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FLUKE: Part Two of the Opening Chapter
Here's the second half of the opening chapter, in which you'll meet a murderess, learn about the extraordinary octopus, and consider what might have happened if the Oort cloud hadn't oscillated a bit.
This is part two of the opening chapter of FLUKE: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. Here’s part one, in case you missed it.
Pre-orders make or break authors, so if you want to secure your copy now, I’ve set up three rewards for those who pre-order (more pre-order links are below).
You’ll get access to a Zoom chat (or an audio recording of it if you prefer) in which I talk about the book a few weeks before it’s published (in early January).
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If you order a copy, or if you already have (thanks!), just fill out this form to get these prizes. I hope you enjoy reading Fluke even half as much as I loved writing it.
On June 15, 1905, Clara Magdalen Jansen killed all four of her children, Mary Claire, Frederick, John, and Theodore, in a little farmhouse in Jamestown, Wisconsin. She cleaned their bodies up, tucked them into bed, then took her own life. Her husband, Paul, came home from work to find his entire family under the covers of their little beds, dead, in what must have been one of the most horrific and traumatic experiences a human being can suffer.
There is a concept in philosophy known as amor fati, or love of one’s fate. We must accept that our lives are the culmination of everything that came before us. You may not know the names of all eight of your great-grandparents off the top of your head, but when you look in the mirror, you are looking at generational composites of their eyes, their noses, their lips, an altered but recognizable etching from a forgotten past. When we meet someone new, we can be certain of one fact: none of their direct ancestors died before having children. It’s a cliché, but true, to say that you wouldn’t exist if your parents had not met in just the same, exact way. Even if the timing had been slightly different, a different person would have been born.
But that’s also true for your grandparents, and your great-grandparents, and your great-great-grandparents, stretching back millennia. Your life depends on the courting of countless people in the Middle Ages, the survival of your distant Ice Age ancestors against the stalking whims of a saber-toothed tiger, and, if you go back even further, the mating preferences of chimpanzees more than 6 million years ago.
Trace the human lineage back hundreds of millions of years and all our fates hinge on a single wormlike creature that, thankfully for us, avoided being squished. If those precise chains of creatures and couples hadn’t survived, lived, and loved just the way that they did, other people might exist, but you wouldn’t. We are the surviving barbs of a chain-link past, and if that past had been even marginally different, we would not be here.
The Paul who came home to that little farmhouse in Wisconsin was my great-grandfather, Paul F. Klaas. My middle name is Paul, a family name enshrined by him. I’m not related to his first wife, Clara, because she tragically severed her branch of the family tree just over a century ago. Paul got remarried, to my great-grandmother.
When I was twenty years old, my dad sat me down, showed me a 1905 newspaper clipping with the headline “Terrible Act of Insane Woman,” and revealed the most disturbing chapter in our family’s modern history. He showed me a photo of that Klaas family gravestone in Wisconsin, all the little kids on one side, Clara on the other, their deaths listed on the same date. It shocked me. But what shocked me even more was the realization that if Clara hadn’t killed herself and murdered her children, I wouldn’t exist. My life was only made possible by a gruesome mass murder.
Those four innocent children died, and now I am alive, and you are reading my thoughts. Amor fati means accepting that truth, even embracing it, recognizing that we are the offshoots of a sometimes wonderful, sometimes deeply flawed past, and that the triumphs and the tragedies of the lives that came before us are the reason we’re here. We owe our existences to kindness and cruelty, good and evil, love and hate. It can’t be otherwise because, if it were, we would not be us.
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” Richard Dawkins once observed. “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.” These are the limitless possible futures, full of possible people, that Dawkins called “unborn ghosts.” Their ranks are infinite; we are finite. With the tiniest adjustments, different people would be born, leading different lives, in a different world. Our existence is bewilderingly fragile, built upon the shakiest of foundations.
Why do we pretend otherwise? These basic truths about the fragility of our existence defy our most deeply held intuitions about how the world works. We instinctively believe that big events have big, straightforward causes, not small, accidental ones. As a social scientist, that’s what I was taught to search for: the X that causes Y. Then, several years ago, I traveled to Zambia, in southern Africa, to study why a coup d’état attempt had failed. Was it because the political system was sufficiently stable? Or, perhaps, because of a lack of popular support for the putsch? I set off to discover the real reason.
