Glorious Contingency

Glorious Contingency

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Robert Wright has summarized his case for the inevitability of the rise of an intelligent, conscious, social species that achieves global dominance. In the jargon of the trade of speculative philosophy of history, this is what is known as necessity. The counter to necessity is contingency, the position that things did not have to be as they are.

Along these lines there is much interest, of late, in what is called counterfactual history, better known as what if (as in what if Pickett’s charge had succeeded? Or what if Hitler had beaten the Russians at Stalingrad? Or, for levity from an old Saturday Night Live routine, what if Napoleon had B-52 bombers?). Niaal Ferguson’s book Virtual History is a wonderful volume of collected essays dealing with a variety of what if scenarios. Bob Wright’s approach is strongly counterfactual in nature. He is saying what if we rewound the tape and played it back? His answer is that we would appear again and again.

Wright is putting a new twist (nonzero game theory) on an old argument, most recently made in book form (and also targeting Stephen Jay Gould as contingency enemy number one) in Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. What follows (and will follow) is a series of excerpts from Chapter 10, “Glorious Contingency,” from my new book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. It presents a detailed refutation of the strong necessity argument, while simultaneously presenting a balanced theory of contingent-necessity. That is, sometimes contingencies dominate (as Gould likes to emphasize), and sometimes necessities dominate (as Dennett, and now Wright, like to emphasize). But WHEN in historical sequences do one or the other dominate? THAT is the critical question. Arguing that life is all necessity or all contingency is like arguing that it is all nature or all nuture.


Through no fault of our own, and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the grace of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We have not asked for that role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.

—Stephen Jay Gould, A Glorious Accident, 1997

In one of his final public addresses before his death, recorded live at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the astronomer Carl Sagan waxed poetic about our place in the universe and its profound implication for the relationship of science and religion:

One of science’s alleged crimes is revealing that our favorite, most reassuring stories about our place in the universe and how we came to be are delusional. Instead, what science reveals is a universe much older and much vaster than the tidy, anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We have found from modern astronomy that we live on a tiny hunk of rock and metal third from the sun, that circles a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy, which contains some four hundred billion other stars, which is one of about a hundred billion other galaxies that make up the universe, and according to some current views, a universe that is one among an immense number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe, much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe, is pathetic.

In his 1977 book, The First Three Minutes (of the universe), the physicist Steven Weinberg speculated on the human need for centrality, but was even more direct in his assessment of where we actually fit in the cosmic scheme of things:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just amore-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

Was our existence foreordained from the beginning, or are we nothing more than a farce, a fluke product of a chain of accidents?

Modern astronomers and physicists may be the theologians of science, but these questions date back at least to the ancient Greek historians and philosophers who, 2,500 years ago, identified a central tension in the nature of change, as to what must be versus what may be, that which happens necessarily versus what happens contingently. Is our existence a necessity, that is, are things such that it could not have been otherwise? Or is our existence a contingency, something that need not have been? What Sagan and Weinberg argue is the latter, our existence was contingent and by no means did it have to be. Of course, this contradicts the belief of all the world’s religions, which hold that we are a necessary outcome of God’s omnipotence and beneficence. But must we choose between contingency and necessity? Is there not an interactive middle ground that more adequately describes the history of the universe, the world, and life? There is.

One of the most common reasons people give for believing in God is that the universe, the world, and life appears to be designed, in other words, it looks necessary, not contingent. If the universe, the world, and life were not necessary, however, it would imply that there is no designer. And without a designer there is no necessary meaning to life other than what we humans impose upon it. If life is contingent, then we might not have been: Rewind the tape of life and play it again and we would not be here. This is what makes contingency such a dangerous idea. Most people find the prospects of this worldview existentially devastating. In fact, contingency can be both liberating and empowering.

If The Tape Were Played Twice

I first discovered the notion of contingency in 1987 when I entered a doctoral program in history at Claremont Graduate School. In preparation for a course in the philosophy of history, I turned to the Syntopicon (109 great ideas) of the Great Books of the Western World and read what the great minds of history said about fate and chance, universal and particular, and especially necessity and contingency. Here were the grand and timeless debates about history and the nature of change. To my surprise and disappointment, however, not only did we not discuss what these great minds said about these great ideas, we did not even study these great ideas. Instead we explored the possibility that it was not possible to know any ideas, or understand any authors, great or not. Later I realized I was caught squarely in the middle of the postmodern, deconstructionist movement. I abandoned hope for the future of the philosophy of history.

