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 Times5 min read
Film Treasures, Streaming Courtesy of the Library of Congress
One of the world’s oldest films, “Sneeze,” is a gift that keeps on giving. Shot in 1894 and about as long as an achoo, it shows a mustachioed gent emitting a single sneeze, a kerchief clutched in one hand. The film was made by W.K.L. Dickson and the
The New York Times4 min read
The Suffering and Scientific Legacy of a Large Family Consumed by Schizophrenia
Robert Kolker’s “Hidden Valley Road” is a vividly told story of both a very unfortunate family and a long misunderstood affliction.
The New York Times4 min readPsychology
In Stressful Times, Make Stress Work for You
Research shows we can actually use stress to improve our health and well-being. Here’s how.