Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future

Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future


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Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future by Sian Griffiths

Here are a series of tantalizing predictions about the coming century, delivered by thirty of today's greatest minds—including Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Sherry Turkle, Steven Weinberg, Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, and John Kenneth Galbraith.
This glittering list of contributors includes Nobel laureates, bestselling writers, intellectual icons, and scientists at the cutting edge of research. Readers can sample everything from Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's hopes for the future of Africa in the next century, to feminist Andrea Dworkin's dream of a new Jerusalem for women. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke serves up a series of startling visions, including the possibility that, by the year 2050, large sea creatures will be found beneath the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa. Steven Pinker suggests that the completion of the Humane Genome Project will lead to a sudden jump in our knowledge about the genetic basis of our emotions and our learning abilities. And Richard Dawkins believes that the ancient mind-body problem will be solved—not by philosophers but by scientists. Each prediction is preceded by an intriguing profile of the author—blending a lively interview with biographical data—which conveys a vivid sense of the individual while setting their work in context and explaining their theories or inventions. These fascinating interviews, previously published in The Times Higher Education Supplement, give us instant capsule portraits of some of our most brilliant living thinkers.
Predictions is an exciting roadmap to the future as well as a vivid snapshot of the state of human knowledge at the end of the millennium.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780192862105
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 03/02/2000
Series: Popular Science Series
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 1340L (what's this?)

About the Author

Sian Griffiths is the features editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, editor of Beyond the Glass Ceiling and co-editor (with Jennifer Wallace) of Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety. He lives in the UK.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Chinua Achebe


    Achebe's 'little family'—himself and his wife Christie—spend their days in a wooden clapboard bungalow on the campus of Bard College, 100 miles north of New York City. The walls of the house are covered with Achebe's many awards and honorary doctorates—including Nigeria's National Merit Award—and his study displays a large map of the continent of Africa, but despite these efforts to make himself feel at home, his working environment, set back among the trees and the chipmunks on the shores of the Hudson River, seems very American.

    Achebe's present exile began in 1990 when he suffered a terrible motor accident. The Nigerian hospitals were unable to cope with his injuries, so he was flown to a hospital in Britain. After six months he moved to America, partly to a professorship in literature at Bard College but mainly—since he still has to cope with semi-paralysis—in order to be close to excellent medical care in the States. He expected only to stay for a short time, while he convalesced, but then the political situation began to deteriorate in Nigeria.

    Thecountry's leader since 1985, Ibrahim Babangida, kept postponing a return to civilian rule but finally allowed a democratic election in 1993. Moshood Abiola was elected by popular vote but the election was annulled and a weak interim government was set up. It was overturned in a military coup led by General Sani Abacha and Abiola was imprisoned. Abacha—described by fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka as 'a gloating sadist and self-avowed killer'—then instigated the harshest regime that Nigeria has ever known, arresting and arbitrarily executing many leading figures, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. Most of the country's leading intellectuals and professionals—the writers, the teachers, the doctors—have been driven to leave the country and Nigeria's key institutions were left barely functioning. 'I don't like to call myself an exile in the sense it means for many people,' Achebe says. 'But at the same time, Nigeria would be very difficult for me to live in now with the hospitals broken down and so on.'

    Exile is particularly difficult for Achebe, who is still emeritus professor of literature at the University of Nigeria, because his writing is so rooted in the African community. Indeed he was driven to write his first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, because he felt that nobody was really describing the Africa he knew. 'Over a period of time I was aware that my real story had not been told. I had read novels but nothing I saw was about me. Especially novels which were written about the African people. I didn't recognize immediately that these were supposed to be people like myself.' At first, Achebe says, this lack of fiction about Africa did not seem odd, since all his education was based upon the British curriculum and about subjects far removed from his experience. 'You wouldn't believe, for instance, that the geography lessons I had were about the Vale of Evesham,' he laughs.

    Things Fall Apart is not about a harmonious and happy African community but about a community breaking down and under threat. It focuses upon the fate of Okonkwo, one of the leaders of the Igbo tribe who possesses all the virtues of strength and courage which were traditionally admired by his people but who cannot adjust to the changing customs of his time—changes brought about by the arrival of the first white man in Africa. Christian missionaries cause division in the society, as some Igbo people, like Okonkwo's own son, convert to the new religion while others, understandably, resist. Okonkwo feels that he is carrying the community with him, as he always has done in the past, when he kills a white man. But he quickly discovers that his tribe has moved on and that, in his mad act of killing, he has isolated himself from his community forever.

    Unable to live with the shame, he commits suicide. His hanging body is cut down from the tree by white men as his own people cannot touch it. 'It is an abomination for a man to take his own life,' one of the characters explains to the white District Commissioner. 'His body is evil and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.'

