Excursus X: Butterfly Wings Beating in the Jungle: Inevitability Versus Contingency in History

In Chapter Seven (“The Battle Between Good and Evil”), I wrote: “It is a battle in which the stakes are, literally, life or death. And we are all obliged, as I see it, to see that battle as hinging on what we ourselves do.”

At a superficial level, it might seem incongruous for me to say that the outcome of the human project may depend on what we — you and I — choose to do. After all, did I not argue (in “With Malice Toward None”) against the idea of “free will”? And have I not stressed (in Chapter Five) that the troubled course of the evolution of civilization was “inevitable”?

But the incongruity is only apparent.

The “free will” issue is quickly disposed of. However I became the person who chose to write this book, and to issue a call to action to my fellow citizens, nothing stands in the way of my executing that choice to the best of my ability. And whatever fashioned you into a person who would or would not respond to that call to action, the choice is yours.

More interesting by far is to look at the apparent contradiction between speaking, on the one hand, of the INEVITABILITY of the overall direction of the course that civilization led humankind into and, on the other hand, of the UNCERuncertainty of the outcomeCOME of the whole human project, and of the obligation of each of us to try to affect the outcome of this ongoing battle between good and evil.

Is there a contradiction between the two? And if not, how do they fit together?

XXXX Inevitability Versus Contingency in History XXXX

Both are true, but they operate a different levels. Additionally, what has been inevitable for civilization so long as the system was fragmented becomes less inevitable as global civilization gradually emerges. As alternatives to intersocietal anarchy become conceivable, a greater range of possibilities opens up for humankind.

Let’s look first at the different scales at which history unfolds. For in many ways, the course of history is unpredictable, because small and contingent events can produce large effects.

At the largest level, and for thousands of years, the selection for the ways of power was inevitable. And as is demonstrated by the parallels in development of all the pristine civilizations (as pointed out by the anthropologist Julian Steward, cited here in Chapter Five), the emergence of civilization wherever it occurred was going to manifest certain basic and important characteristics.

So long as intersocietal anarchy obtained, and thus power was unregulated, this would be the fate of the civilized creature.

But on the more human, smaller scale, a study of the actual history that unfolds shows just how much can hinge on very small things. A woman in Palm Beach County Florida unintentionally designs a confusing ballot in 2000, and the results include the Iraq war, and significant damage to the American political ethos.

The history of Abraham Lincoln, for example, shows how extremely improbable it was that he would become president of the United States. But he did, and one might readily surmise that with some other president, a very different history would have unfolded in that crucial era.

[(In addition, an alternative history that greatly interests me is what how much different — how much better — the post-Civil War history of the United States would have been had the presidential box at Ford’s Theater that night in April, 1865, been better guarded, and had Lincoln survived to oversee the reconstruction of the Union, with his marvelous combination of “malice toward none and charity for all” along with his resolute will to assure justice for the former slaves whose freedom he had won at such a price.)]

Likewise, with the study of Winston Churchill’s life. There seem to have been many more ways that Churchill would never have become Prime Minister than that he would have been brought out of the figurative wilderness at the age of 65 to lead his country. And it seems also that had Churchill NOT become Prime Minister at that perilous moment, when it was almost too late to save the nation from Hitler’s advancing forces, Great Britain might well have made a separate peace with the Nazi regime, and history might have taken a very different turn. (As it was, most of Churchill’s own cabinet was so inclined.)

(And what would have happened if, in 1933, the assassin’s bullet which killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, had instead killed his intended target, the newly-inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt, making Texan John Nance Garner president? How would the course of twentieth century history have been different?)

The idea of alternate history is somewhat controversial: After all, what happened, happened– so what does it mean to say it could have happened otherwise? And how can we know what would have happened otherwise “if only” a different fork in the road had been taken? But I think such exercises are quite useful for illuminating the nature of the historical process.

History in many ways unfolds in entirely unpredictable ways.

An excellent book (cited earlier as arguing against the reality of abstractions (FORForbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International RelationsRELAT) by Richard Ned Lebow explores this idea of how really big forks in the figurative road can hinge on extremely minor matters.

