The big idea: What if every little thing you did changed history? | Books

WWhen we consider time travel, we always get the same warning: make sure you don’t touch Nothing. Even one squashed bug could irrevocably change the future. You might even disappear from your existence. Why, then, do we not think this way about the present? If every little change from the past creates our present, then each An aspect of our present also creates our future.

Chaos theory is a definitive scientific truth about how complex systems are sensitive to tiny changes – and that small coincidences can have huge effects. It’s not really a theory; this has been proven time and time again. This is why we cannot predict the weather more than a week in advance. If our calculations are wrong, even by a tiny amount, all bets are off.

These dynamics are simply ignored when we consider humans rather than physical matter. There’s no good reason for this – we’re subject to the same laws of physics as everything else – but we just pretend it’s not true. Maybe it’s because what could happen to our future if we squashed the bad bug is so damning that it’s easier to pretend the world works differently. But this is not the case.

This is why history is often made up of seemingly insignificant moments that don’t always make sense. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima rather than Kyoto because a US government official was vacationing in Kyoto 19 years earlier; Trump may have decided to publicly run for president in 2016 after Obama humiliated him with a joke in 2011; The Arab Spring was sparked by a vegetable seller in central Tunisia who decided to set himself on fire. We are told to focus on important, obvious variables – the “signal” – while ignoring “the noise”. But noise – the hum of society’s complexity – often profoundly changes our world.

In a broader sense, our species only exists through a series of coincidences. Two billion years ago – and never again – a single bacterium bumped into a prokaryotic cell and ended up inside. It evolved into a mitochondrion, making complex life possible, from grass and trees to snails and humans. A hundred million years ago, a shrew-like creature was infected with a retrovirus, which ultimately led to the placenta and, by extension, the reason we don’t lay eggs. Sixty-six million years ago, a small wobble in the Oort Cloud hurled an asteroid toward Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and allowing mammals to flourish. If the asteroid had been slightly delayed, humans would not exist. Everything we’ve achieved would have disappeared without a distant wobble and a giant space rock. The story of our existence is often written in the margins.

But these are only the examples that we can observe. The deepest and most disconcerting reality is that we constantly experience “sliding door” moments, totally unaware of the way in which our life paths – and the trajectory of our societies – constantly branch out, endlessly, into due to tiny accidental changes. . We ignore these invisible pivots, the moments we will never realize were consequential, the near misses and near misses that are unknown to us because we have never seen and will never see our possible alternative lives. And yet, because our brains evolved to detect patterns (a useful trick for keeping us alive long enough to reproduce), we ignore a mysterious fact: our world and our lives are significantly influenced by chance, contingency and chaos.

Science, especially in the field of complex systems, knows that this is how the world works. The social sciences mostly ignore this. Instead of facing reality head on, we have invented a false conception of our world that writes out all of life’s wrinkles because they are difficult to model. These models, from economics to public health to politics, give us a misleading image. In models – always wrong, but sometimes useful – each cause has a direct effect. Every great event has a great cause, never the slightest “noise”.

But when we live according to patterns that reduce the complexity of our chaotic existence to a neat, orderly version, we begin to believe we have more control than we actually do. Because if it is influenced by a few key variables that we can manipulate, then we are in control. But if the world is influenced by squashed bugs and populist presidents can emerge from a simple joke, well, then we are incredibly out of control.

It follows that our big decisions are just one factor in the trajectory of our lives. This is a profoundly edifying idea. When you lose at roulette, you don’t beat yourself up for failing, you accept the arbitrary outcome and move on. Recognizing that accidental and often meaningless outcomes emerge from a complex and intertwined world is empowering and liberating. We should all take a little less credit for our triumphs and a little less responsibility for our failures.

And yet we continue to worship at the Altar of Progress in the Church of Control. We try to tame an indomitable world, our lives are a quixotic quest for ever greater efficiency. But when we try to transform every waking effort into a struggle for control and progressive optimization, it is the essence of being human that dissolves. This is why many of us feel like we live a “checklist existence.”

The paradox is therefore that we control nothing, but we influence everything. As chaos theory proves, in an intertwined system, every action has an unforeseen ripple effect. Nothing makes sense. And this reveals a profound truth: All we do things.

You are the contingent culmination of all cosmic history. Everything had to be exactly as it was before for you to exist, as you are, at this precise moment, in this precise world. This brings us to a simple and wonderful idea: that we are all the living manifestation of 13.7 billion years of chance.

We will never be able to fully understand our own existence. Nonetheless, Kurt Vonnegut gave us some good advice on how to live fully in this uncertainty: “One of the purposes of human life, no matter who controls it, is to love whoever is there to be loved. »

Brian Klaas is partner professor in global politics at University College London and author of Fluke (John Murray).

Further reading

Determined: life without free will
Robert M. Sapolsky (Vintage, £12.99)

James Gleick (Vintage, £10.99)

Humanly possible
Sarah Bakewell (Vintage £10.99)

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