Two years later, however, my flame of optimism was rekindled by the publication of a book that would help launch a resurgence in thinking about the nature of history. But it was not written by a historian. It was written by a paleontologist. Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989a), has become something of a watershed for those who study contingency and complexity, especially applied to organisms, societies, and history, and discussions of it can be found in many works. Walter Fontana and Leo Buss (1994), for example, ask in the title of their chapter “What Would be Conserved if ‘The Tape Were Played Twice’?”

This is a direct reference to Gould’s suggestion in Wonderful Life that if the tape of life were rewound to the time of the organisms found in the Canadian outcrop known as the Burgess Shale, dated to about 530 million years ago, and replayed with a few contingencies tweaked here and there, humans would most likely never have evolved. So powerful are the effects of contingency that a small change in the early stages of a sequence can produce large effects in the later stages. Edward Lorenz (1979) calls this the butterfly effect and by now the metaphor is well known: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, producing a storm in Texas. The uncertainty of our past and unpredictability of our future created by contingency is what makes this such a challenging idea to historians and scientists, whose models and laws call for a search for unifying generalities, not capricious happenstances.

Gould’s dangerous idea, therefore, did not go unnoticed. Stuart Kauffman, one of the pioneers of complexity in explaining the self-organization of complex systems (1993), references Gould and Wonderful Life and asks about the Cambrian explosion of life: Was it Darwinian chance and selection alone, or did principles of self-organization mingle with chance and necessity? (1995, 13). Mathematicians Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart (1991) published a feature story on “Chaos, Contingency, and Convergence” in Nonlinear Science Today, centered around Wonderful Life. Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly (1994) devotes several pages to Gould’s contingency. Philosophers also got in on the discussion. Murdo William McRae (1993) published a critique entitled “Stephen Jay Gould and the Contingent Nature of History.” And, most exhaustively, Daniel Dennett (1995) devoted a Brobdingnagian chapter in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to Gould and this idea.

Most of these authors have criticisms of Gould’s theory, and some are valid. Fontana and Buss contend that plenty would be conserved if the tape were rerun again. Kauffman argues for necessitating laws of self-organization that defy contingency. Cohen and Stewart point out (13): “Nowhere in Wonderful Life does Gould give an adequate treatment of the possible existence of evolutionary mechanisms, convergences, universal constants, that might constrain the effects of contingency.” Kelley has actually run Gould’s thought experiment in a sandbox with contrary results (410): “First thing you notice as you repeat the experiment over and over again, as I have, is that the landscape formations are a very limited subset of all possible forms.” McRae concludes (241): “Gould’s argument for contingency ultimately returns to the notions of progress and predictability itset out to challenge.” And Dennett calls Gould “the boy who cried wolf,” a “failed revolutionary,” and “Refuter of Orthodox Darwinism.”

The Mismeasure of Contingency

One of the surprising things about all of these criticisms is that they appear to have missed or misunderstood the meaning of contingency and what Gould believes is its relationship to necessitating laws of nature. The reason for these misunderstandings is twofold. The first is the problem of meaning—contingency does not mean random, chance, or accident. The second is the problem of emphasis—contingency does not exclude necessity. Identifying and solving these problems can not only show us what is right about Gould’s idea, but also helps us understand how to find meaning in a contingent universe.

1. The Problem of Meaning. Many of those who oppose the idea of a predominantly contingent universe have misread contingency for accidental or random. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, for example, have stated explicitly that, “The survivors, who produced us, did so by contingency, by sheerest accident” (1991, 9); “Gould’s argument that contingency, randomness, plays a major role in the results of evolution,” and Gould “sees the evolution of humanity as being accidental, purely contingent” (1994, 131-132). Yet Gould states quite clearly in Wonderful Life (1989a, 283):

I am not speaking of randomness (for E had to arise, as a consequence of A through D), but of the central principle of all history, contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before, the unerasable and determining signature of history.

As Gould notes, contingency is an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, not randomness, chanciness, or accident.

