The year was 1962. Sydney J. Harris asked readers: "When people say, 'I wonder what life will be like 30 years from now', or whenever some journalistic visionary draws a portrait of life in 1990, it is always the material conditions of mankind that intrigue them. We listen to speculations about our buildings, highways, merchandising and scientific and technological changes. The portraits are attractive, if a little frightening – but none of them considers the most important thing. Nobody asks 'What will people be like 30 years from now?' or 'How will we behave with one another and toward one another in 1990?'"
Sydney theorized, "We fail to ask this because most of us believe (mistakenly) that human conduct remains substantially the same, that 'human nature doesn't change'. But while the basic nature doesn't change, different social orders bring out different traits and patterns of conduct in people. We do not behave like the ancient Romans, the medieval French, the Elizabethan English or even the 19th century Ontarians. For better and for worse, our attitudes and relations are vastly different today (in 1962)."
Sydney observed, "It seems plain to me that the essential question we must ask about the future is, 'What sort of people is this society bound to produce?' As our society becomes more urbanized, mechanized, militarized and specialized, there can be no doubt that what is called the ethos of the North American people will change along with our ways of physical living. Certain traits will be encouraged and others will be repressed; certain kinds of knowledge will be highly rewarded and others will be ignored or even frowned upon. And this is why most speculation about the future strikes me as trivial and marginal."
Sydney reasoned, "At the root of all our problems is always the human personality; and this is the last field of inquiry we seem interested in or at most, we want to 'adjust' the personality to fit the technical and social changes, rather than shape the culture to fit what we think a full human being ought to be. We don't even think in terms of a full human being, as the old Greek philosophers understood it. We think of 'economic man' and 'psychological man' and 'man the citizen' and 'man the maker.'"
Sydney believed, "Our pragmatic society is concerned with functions, not with goals, with 'will it work?” not with 'is it worth the human effort?'" Sydney concluded, "What kind of children are we turning out? What attitudes ideals and sentiments are we encouraging and discouraging? These are the proper questions for the future not space travel or electronic kitchens."
"Listen World!" Elsie Robinson of King Features Syndicate Inc. wrote in 1941. "It's stupid to say that 'human nature doesn't change'. It is true that human beings have certain basic attributes which we've had since Adam was a pup. We're afraid, we're greedy, envious, lazy and amorous. But despite these fundamental makings, Homo Sap, Model 1941AD, is no more like old Grampa Bearclaws of 5000BC than a humming bird is like an ichthyornis – or a Diesel engine like a hand-hewn plough.
"And the reason is obvious. Little Snookums isn't simply what Papa and Mama make him. He's what his whole environment, the tests and tempo of his times make him. The low browed, hairy little creature who drowses in the back of some prehistoric family cave, lulled by the slow rhythm of untamed jungle life, learning slowly to comprehend and face the simple program of jungle society, is far removed from tiny Two-Gun Johnny of 1941 who knows the make of every car and plane about the time he cuts his first tooth; who steps high, wide and handsome to the whoopee of the Machine Age on his first airing.
"They both have 'human nature' of course. They both are endowed with fear, cowardice and conceit, greed, envy and laziness. But the world around them is so infinitely different, the tests they must face are so vastly changed, that they might as well – were it not for the spiritual plan behind them – be completely different animals. Nor do you need to go back to 5000BC, to find this difference. Just take a good long look at Uncle Ed or Aunt Emmy, or even at the Mom and Dad who so justly deserve the adoration they receive.
"With all due respect to their manifold virtues, Ed and Emmy, Mom and Dad, usually behind their times 500 years. The world of their youth was a placid millpond in comparison with the wild rumpus going on today (in 1941). The standards they respected, for all their integrity, are as antiquated as an extinct bird. This doesn't mean that they were not good, honest, reliable, hard working people. It simply means that they had in adjust themselves to an infinitely simpler, slower, safer, kindler world than we face today (in 1941). And weren't shoved around before their ankles hardened."
"Meaning what?" Elsie continued, "Meaning that human nature does change. It changes profoundly with the demands of its environment. And the morals – yes, even the etiquette – which seemed so important in the last generation, can't even be found in the bargain basement today (in 1941). The eternal verities may and do endure, but if they can’t adapt themselves to the altered, quickened moods of their times, they're due for a blitzkrieg."
On reflection, Elsie argued, "Human nature does change. And it's worse than stupid to ignore this fact; it's vicious. For you can't understand any human unless you see him in relation to his background. It's both unfair and idiotic to appraise Young America against horse-car environment. Or to think that Ellen Mae should thrill over making Piccalilli, Mom, just because you did way back in 1904. Decency does go on. The urge that lifted the first faltering protoplasm from the primeval ooze still sends me on to new and greater heights. But it wears a new shape, speaks a new tongue, gives off new vibrations, with every change in its surroundings. And unless you can realize and respect this fact, stranger, you're a flop and a fadeout, despite all your fine theories."