The Human Condition:

Cruel Fate – September 11, 2016

Roulette wheel

It has long been observed that evolution is no respecter of individuals. The process has given us quadrupeds both as graceful as horses and as sturdy as elephants; invented flight numerous times with species as different as dragonflies, hawks, and bats; brought lungfish to walk on the land and whales and dolphins to swim in the ocean. Evolution in one way or another has created everything you can see on this planet, including the contents and colors of the sea and the sky. Evolution is the engine of creation, but it cares not a bit for the individual of any species. It works on the flow of genes but it lacks direction—except toward what works and survives. And along the way, that flow will discard a hundred, a thousand, a million failed attempts—all of them individual beings with otherwise developed potential.

This is a hard thing for most people to understand. We instinctively want a creator which—or, in most minds, Who—cares about us. Not just the human species as a curious kind of experiment along the way from monkeys to post-apocalyptic apes, but humans as some peak of attainment. We want to see our kind as rising toward a level of genius, awareness, independence of thought, and freedom of action that was prophesied back when the first microbial cell divided and differentiated in the primordial, comet-fed seas. This yearning for attention is part of our mammalian and human heritage, based on our being born as helpless, half-formed embryos with enlarged primate skulls too wide to gestate fully in the womb and then pass through the narrow primate birth canal. We are totally dependent in our earliest years on loving parents to feed, protect, and teach us. And when mother and father themselves prove to be all too human and fallible, we look to the sky for a loving bringer of order and to the earth for a nurturing presence.1

Moreover, we look for a creator that had us, ourselves, our own personhood, in mind when we were born. With our random gift of self-awareness, we humans each believe that we, as individuals, as the person following the particular life course we’ve chosen, with the dreams of childhood behind us and the ambitions of adulthood still driving us forward, have a unique place in the creator’s purpose. We want to be loved. We want a force stronger than ourselves to tell us that we will win the race, achieve our goals, obtain the love and respect of our family and peers, that we matter in this life.

The notion of that creator as the engine of evolution, which randomly hands out helpful or harmful genetic mutations before we are even born, which often dumps us into environments that may be both physically and—for us now, with our bigger brains and calculating self-awareness—psychologically productive and sustainable, or not, and which dooms a large fraction of our peers to random accidents, diseases, and death … we find that notion hateful. The universe is not supposed to work this way. Our mothers assured us we would be safe. Our fathers fought to make us safe.

The truth is even worse than that. Life itself and the history in which we place such intellectual store are both crapshoots.

Think of our great philosophers and teachers—Pythagoras, Aristotle, Buddha, Christ. Think of our brightest minds—Newton, Goethe, Einstein. Think of our history-changing leaders—Moses, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon. All of them are accidents in the sense that they happened to be born with the right kind of intellectual or emotional capacity, placed in the right familial and societal environments, either encouraged or simply allowed to develop and exercise those personal gifts, and survived long enough to begin applying them successfully.

Certainly, in an army as large as Napoleon’s—more than half a million men in the Grand Armëe at its peak—there must have been four or five other men with the native charisma to inspire those around them, the organizational capacity and memory to know the quality and current status of hundreds of fighting units both during the march and on the battlefield, and the imagination and vision to conjure up campaigns for them to pursue and strategies that would enable them to win their battles. But of those four or five other men, who will never be named, they were either born into humble homes and never attained an officer’s rank and training, or they died of wounds—or more likely dysentery—in their first or second campaign. History has given us a Napoleon and a Wellington. There might well have been other and better men. We will never know.

Something of this kind actually happened in the late 17th century, when the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton and the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz independently came up with mathematical systems that became our modern system of calculus.2 They began working on their ideas at different times and, although each man left manuscripts or published papers at different dates, there is no indication that one copied from or even knew about the other.

Interestingly, a third mathematical system was created much earlier but only survived in a Byzantine manuscript that copied out the works of Archimedes of Syracuse—a parchment that was later overwritten with Christian theological texts. Once the religious material was scraped away, the manuscript underneath showed that the ancient Greek had come up with a “method” for solving physics problems for which we now would use calculus. Who knows what advances human engineering and technology might have achieved far ahead of their time if this method of calculation had spread and been used so much earlier in history. The fact that the Archimedes method was written down and survived only once, and then not rediscovered until the early years of the 20th century, is simply a matter of cruel fate.

If human intellectual and creative development is a crapshoot, so is the history in which it operates and which we take to be somehow foreordained and immutable.

We like to believe that the great turning points, the decisive battles upon which the course of history swung like a bank-vault door on a jeweled point, were destined to come out that way. Think of Hastings and the success of the Norman invasion of England, which brought French language and manners to England, and involved the English royal family in French affairs for half a millennium. Think of Waterloo and the success of the English and German armies in stopping a resurgent Napoleon from the reconquest of Europe, and subsequently establishing a hundred years of relative peace on the continent. Think of Gettysburg and the success of the Army of the Potomac in stopping a Confederate march on Washington, DC, from the north, which might have forced an end to the American Civil War favorable to the South and its secession.

From my experience of fighting some these battles in both tabletop miniature and board games (see War by Other Means …)—the different days of Gettysburg at least four times, and Waterloo and other Napoleonic battles at least once—I can attest that the course of history was not so obvious. In the hands of different generals, and with even slightly different tactical approaches, these battles could have gone the other way. There are no sure things in history.

As a science fiction writer, I wrestle with these ideas. What does evolution look like on other planets? And how might our own planet have developed differently? What great minds might a cruel fate have subtracted from the human past—or added to it—to change the path of our intellectual, emotional, and political development? What turning points, which we see so clearly in our telling of history, might never have occurred, or resulted differently, to redraw the political map of the world?

It’s a fascinating imaginative playground—and one that I explored briefly in the novel The Children of Possibility and am now re-entering with its sequel, due out sometime next year, tentatively titled The House at the Crossroads. The only difficulty, for a writer, is that if one concatenates too many changes onto history, the human experience tends to become unrecognizable for the reader.

But like evolution and fate, a writer’s imagination can sometimes be cruel.

1. As I’ve noted before, the human conception of creation and deity would be very different if our species had arisen from the line of, say, sea turtles instead of the great apes. Hatched in the dry sand, with their first act destined to be a crazed dash toward the surf and the light of the full moon, being picked off twenty or a hundred to one by the waiting seabirds and then by the snapping fish in shallow waters, the surviving turtles would have a much darker notion of the creator’s purpose.

2. Calculus, for those who are as mathematically innumerate as I am, is a method for studying changes in a system, such as the area bounded by a continuous, smooth curve, or the effects of changing rates of acceleration on motion. The word is from the Latin for a small pebble used for counting.