Daniel Dennett (1995) likewise takes Gould to task in a chapter entitled “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” a play on words linking Gould’s love of baseball—the three names represent the most famous double-play combination in baseball history—to chance, which Dennett identifies with contingency. But contingency does not mean chance, nor does it mean random, despite Dennett’s conclusion (306): “The fact that the Burgess fauna were decimated in a mass extinction is in any case less important to Gould than another conclusion he wants to draw about their fate: their decimation, he claims, was random.” True, mass extinctions may seem random, as in where an asteroid hits the Earth. But by contingency Gould means a conjuncture of preceding states that determine subsequent outcomes. Just as astronomers knew exactly when and where Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was going to strike Jupiter in July of 1995 (and nailed the timing and location precisely), astronomers from (say) Mars, observing Earth 65 million years ago, could have calculated the collision with the Yucatan peninsula with pointpoint accuracy. But the effects of those impacts could not have been adequately computed (and in the case of the Jupiter hit were not), because of the number of contingencies involved.

The eventual rise of Homo sapiens is even more contingent with millions of antecedent states in our past. Each event in the sequence has a cause, and thus is determined, but the eventual outcome is unpredictable because of contingency, not randomness or chance. The Burgess extinction may have been determined, but the sequence of events leading up to it, and those following, all the way to humans, were contingent. On this point Dennett says he is confused about what Gould means by “we” when he says we would not be here again if we reran the tape (307):

There is a sliding scale on which Gould neglects to locate his claim about rewinding the tape. If by us he meant something very particular, Steve Gould and Dan Dennett, let’s say, then we wouldn’t need the hypothesis of mass extinction to persuade us how lucky weare to be alive. If, at the other extreme, by us Gould meant something very general, such as air-breathing, land-inhabiting vertebrates, he would probably be wrong.

Dennett’s confusion seems, well, confusing. By “we” Gould means the species Homo sapiens, no more, no less, and he has stated so onnumerous occasions, including in Wonderful Life (289): “Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.”

One might claim that these misunderstandings are caused by the fact that Gould has not offered a formal definition of contingency. That is true, so one must read him broad and deep. But it is there in dozens of examples and several informal definitions. In his essay “The Panda’s Thumb” (1978), Gould shows that the thumb, actually the radial sesamoid bone of the Panda’s wrist, is not a predictable design of nature’s necessitating laws of form, but an improvised contraption constructed from the history of what came before. In “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology” (1987a), Gould argues that the evolution of the QWERTY typewriter keyboard (denoting the first six letters from the left on the top letter row) supports his theory of contingency (22): “To understand the survival (and domination to this day) of drastically suboptimal QWERTY, we must recognize two other commonplaces of history, as applicable to life in geological time as to technology over decades—contingency and incumbency.” He then defines contingency as the “chancy result of a long string of unpredictable antecedents, rather than as a necessary outcome of nature’s laws. Such contingent events often depend crucially upon choices from a distant past that seemed tiny and trivial at the time. Minor perturbations early in the game can nudge a process into a new pathway, with cascading consequences that produce an outcome vastly different from any alternative.”

This process is sometimes called path dependency, where we get sloted into channels, and the QWERTY example is illuminating. Regular users of computers are locked by history into the QWERTY keyboard, designed for 19th-century typewriters whose key striking mechanisms were too slow for human finger speed. Even though more than 70 percent of English words can be produced with the letters DHIATENSOR, a quick glance at the keyboard will show that most of these letters are not in a strong striking position (home row struck by the strong first two fingers of each hand). All the vowels in QWERTY, in fact, are removed from the strongest striking positions, leaving only 32 percent of the typing on the home row. Only about 100 words can be typed exclusively on the home row, while the weaker left hand is required to type over 3,000 different words alone not using the right hand at all. Another check of the keyboard reveals the alphabetic sequence (minus the vowels) DFGHJKL. (It appears that the original key arrangement was just a straight alphabetical sequence, which makes sense in early experiments before testing was done to determine a faster alignment.) The vowels were removed to slow the typist down to prevent key jamming. This problem was eventually remedied, but by then QWERTY was so entrenched in the system (through manuals, teaching techniques, and other social necessities) that it became virtually impossible to change. Unless the major typewriter and computer companies, along with typing schools, teachers and publishers of typewriter manuals, and a majority of typists all decided to change simultaneously, we are stuck with the QWERTY system indefinitely. (For the history of the typewriter and keyboard, see Dvorak, 1936; Masi, 1985; Cassingham,1986; David, 1986; Romano, 1986, and Hoke, 1990.)

Gould’s biological version of this process is what he calls the “Panda Principle”: “the complex and curious pathways of history guarantee that most organisms and ecosystems cannot be designed optimally.” Extending this principle to technology, we might call it the “QWERTY Principle”: “Historical events that come together in an unplanned way create inevitable historical outcomes.”

