Optimism & Adaptability (“life starts anew for us with each sunrise”)

“The future is inside of us. It’s not somewhere else.”Thom Yorke


My advisor from graduate school, Mike Little, retired this year and donated many of his books to his colleagues and former students, including me. I owe Mike a lot in terms of my education. Now I also owe him a box of books.

I was flipping through some of the items he sent and one of them was “How Humans Adapt: A Biocultural Odyssey,” edited by Donald Ortner (1983). The prolog was written by the late microbiologist René Dubos , who struck an optimistic tone about human plasticity, and how we adapt to – and also shape – our environments.

He wrote that all organisms…

“are prisoners of Darwinian evolution, which is irreversible and which determines where and how they must live. Human beings, by contrast, are blessed with the freedom and flexibility of social evolution, which is almost always reversible… we human beings have been able to adapt, socially, to many different ways of life. We have been members of roving bands, of sedentary villages, of towns, and of cities. We have lived in cloistered religious or scholarly communities. Today, as in the past, some of us function as hunter-gatherers, as pastoralists, as farmers, as sailors, as artists, as factory workers, as industrial managers, or as reclused scholars….

…The deterministic future operates in human life as it does in other forms of life, but we have continuously and increasingly supplemented it by a willed future that we invent to fit our values and aspirations.

We are still on the way, renewing and enriching ourselves by moving on to new places and experiences. Wherever human beings are involved, social adaptations and evolution make it certain that trend is not destiny, because life starts anew for us, with each sunrise. In the words of one of my favorite French writers: “Demain, tout recommence.”


That last paragraph struck a chord with Mike, who put a little star in the margins next to it. Although this was written in1983, I think I needed this perspective now. I don’t completely agree with Dubos, at least not taking all of this passage literally. For example, I think that it’s obvious that the past affects the present so life does not start completely anew each day.

But I like the sentiment that trends are not destiny and that the future holds the potential for change, positive change, that is in accordance with our values. More than other species, humans modify and create our own environment. And I’d like to believe that we really can make a better world than the one we have right now, one that is based more on compassion, reason, and fairness, and less prone to division. However, I suppose wishing is not enough to make that happen, and that I’ll have to do more to try to shape it that way.    



Dubos R. 1983. Technological and social adaptations to the future, pp 1-9. In DJ Ortner (ed): How Humans Adapt: A Biocultural Odyssey. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.


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