultural supports for communities of religious faith are progressively eroded. According to the great exponents of the secularization thesis (for example, Wilson 1966; Berger 1967; Bruce 1996), rationalization entails secularization at all levels: culture, social structure and individual sensibility.

Successful sites of religious growth are certainly to be found among minority movements. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and Jehovah's Witnesses are two outstanding examples. They have succeeded in growing at a rate of around five per cent a year, which means they double their membership numbers roughly every fifteen years. They have a number of strengths, as Stark and Bainbridge point out in their work on religious movements (Stark and Bainbridge 1987; Bainbridge 1997). They have strong leadership. They succeed in socializing their children and mobilizing their adult members. They offer a faith new enough to attract recruits but not so new that people are put off; both are a radical take on something familiar, Christianity. They are neither so respectable that they are absorbed into secular society, the fate of liberal Protestantism in Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon world, nor so deviant that they court disaster, as at Jonestown or Waco. They have proved their resilience in overcoming crises: Witnesses survived the failure of their prophecy that the War of Armageddon would take place in 1975; Mormons came through the crisis over polygamy in the nineteenth century, and began to confront their own racism in the twentieth.

I predict that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to enjoy high rates of growth. This will bring them into conflict with the state, particularly in the field of education, where I expect a series of civil liberties issues to be played out, and to be resolved in their favour.

As for the mainstream Christian churches, I predict the continuing decline of Roman Catholicism. Its central authority is sclerotic; aggiornamentowas a long time ago. It is fixated on sexuality: contraception, abortion, and a male celibate priesthood. Its teaching on sexual expression is strict, but the faithful no longer obey and feel less and less embarrassed about not doing so. It has abandoned traditional symbols and rituals in favour of modern rationalized ones. This is the fatal combination of general laxity and misplaced strictness.

I predict that liberal Protestant churches, in particular the Anglican/Episcopal communion, will undergo a revival. Withdrawal of state support is a condition of this. For too long they have lived off the political, economic and cultural capital of the past, but that is depleted. The burden of financing the churches now falls on their members; to succeed, therefore, they will have to respond to their members' interests. I predict they will succeed. Ordination of women to the priesthood has been a crucial first step symbolically as well as operationally.

Although I do not subscribe to the view that only religion can answer our ultimate questions about human life, I think it is wise to be cautious about the appeal of secularity. Intellectuals do not hold the copyright on existential angst. Outright atheism is the creed of a tiny minority of great minds. Concocted substitutes for religion, such as the Comtean 'religion of humanity', are soon seen as ludicrous. Scientific humanism has fared no better. It may - as in this volume - be plausible to people who have enjoyed successful careers and worldly honours; but will it move anyone else? I predict that it will not.


ALDRIDGE, A. E. (2000) Religion in the Contemporary World: a Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.

BAINBRIDGE, W.S. (1997) The Sociology of Social Movements. New York: Routledge.

BERGER, P.L. (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday.

BRUCE, S. (1996) Religion in the Modern World: from cathedrals to cults. Oxford: Oxford University Press..

STARK, R. and BAINBRIDGE, W.S. (1987) A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press..

WILSON, B.R. (1966) Religion in Secular Society: a sociological comment. London: Watts.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000