    Achebe's depiction of Okonkwo, caught between two worlds, was probably inspired by his childhood experience, growing up in a very Christian household but surrounded by more traditional neighbours. He too encountered a clash of cultures, although he now recalls this clash as leading more to good humour and amusement than to the violent conflicts of Things Fall Apart. His parents were both pioneer Christians and tried to keep a strict control over their children's contact with those they considered heathen. But Achebe became fascinated by the traditional stories and rituals of his people. 'I was perfectly certain that I was going to heaven, but the masquerades, the stories—I liked those as well. They were not offered as part of my education. So I found myself sneaking out to find out what the story-tellers were doing and I discovered that they weren't people very different from me,' he remembers.

    The tensions and divisions in Achebe's childhood world were evident particularly when it came to food and eating practices and, just as now in America, he found himself crossing between the two cultures. 'If my parents knew that we had gone to one of the neighbours on a feast day and eaten there, they would not have been happy with us,' he reflects, 'because we were told that these heathen offered their food to idols. I never saw anyone offering food to idols. Probably what they meant was dropping their palm wine on the ground for the ancestors. To Christians of my father's generation, that's just an abomination. So they said, "Don't eat in the houses of non-Christians because we don't know what they do with their food." But I took my younger sister across when my parents weren't looking and we ate and there was nothing wrong with their food.'

    The story of Okonkwo became an instant success. At last African people felt they had their own account of their lives. Published just before Nigerian independence at a time when various local newspapers were springing up, the novel became crucial to the discovery of African self-identity. Elizabeth Ohene, brought up in Ghana and now a journalist for the BBC World Service for Africa, remembers the impact the book made upon her as a child. 'It was the first novel I'd read which captured the atmosphere of life as I knew it,' she says. 'It was supposed to be Literature (it was a school set book in Ghana) and yet I could relate to it immediately. I knew some of the characters that he was describing and I knew what he was writing about.' Even now, according to Ato Quayson, director of the African Studies Centre at Cambridge University, Things Fall Apart is 'the most widely read and cited book in African literature.'

    The book also brought African literature to international attention. Published by Heinemann, it inaugurated a new series of African writing for which Achebe went on to become the General Editor, playing a seminal role in discovering and encouraging other new African authors. The novel is read across the globe, particularly in countries which are confronting their colonial past. Schoolchildren in Korea, for example, have recently written to Achebe, telling him of the novel's significance for them when they think of their colonization by Japan. 'Stories have a way to go where they want to go,' he says.

    After publishing Things Fall Apart, Achebe went on to publish two more novels in quick succession in the 1960s, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, which traced the history of the Igbo people's relationship with the White Man after the time of Okonkwo. His next novel, A Man of the People, had a much more recent setting, depicting a newly independent, imaginary African country in the 1960s. African politics, represented in the novel by the fictional leader Nanga, are corrupt and chaotic; order is only established at the end through a military coup. Achebe's novel was published in January 1966, a few days before the attempted military coup of the idealistic Major Nzeogwu in Nigeria.

    Following the second military coup of that year, which established the harsh regime of Yakubu Gowon, dedicated to crushing—and killing—Eastern Nigerians, Achebe found himself personally hunted by soldiers. Because of the ending of A Man of the People, he was thought to have been closely connected with Nzeogwu. Forced into hiding, he later smuggled his way out of the then Nigerian capital Lagos to his home region of Eastern Nigeria.

    When, in 1967, Eastern Nigeria claimed its independence as the Republic of Biafra, Achebe played a key part in the politics of the new regime, working at the Ministry of Information and, later, as chairman of the National Guidance Committee, speaking and writing about the fate of Biafra. The war between Biafra and Nigeria touched him directly. Nigerian planes bombed his house and his best friend, Christopher Okigbo, who had helped him set up a publishing house called Citadel Press in Biafra, was killed. 'The civil war was a very traumatic experience for me,' he says. 'It was violent and bloody and we were absolutely stunned.'

    After the defeat of Biafra in 1970 Achebe returned to his post at the Institute of African Studies in Nsukka, but he found that those who had been involved in the Biafran struggle were being covertly punished. His request for a passport was repeatedly refused and his freedom curtailed and so when the invitation came in 1972 from the University of Massachusetts to take up a visiting professorship, he decided to leave. He spent four years in the USA, during which time he says he felt too sad and disorganized to write. Only once General Gowon's regime was overturned by another military coup did he think about returning and he finally accepted a chair at the University of Nigeria in 1976.

    Now he has become one of the key voices of the continent. At the London literary festival last March, he appeared alongside Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott at a big jamboree in the Hackney Empire billed as 'Two Nobel Laureates and a Legend' and was introduced during the evening by a representative from the British Council as the writer who has become a 'legend in his own lifetime' and who should have won the Nobel prize. Always quiet and modest, Achebe prefers to stress the responsibility of a writer to his community.

