Winter 2012

Humanity's Eternal Question: "What's Next?"

– James McGrath Morris

The trick is to know which novelty to embrace because it’s genuinely useful, and which to consign to a dust heap of wan or dangerous diversions.

The assurance in Ecclesiastes was mere wishful thinking: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Rather, like the Gospel’s poor, the new we have always with us. And thank goodness for that, Winifred Gallagher would argue, for without the challenge of the new and our capacity for neophilia, we’d be nowhere. Literally. Had our African ancestors tens of thousands of years ago not been able to adapt to environmental disruption, the entire history of the race might have been inscribed on a large rock.

So there’s a fundamental evolutionary purpose to neophilia, says Gallagher. Just as the race developed early on in response to a changing world, it has had to keep adapting to survive and flourish. The trick is to know which novelty to embrace because it’s genuinely useful, and which to consign to a dust heap of wan or dangerous diversions.

Gallagher provides an engaging, if somewhat repetitive and diffuse, account of humanity’s need for the new. Neophilia “is both a state, or transient psychobiological condition, and an abiding trait,” and we must understand its several dimensions if we’re to harness a 21st-century aptitude for it. “For better and worse,” she notes, “the United States is history’s most neophilic culture.” Some of us resist change, some embrace it eagerly, and most regard it from a middle distance, receptive but wary, or, if you will, wary but receptive.

In part, our response to the new is genetically encoded. A disproportionate number of Westerners of European descent, for example, have a gene (DRD4 7R) that encourages “robust novelty seeking.” (Exquisite torture for a restless 7R-endowed individual? Having to read Proust.) And, in part, our response to novelty and change is shaped by environmental factors, physical and mental. Experience and biology work as a team.

Gallagher calls on an array of neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists, media theorists, marketers, and more to make her case. The result is a thoroughly readable mix of science hard and squishy, speculation, and personal observation. You’ll not soon find another book whose playful author makes room for Kit Carson (neophile extraordinaire), Fran Leibowitz (cranky New York wit and technological neophobe), Eleanor Roosevelt (shy young neophobe, courageous self-made adult neophile), and, inter alios, Galileo, Jackson Pollock, Keith Richards, and Larry Summers.

Gallagher’s final chapters offer some practical guidance to perplexed, and possibly overwhelmed, contemporary American neophiles/phobes. It’s not her fault that the curve of the book bends toward bathos—from humanity’s early heroic struggle to avoid extinction to our current embarrassing struggle with gadget addiction. Under the circumstances, her advice can’t help but sound a little Oprahesque: Find the level of novelty that suits your biology and your temperament. Avoid multitasking; it’s a myth, anyway. Teach the young to use their riveting devices with moderation. Think. Rediscover the lost pleasures of reverie.

We live in a world juiced by change of every sort—by technological surfeit and infatuation with the trivial—and each of us needs to decide how much of that rampant energy is healthy. Clever phones, for example, have made social morons of millions. T. S. Eliot, unfamiliar with data plans or texting teenagers, knew more than 75 years ago what it was for “strained time-ridden faces” to live “distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning.” Gallagher summarizes in two words the advice of experts on how to make our way through this “world of potentially limitless distractions”: selectivity and balance. These criteria would have been old news to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s a fine measure of our predicament that they should now seem novel.

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James M. Morris is an editor at large of The Wilson Quarterly and a senior scholar at The Wilson Center. 

Reviewed: "New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change"  by Winifred Gallagher, Penguin Press, 2011.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Jordi Martorell