Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Richard Posner is an influential legal theorist and author and currently a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Posner attended Yale as an undergraduate,[…]

Judge Posner talks about the “Rise of knowledge.”

Question: What are the forces that have shaped humanity today?Richard Posner:    (Laughter) Well it’s the rise of knowledge, right? 

The first great discovery was agriculture, which enabled a much larger population.  And larger population in turn created problems of governance, and problems of governance for which we were not biologically well equipped, right?  We evolved to live in very small groups, not in massive conurbations of huge empires and so on.  So the population growth enabled by agriculture created communities so much faster than what we have lived in as monkeys, and then as protohumans, and then as the early hunter-gathers. 

We’ve been struggling ever since with these governance problems.  But then as knowledge expands and the population and so on, all sorts of new problems are created.  And you know institutional responses emerge, many of which work very well. 

And you know recently we have been confronted with the scientific advances, medical advances, computerization and so on which have created huge new opportunities in wealth and longevity and so on, but also tremendous risks obviously, and disease risks, terrorism, war and so on. 

It is the inexorable rise of knowledge which interacts with a biological structure that was not designed to cope with these complexities.  I mean because we do have large brains.  We do pretty well, but not necessarily well enough.

The human population could destroy itself in the next 50 years because of the extraordinary growth in technology, which has destructive as well as constructive elements.  So that I think is a problem. 

And so in order to design institutions to minimize the terrible downside risks we face, we do have to be realistic about human nature.  I mean the notion that we have politicians promising all sorts of, you know – whether it’s Hugo Chavez or one of our guys or girls – promising revolutionary improvements has to be looked at with considerable skepticism in light of history; in light of, as I say, a realistic understanding of human nature.

Recorded on: Nov 21, 2007.