The Zambian coup plot had been simple, but clever: the ringleader sent troops to kidnap the army commander. The plan was to force that general, at gunpoint, to announce the coup on the radio. With orders seemingly coming from the military brass, the plotters hoped the rest of the soldiers in the barracks would join the coup, and the government would collapse.
But when I interviewed soldiers who participated in the kidnapping attempt, everything I had been taught in tidy models of reality fell apart. As the soldiers ran into the house, the army commander leaped up from his bed, ran out the back door, and began climbing up the back of his compound’s wall. One of the men I interviewed told me that he reached up to capture the general, grabbing his pant leg between his fingers. The army commander pulled himself up. The soldier tried to pull him down. As if in a slow-motion film, the fabric of the general’s pant leg slipped through the soldier’s fingertips, allowing the commander to clamber over the wall and escape. In a split second, the coup plot failed. If the soldier had been a millisecond quicker, his grip a tiny bit stronger, the regime would likely have collapsed. Democracy survived, quite literally, by a thread.
In his 1922 play, Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw writes, “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” How are we to make sense of a world in which our existence is predicated on a near-infinite number of past events that might have turned out differently? How are we to understand ourselves or our societies when one person’s life is contingent on other people’s deaths, as mine is, or where democracy survives by the thread of a pant leg?
We can imagine alternate worlds as we contemplate a universe of infinite possibility. But we only have one world to observe, so we can’t know what would’ve happened if small changes were made to the past. What if the Stimsons had missed their train to Kyoto in 1926 and had vacationed in Osaka instead? What if the bomber targeting Kokura had taken off a few minutes later and the clouds had parted? What if my great-grandfather had come home early on that tragic day? The world would be different. But how?
I am a (disillusioned) social scientist. Disillusioned because I’ve long had a nagging feeling that the world doesn’t work the way that we pretend it does. The more I grappled with the complexity of reality, the more I suspected that we have all been living a comforting lie, from the stories we tell about ourselves to the myths we use to explain history and social change. I began to wonder whether the history of humanity is just an endless, but futile, struggle to impose order, certainty, and rationality onto a world defined by disorder, chance, and chaos. But I also began to flirt with an alluring thought: that we could find new meaning in that chaos, learning to celebrate a messy, uncertain reality, by accepting that we, and everything around us, are all just flukes, spit out by a universe that can’t be tamed.
Such intellectual heresy ran against everything I had been taught, from Sunday school to grad school. Everything happens for a reason; you just need to find out what it is. If you want to understand social change, just read more history books and social science papers. To learn the story of our species and how we came to be us, dive into some biology and familiarize yourself with Darwin. To grapple with the unknowable mysteries of life, spend time with the titans of philosophy, or if you’re a believer, turn to religion. And if you want to understand the intricate mechanisms of the universe, learn physics.
But what if such enduring human mysteries are all part of the same big question?
Specifically, it’s the biggest puzzle humanity must grapple with: Why do things happen? The more I read, year after year, the more I realized that there are no ready-made solutions to that enormous puzzle just waiting to be plucked from political science theories, philosophy tomes, economic equations, evolutionary biology studies, geology research, anthropology articles, physics proofs, psychology experiments, or neuroscience lectures.
Instead, I began to recognize that each of these disparate realms of human knowledge offers a piece that, when combined, can help us get closer to solving this bewildering puzzle. The challenge of this book is to try to join many of those pieces together, to yield a new, coherent picture that reframes our sense of who we are and how our world works.
When enough puzzle pieces snap together, a fresh image emerges. As we see it come into focus, there’s hope that we can replace the comforting lies we tell ourselves with something that approaches a more accurate truth, even if it means that we must flip our entire, deeply ingrained worldview on its head. A fair warning: some of you may find that flip disorienting. But we already live in disorienting times—of conspiratorial politics and pandemics, economic shocks, climate change, and fresh society-bending magic, produced by the wizardry of artificial intelligence. In a world of rapid change, many of us feel lost in a sea of uncertainty. But when lost at sea, clinging to comforting lies will only help us sink. The best life raft may just be the truth.
We live in a more interesting and complex world than we are led to believe. If we gaze a little closer, then the storybook reality of neat, tidy connections might just give way to a reality defined much more by chance and chaos, an arbitrarily intertwined world in which every moment, no matter how small, can count.