The most serious of these scenarios that he explores involves the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914– the event that precipitated the cascade of events that brought on the carnage and upheavals of World War I. Lebow shows convincingly that the assassin succeeded only because of a set of very small and contingencies that just happened to play out in a quite improbable way. Lebow also posits that had there been no assassination that day, there would have been no European war. (On that score, I am less convinced.) If no World War I, then likely no World War II, etc.

A real fork in the historical road, hinging on the smallest of happenstances.

[(Lebow also spins out a more whimsical, but interesting, hypothetical history based on the idea of Mozart living beyond his thirties and being thus able to lead what became the Romantic movement in a very different direction, conceivably altering the course of the history of Europe in the 19th century.)]

History can be both the fruit of very large forces that carry the overall thrust of the evolution of civilization in some inevitable ways, and of small contingencies that determine which of highly divergent possible paths the unfolding of particular bits of history might take.

Perhaps this combination of apparently contradictory elements can be likened to the contrast between CLIMATE and WEATHER. There are large-scale movements in the earth’s climate, and then there are also rather short-term movements in the weather. Large-scale movements include the annual cycle of the seasons: we know that the temperatures in Minnesota during the winter will be notably colder than those in the summer, even if we don’t know even within 20 degrees what the temperatures will be on a given day a month from now.

Meanwhile, the science of CHAOS — with its famous Butterfly Effect — says that within the earth’s highly complicated system of weather, very small perturbations in one part of the system can bring about very large differences in the weather. The beating of the proverbial butterfly’s wings in the jungle could affect the development of a storm elsewhere on the planet– just as if Archduke Ferdinand had stuck with his assigned parade route, he would have avoided assassination and the world would have escaped all the storms that the assassination set in motion.

But there is also an important difference between the butterfly effect in climate, and how small changes can have large effects on history. The butterfly might affect the short-term weather, but not the long-term climate. In human affairs, by contrast, small changes can yield enduringly large effects.

That was probably true in the Cuban Missile Crisis: if a different move by Kennedy or by Kruschchev might indeed have precipitated a massive exchange of nuclear weapons, the whole human experiment might have failed then and there. That’s a lot more than just “weather.”

And then there is way the inevitability described by the parable of the tribes steadily diminishes as new opportunities emerge for civilization to end the intersocietal anarchy that has been the root of the problem. As humankind has a chance in coming generations to create an order to contain the rule of power, it becomes conceivable that the long-echoing impetus of brokenness that has marred human history could gradually be muffled.

It is therefore conceivable that some seemingly insignificant fork in the road could spell the difference in the destiny of humankind between the triumph of good over evil, or evil over good in determining the outcome of the human experiment.

In the coming several centuries — it seems quite probable to me — EItHEr humankind will have make a significant turn toward a far more whole kind of civilization — e.g. living in harmony with the earth’s system, maintaining an order that preserves world peace and assures justice to displace the order of “might makes right” that has prevailed since civilization first emerged — or the continued escalation of the powers of humankind will precipitate disorder and destruction of such a magnitude that brokenness will be the ultimate victor in the battle over human destiny.

So as history approaches a possible climax, as the powers of both good and evil in the human system escalate, and as the grip of inevitability is loosened, the importance of the contingent grows greater.

What we do or don’t do MIGHT matter hugely.

That is especially true in America today. Of course it matters to us Americans, for at stake is what kind of country we will be. But it is likely much bigger.

How this crisis plays out in United States — “the world’s leading nation,” what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright quite reasonably declared to be the “indispensable nation” — could very well be crucial to the outcome of the human experiment as a whole.

Much may hinge on whether — in the face of rise of this force of brokenness — those whom the nation needs to defend wholeness will continue to be blind and weak, or will rouse themselves to fight and win the battle.

Hence the obligation, as I see it, even for us who are not mighty to beat our wings so as to generate the kind of storm that will help resolve successfully America’s present crisis.

In Part III, I will explain how I think that could happen.

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