The New York Times

We Aren't Built to Live in the Moment

Attention, editors: This article is accompanied by an illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch that is available at no charge to clients of The New York Times Op-Ed service.

WHAT BEST DISTINGUISHES HUMAN BEINGS FROM OTHER ANIMALS IS OUR FORESIGHT, AS SCIENTISTS ARE JUST BEGINNING TO RECOGNIZE.

We are misnamed. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, the “wise man,” but that’s more of a boast than a description. What makes us wise? What sets us apart from other animals? Various answers have been proposed — language, tools, cooperation, culture, tasting bad to predators — but none is unique to humans.

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectusbecause we thrive

This article originally appeared in .

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The New York Times

The New York Times4 min read
A Bawdy Novel Considers the Tragic Absurdities of Lebanon's Civil War
(Books of The Times) Standing on his balcony, Pavlov, the 20-year-old man at the center of Rawi Hage’s fourth novel, “Beirut Hellfire Society,” hears from the street below “tales of combat deaths, sniper deaths, deaths by misadventure, old age, accid
The New York Times5 min read
Finding Amelia Earhart's Plane Seemed Impossible. Then Came a Startling Clue.
(Science Times) Robert Ballard is the finder of important lost things. In 1985, he discovered the Titanic scattered beneath the Atlantic Ocean. He and his team also located the giant Nazi battleship Bismarck and, more recently, 18 shipwrecks in the B
The New York Times7 min read
A Pop-Culture Glossary for 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'
Quentin Tarantino’s film is filled with references to TV shows, movies and other totems of midcentury Los Angeles. We explain who’s who and what’s what.