In the coming pages, I aim to dispel some of the more damaging myths we pretend are true while exploring three facets of the human experience that can help us understand ourselves: how our species came to be the way it is and why that matters to us; how our own entangled lives are diverted endlessly by arbitrary and accidental events beyond our control; and why we too often misunderstand the dynamics of modern society. As I’ll demonstrate, even the tiniest flukes can matter. As the late philosopher Hannah Arendt once put it, “The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”
Some of you may already be objecting to these bold claims and lofty quotes. If the storybook version of reality is a lie, and chance and chaos drive change more than we imagine, then why is there so much apparent order in our lives, in history, and in the universe? It’s true: many facets of our lives are stable, dictated by regularities and comforting routine. Perhaps I’m overstating the case, and but for a few strange stories such as the one from Kyoto, most random encounters and happenstance events are merely inconsequential curiosities that don’t matter.
For decades, the field of evolutionary biology has been divided by these two contrasting ways of viewing the world. One camp sees life as following a constrained, stable trajectory. Another isn’t so sure, pointing to a perpetually branching tree of life, eternally diverted by chance and chaos.
To frame this debate, biologists pose the question using opposing terms: Is the world contingent or convergent? The central question is whether evolution proceeds in predictable ways, regardless of freak events and random fluctuations, or if those contingencies can lead evolution down diverging paths. As we’ll see, those terms don’t just help us understand Darwinian theory and the beaks of finches in the Galápagos. They also provide a useful way of understanding why our own lives—and our societies—take unexpected turns.
Imagine our lives are like a film and you could rewind back to yesterday. Then, when you reach the start of your day, you change one small detail, such as whether you stopped to have coffee before you rushed out the door. If your day stayed mostly the same whether or not you paused to have your coffee, then that would be a convergent event. The details didn’t matter much. What happened was bound to happen regardless. The train of your life left the station a few minutes later but followed the same track. However, if you stopped to have coffee and everything about your future life unfolded differently, then that would be a contingent event because so much hinged on one small detail.
The natural world seems to seesaw between contingency and convergence. Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid nine miles wide struck Earth with the force of 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. It crashed into gypsum-rich rock beneath the shallow sea of the Yucatán Peninsula. When the asteroid hit the gypsum, the explosion unleashed huge clouds of poisonous sulfur into the atmosphere. Vast amounts of pulverized rock were also thrown up into the atmosphere, creating intense friction that culminated in an “infrared pulse.” The surface of the planet surged by 500°F, cooking dinosaurs at the same temperature as a broiled chicken.
The heat was so great after the impact that the survivors mostly fit into one of two groups: those who could burrow underground, or those that lived in the seas. When we look at animals alive today, from jungles to deserts, or, indeed, when we look in the mirror, we’re seeing the offshoots of these asteroid survivors, an arbitrary branch of life largely descended from resourceful diggers.
Change one detail, and we can imagine a completely different world. If the asteroid had hit a moment earlier or later, it would have hit deep ocean instead of shallow seas, releasing far less toxic gas, and killing many fewer species. If the asteroid had been delayed by just one minute, it might have missed Earth entirely. Even more mind-boggling, Harvard astrophysicist Lisa Randall has proposed that the asteroid came from oscillations in the sun’s orbit as it passes through dark matter. Those small gravitational disturbances, she argues, flung the asteroid from the distant Oort cloud toward our planet. But for one small vibration in an unfathomably distant reach of deep space, dinosaurs might have survived—and humans might never have existed. That’s contingency.
Now, consider our eyes instead. We’ve evolved extraordinarily complex, specialized rod and cone cells in our retinas that allow us to sense light, which our brains can process and translate into vivid images of the world. Those abilities are crucial to our survival. But for most of Earth’s history, animals didn’t have eyes. That was, until a random mutation accidentally created a clump of light-sensitive cells. Those fortunate creatures could tell when they were in brighter or darker spaces, which helped them survive. Over time, this survival advantage was reinforced through evolution by natural selection. Eventually, we ended up with sophisticated eyes, derived from a mutation to a snippet of DNA called the PAX6 gene. At first glance, that random PAX6 mutation seems like another contingent event: our distant ancestors got lucky. Millions of years later, we can watch Netflix.
But when researchers began sequencing the genomes of creatures that are astonishingly different from us, such as squid and octopus, they discovered something remarkable. Octopus and squid eyes are extremely similar to our eyes. It turns out that octopus and squid eyes emerged independently from a separate but similar mutation of the PAX6 gene. Lightning struck twice in the same gene. Our evolutionary track and the evolutionary track of octopuses and squid diverged roughly 600 million years ago, but we ended up with more or less the same kind of eye.
