Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that the only certain things in life are death and taxes. While most of us likely agree, looking back in time a generation or so, I would add one more certainty: change.
Often it seems as though change comes hard. We lament that people are creatures of habit and set in their ways. Yet reviewing the historical record, just the opposite seems true. People are surprisingly adaptable. And this quality is the great strength of our species.
Reading a single newspaper -- last Sunday's Post-Gazette -- I was struck by the profound changes that have occurred over a single generation. Who in 1960s America would have imagined that a child in 2013 would be able to hold in her hand a smart phone through which she could see and speak to people on the other side of the planet while accessing more computational power than the combined computers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and NASA of their time? Who would have imagined that a mainstream Christian church would have a woman bishop, or that a pregnant U.S. Army colonel would have her wife named "Military Spouse of the Year," or that an African-American would be president of the United States? Had the people of the 1960s gotten a glimpse of last Sunday's Post-Gazette, they would have said something like, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!"
These technological and social changes are amazing, but why are we surprised? I used to marvel that my grandparents had grown up in horse-and-buggy days yet witnessed astronauts walking on the moon. From wood-burning stoves to microwaves in a lifetime -- how mind-blowing is that!
Of course, there always have been and likely always will be people who want to stand still, or return to "simpler" times. There also are those who imagine a better future and want to get on with it -- now! Nestled uncomfortably between conservative traditionalists and radical reformers are the "silent majority," observing, pragmatically weighing and adapting in ways that will ensure their survival and the continuation of their families and core values. Without the extremists on either side, there would be no center -- and remember, yesterday's extreme may be tomorrow's norm.
It has probably been this way for at least 20,000 years -- since the first people to settle on this continent arrived just west of present-day Pittsburgh to shelter in the rocky overhangs at Meadowcroft (the oldest site of human habitation in North America). Those Ice Age hunters faced global warming, too, and figured out ways to survive and improve their lot -- such as how to hunt big game with innovative atlatls, throwing levers that enabled men to hurl stone-tipped shafts with enough force to bring down an elephant or fend off saber-toothed cats.
Who knows what our future may hold? Will humanity survive and thrive, or will other species inherit the Earth? As the ice caps melt, will we live in a water world? Will humans derived from cloned DNA inhabit other worlds?
Go ahead and imagine the most far-fetched future you can. You will probably fall short of what is really in store for us. Some things never change -- except maybe death, taxes and change itself -- so we better get used to it.
Andy Masich is president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, where the exhibition "1968: The Year That Rocked America" opens Saturday.