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  • Dan Connors

Flukes and why the tiniest things could make the biggest difference later on.

Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters

“Once you accept that entangled existence, it becomes clear that chance, chaos, and arbitrary accidents play an outsize role in why things happen.”

“Our intertwined social world is too complex for us to master, driven by feedback loops and tipping points, forces that are constantly changing, swayed by chance and chaos, accidents and flukes.” Brian Klaas

If you could rewind your life to the very beginning and then press play, would everything turn out the same? Would you be the same person today, even if some random fluctuations of time had changed the weather, or an influential individual, or a traumatic event happening or not happening? We look back at our lives and see pivotal moments- some within our control and others that weren't, and these moments made us what we are today. Could we go back in time and kill baby Hitler or stop 9/11, or is everything pretty much predetermined by forces beyond our control?

This question is at the heart of a fascinating new book- Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. The author, Brian Klaas, is a London professor and expert ondemocracy, authoritarianism, American politics, political violence, elections, and the nature of power. He has a Substack called The Garden of Forking Paths, a concept he covers in this book.

One of the most fascinating stories from this book involves the first atomic bomb drop in 1945. Apparently, Kyoto, Japan was the initial target, but a general who had vacationed there 12 years earlier dissuaded Harry Truman from targeting that city, pointing to Hiroshima instead. Had he not taken his vacation in that exact spot at that time, Kyoto would have been reduced to rubble instead of Hiroshima. Additionally, the city of Kokura was the initial target of the second atomic bomb, but it was too cloud-covered that day, forcing the pilots to target Nagasaki instead.

Flukes like this happen all of the time, where small details can change entire chains of events forever. It reminds me of any time travel movie, where the travelers are warned not to interfere with the timeline less they be wiped away like Marty McFly almost vanished in the Back to the Future movies. Once Robert Oppenheimer succeeded in creating the atomic bomb, it was a foregone conclusion that it would be used. Where, when and how was subject to a number of variables. Reading about how close we've come to more nuclear explosions (more than once!) is an unsettling realization in the power of flukes.

We like to think that we live in a fairly well-organized world, where data is collected in massive amounts, and most things are predictable. This is a convergent view of history- where progress is linear and there is usually some kind of reason for everything. Klaas says that this view is a comforting illusion, and that the world is much more random and chaotic than we'd like to think. He calls this the contingent view of history, where random forces bump into other random forces and produce big events that could never have been predicted. 9/11, the 2008 Great Recession, and the Covid-19 epidemic stand out as three events in the 21st century that no one saw coming. He calls this the "stuff happens" view of history, where luck is more powerful than data.

In 1963, meteorologist Edward Lorenz coined the term "Butterfly Effect" to reflect the uncertainty surrounding weather patterns and predictions. He said that the flapping of a butterfly wing across the world could trigger a chain of events leading to violent storms thousands of miles away. Weather is notoriously hard to predict, but so are most big human developments like wars, elections, recessions, and pandemics. The butterfly effect became a big element of chaos theory, that says random variations can change evolution, history, and entire civilizations.

Our brains crave order. Given an ever changing environment, we use mental shortcuts and simplifications to attempt to identify the main opportunities and threats that face us every day. The order and patterns that we live by are extremely fragile, however, and we tend to double down on them rather than consider changing them. Sometimes we look for patterns that aren't there, and look for meaning in things that are truly random (like the position of the stars when we are born.) We want cause and effect certainty from our leaders and scientists, and in a complex and interconnected world, there can never be any 100% certainty. Identifying causes is like finding needles in infinite haystacks. The best we can do is estimate probabilities, and those are often just a guess.

The book gets heavily into some serious philosophical territory, which is always a challenge. If history is basically predetermined either by God or by a progression of molecules bumping into each other, do we really have free will? There are a lot of philosophers in the determinism school, including the author, and the debate has been going on for centuries. Most of us feel like we have agency over our decisions and influence over our outcomes, but in an interconnected world like ours, free will is limited. Not everything is possible for everybody- we all are affected by geographical, genetic, and situational limitations. This can seem frustrating when trying to change someone's mind, but the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Some things we have control over, and some we don't. The trick in life is figuring out which ones are which.

Some other interesting stories regarding flukes:

  1. Orthodox Jews in Israel have been looking for a purely red cow, which is a signal from God that the third temple in Jerusalem should be raised, an act which surely would provoke a holy war against Muslims who have temples on the same site. (They came close in 2002 to finding such a cow.)

  2. A lost pack of cigars and marching orders from general Robert E Lee were found by Union soldiers and verified by a person who had coincidentally interacted with the author, recognizing the signature as genuine. This information may have changed the direction of the civil war.

  3. Charles Darwin almost never went on his fateful voyage on the Beagle, and he almost never published his book on evolution, two acts that changed science forever.

The Garden of the Forking Paths was a poem by Argentine writer Jose Borges. Klaas uses it as a metaphor for the ever-changing choices that await us every year. For each thing that happens, the forking paths change, and new choices are created while old ones are lost. We have to continually navigate these forks in the road with incomplete information, and the choices will never be the same as both we and the world continue to change. Some of our choices have little impact on our direction, but many do, including both big decisions and random little ones. It's a humbling realization and one that makes us want to take advantage of every choice that we have.

The fact that any of us exist is thanks to a fluke of timing and biology, and tiny changes could have put someone else in our place here on earth. But I firmly believe we are here for a reason, and that reason has not been predetermined. We have a purpose to create something through what little awareness we have that constitutes free will. We all have different experiences and gifts, and we may never know, even after our deaths, what mattered and what didn't. So act like everything and anything that you do matters. Put love, kindness, enlightenment, and wisdom out there in the world every day and see if the butterfly effect multiplies it thousand-fold.

This was a fun book to read and very thought-provoking, which is what What's the Big Idea is all about. Highly recommended.

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