    Imaginative writing is crucial to the identity and prosperity of any people, Achebe believes. 'It's very important that we understand how our ancestors dreamed the world,' he says. 'Even when the practices have gone, there are still remnants of the thought behind it which are active in our lives and we do not realize it. Finding stories is not only to show that you were kings in the past. You might find things that will explain why you haven't done as well as you should have and that's also as valuable.'

    Achebe's role as the voice of Africa means that he is called frequently to comment not just on the literary events of the country but also on the turbulent social and political situation. Last year, for example, he gave a lecture to the World Bank in which he called for the cancellation of Africa's debt. And he writes essays and articles both in English and in Igbo for his two audiences.

    He is also working on a novel, his first since Anthills of the Savannah—itself published in 1987, over twenty years after his previous novel. Just as during his last period of exile, he is finding it difficult to write the novel when he is living so far away from his native land and the chief resources of his imagination. So is he thinking of returning, especially now in the new democratic era of Olusegun Obasanjo's government, sworn in on 29 May 1999? 'Many people want me to come back,' Achebe says. 'They understand why I am not there. But there is almost a plea to come back and this is something I cannot really ignore.' Hedging his bets, but perhaps very soon he will return.

by Jennifer Wallace

The Colour-Line


I am optimistic about the prospects for Africa in the twenty-first century. I always think that it is better to be optimistic than pessimistic because, if you are hopeful, the worst that will happen is that there might be some disappointment. But if you are pessimistic, you would be miserable all the way.

    I don't suggest, however, that simply being optimistic is ever enough. There is work to be done. It is this work that will create the possibility of change for the better. If one does not do this work, then no change will come about. This is more or less the idea at the end of my novel Anthills of the Savannah, where you have a situation similar to that which you have in Nigeria now. So many people have been killed or removed from the scene. But there seems to be an opening, just like the child that is born and named at the end of the story. Somebody has to take care of the child. The child is a promise of better times but somebody must first take the responsibility for bringing it up.

    There are signs that we are beginning to see the end of the period of complete turmoil in Africa. In South Africa, nobody ever imagined that apartheid was going to end without some really terrible violence and the sort of chaos which Nadine Gordimer described in her novel July's People. We are not completely out of the woods in South Africa but the transition which has happened is almost miraculous. In the same way, the situation in Nigeria just seemed to get worse each day and then suddenly, without any apparent plan or reason—it seemed like providential intervention—people, like General Sani Abacha, began to die. It was as if some superior force was clearing the deck to give us another go. We've been given the opportunity of seeing exactly where we could end if we went down a certain road. We are no longer in the mood for thinking that an Idi Amin can only happen far away in Uganda or some such place. We now know that it can happen in Nigeria. This is something we had not considered even ten years ago. Then I would have said things could go wrong, but not as wrong as this. So I think that history does teach us. We're not good students, but in the end we do pick up pieces here and there. This is the hope, the only hope, perhaps.

    I spoke at the World Bank in 1998 and one of the things I proposed was the cancellation of the Third World's debts if that can be managed. But I don't think that we in Africa should pin all our hope on what other people should, might, or might not do. I think we should get on with thinking about what we can do for ourselves, which may not be as dramatic but I think in the end might be more effective. We must put our house in order, guard against the emergence of undemocratic governments of all kinds and against the fascination that some people have for the so-called strong man.

    Obviously things like the eradication of certain diseases such as malaria, which takes such a terrible toll, would be good. People don't talk about it any more, but that really would be a terrific thing to happen.

    Hunger in Africa is due partly to sheer bad luck, to terrible droughts which have always happened and play a part in folk tales. But they can be handled with good technology and management and these are issues which should also be addressed. We are not addressing them because we are completely overwhelmed by the excesses of bad government, which lie like a curse on the continent.

    The end of the Cold War should help. The powerful nations of the world have simply lost interest in Africa. They are no longer rushing around trying to find out who is a communist and who is not. This almost neglect of Africa, compared to what we had before, is a blessing. And I am optimistic about the new president in Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. He was the one who handed over power to the civilians in 1979 and then went into retirement. Then providence came in and made him a victim of dictatorship. He's lucky to be alive. So nobody can tell him what it means to live under a despot. He's had special training, as it were, for this role as Head of State.

    Given that fact, and given the readiness of Nigeria for change, and given the talent (Nigerians are extremely talented) and given the resources of Nigeria (oil, agriculture) and given the resources of their past (Nigeria has long been a maker of the arts) and given their special place in Africa (a quarter of the population of Africa is in that one little corner of the continent)—there are so many good signs. The signs were there all along but they have to be managed well. With this manager, Obasanjo, I think the chances are better than they have been for some time.

    At the beginning of the twentieth-century William du Bois said that he hoped that the issue of the twentieth century would be Race, or the 'colour-line' as he called it. He was right, but he probably assumed that it would be solved by the end of the century. Well, it wasn't and one hopes that perhaps it will be in the twenty-first century.

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