The implication isn’t that both humans and squids both beat the odds and won the species lottery. Rather, the lesson is that nature sometimes converges toward the same effective solution when presented with the same problem—because only so many solutions will work.
That’s a crucial insight because it suggests that the bumps produced by small, seemingly chance events sometimes get smoothed out in the end. If octopus eyes and human eyes end up mostly doing the same thing, maybe tiny changes don’t matter so much. Contingency might change how the discovery happens, but the outcome is similar. It’s as though hitting the snooze button in the morning might delay your journey, but not change your life path. You get to the same destination no matter what. That’s convergence.
Convergence is the “everything happens for a reason” school of evolutionary biology. Contingency is the “stuff happens” theory.
These frameworks are useful for understanding ourselves. If our lives are driven by contingencies, then small fluctuations play a huge role in everything from our career trajectories to whom we marry and the children we have. But if convergence rules, then apparently random or chance events are more likely to be mere curiosities that don’t radically change our lives. We could ignore the flukes.
For centuries, the dominant worldview in science and society has been defined by an unshakable faith in convergence. Newton’s laws weren’t supposed to be broken. Adam Smith wrote of an “invisible hand” that guides our behavior. Biologists initially resisted Charles Darwin’s theories because they put too much emphasis on random chance and too little emphasis on elegant order.
Uncertainty has long been shunned, shoved aside by rational-choice theories and clockwork models. Small variations are dismissed as “noise” that should be ignored, so we can focus on the real “signal.” Even our famous quotes are infused with the neat logic of convergence. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What it doesn’t ever do, we are told, is bend at random.
Several decades ago, a heretic of evolutionary theory named Motoo Kimura challenged that conventional wisdom, insisting that small, arbitrary, and random fluctuations matter more than we think. As a child growing up in the 1920s, Kimura didn’t seem destined for a life of academic study. He loathed going to school because he was taught in a system in which conformity and deference to accepted knowledge was required. Students who experimented with new ideas were disciplined. Knowledge meant order and certainty, transmitted down from authority. Kimura was naturally curious, but his school was no place for an inquisitive mind. Finally, in 1937, one teacher encouraged Kimura’s curiosity. Kimura discovered a hidden academic passion: botany. He vowed to devote his life to learning the secrets of plants.
Then, in 1939, Kimura and his entire family were sickened by food poisoning. His brother died. Kimura was stuck at home, recovering. Unable to study plants, he began to read about mathematics, inheritance, and chromosomes. His obsession with plants morphed into an obsession with understanding how change can be scripted into our genes. Kimura’s career trajectory—and later the field of evolutionary biology—pivoted on a rotten meal.
As a budding evolutionary theorist, Kimura pored over the molecular building blocks of life. The closer he looked, the more he began to suspect that genetic mutations occurred without much rhyme or reason. Many were neither helpful nor harmful. Instead, he discovered that they were often random and meaningless, neutral changes. Whenever a mutation occurred, Kimura’s predecessors searched for an explanation, a reason, something that made sense. Kimura just shrugged. Some things happen without reasons. Some things just are.
Kimura’s discoveries reshaped the field of evolutionary biology, bringing fresh insights that have influenced several generations of scholars. But his ideas are broader than that. Kimura’s thinking, as we will see, can help us better understand the complexity of our world and the flukes within it. Perhaps not everything happens for a reason. And maybe, in an intertwined world, the smallest changes can produce the biggest effects.
Kimura was also a living, breathing illustration of his own ideas, a walking advertisement for how arbitrary, interconnected changes can create contingency. In 1944, Kimura had set off for university, hoping to avoid being conscripted into Japanese military service. In August 1945, he was a student at Kyoto University. If Mr. and Mrs. H. L. Stimson had missed their train in 1926 and vacationed in Osaka instead, Motoo Kimura and his ideas would likely have been obliterated in a blinding flash of atomic light.
Thank you for reading this excerpt from Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. The book will be published on Jan. 23, 2024 in the US and Feb. 1, 2024 in the UK. Pre-orders helps so much, so if you’d like to buy a copy, please consider doing so with one of these lovely orange buttons below.
We’ll be back to your regular programming next week…hope you have a lovely rest of your week and a wonderful weekend.