2. The Problem of Emphasis. In the philosophy of history journal Clio, Murdo William McRae writes:

In spite of all his dedication to contingency and its attendant questioning of progress and predictability, Gould equivocates often enough to cast doubt upon the depth of his revolutionary convictions. At times he insists that altering any antecedent event, no matter how supposedly insignificant, diverts the course of history; at other times he suggests that such antecedents must be significant ones (1993, 244).

The reason for the apparent “equivocation” is that Gould knows contingency interacts with necessity, but in his writings he sometimes emphasizes the former over the latter to make a particular point. Again, Gould does not offer a formal definition of necessity, yet it is there in his writings. After he first defined what he meant by contingency in 1987, he immediately noted that “incumbency also reinforces the stability of a pathway once the little quirks of early flexibility push a sequence into a firm channel. Stasis is the norm for complex systems; change, when it happens at all, is usually rapid and episodic” (22). And in Wonderful Life (289) Gould asks and answers the question of emphasis:

Am I really arguing that nothing about life’s history could be predicted, or might follow directly from general laws of nature? Of course not; the question that we face is one of scale, or level of focus. Life exhibits a structure obedient to physical principles. We do not live amidst a chaos of historical circumstance unaffected by anything accessible to the scientific method as traditionally conceived. I suspect that the origin of life on earth was virtually inevitable, given the chemical composition of early oceans and atmospheres, and the physical principles of self-organizing systems.

Daniel Dennett goes much further, accusing Gould of attempting to refute the quintessential driving mechanism of evolution itself, natural selection (308): “Can it be that Gould thinks his thesis of radical contingency would refute the core Darwinian idea that evolution is an algorithmic process? That is my tentative conclusion.” It is hard to imagine how Dennett came up with this notion since it is not to be found in Gould’s writings. The problem, it would seem, stems from the fact that when one wants to emphasize a previously neglected facet of nature, it might appear that something is being displaced. I asked Gould about Dennett’s charge and he responded as follows (Shermer, 1996c, 88):

My argument in Wonderful Life is that there is a domain of law and a domain of contingency, and our struggle is to find the line between them. The reason why the domain of contingency is so vast, and much vaster than most people thought, is not because there isn’t a lawlike domain. It is because we are primarily interested in ourselves and we have posited various universal laws of nature. It is because, we want to see ourselves as results of lawlike predictability and sensible products of the universe in that sense.

To distance his and Richard Dawkins’ pure Darwinism from Gould’s contingently modified version, Dennett makes an intriguing distinction between two types of metaphorical building devices: skyhooks, or “miraculous lifters, unsupported and insupportable,” and cranes, “no less excellent as lifters, and they have the decided advantage of being real” (1996, 75). Skyhooks are for wishful-thinking whimps who can’t handle the cold, hard reality of natural selection’s crane: “A skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity. A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process” (76). Dennett accuses Gould of trying to sneak in a skyhook while he and his brave brethern, the unalloyed Darwinians, face the crane maker with brutal honesty. In fact, Dennett spends no less than 50 typeset pages trying to convince his readers that Gould is a skyhooker.

Me thinks the gentleman doth protest too much. In my opinion, Dennett, and some others who adhere to a strict Darwinian adaptationist program, may be trying to find in nature a nonexisting pattern that shows us, Homo sapiens, as the nearly inevitable result of evolution. Dennett’s crane of relentless natural selection is, for him, a skyhook—”a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process,” that, runover and over, would produce us again and again. It is something akin to an evolutionary theology, a secular cosmogony that finds us as the pinnacle of progressive cerebral evolution.

Glorious Contingency: A Little Twig Called Homo Sapiens

The model of contingent-necessity and its corollaries is a formalization of Gould’s dangerous idea. In an essay entitled “Fungal Forgery” (1993), Gould applied the model to a complex insect-flower system to show how it could have evolved, but in a very unpredictable manner in its early stages: “Fungal pseudo flowers are late necessities, and they give us no reason to suppose that the complex contingent prerequisite for this sensible story—the evolution of the insect-flower system—has any similar predictability.” Before turning from this fascinating particular to broader generalities about contingency, Gould offered his usual caveat: “I do not, of course, deny that the history of life includes predictable events and recurrent patterns. I do, however, suspect that most predictable aspects of life lie at too ‘high’ a level of generality to validate what really stirs and troubles our souls—the hope that we mightratify as a necessary event the evolutionary origin of a little twig called Homo sapiens.” But beyond such anthropomorphic concerns, Gould shows why necessities may not always dominate:

As an interesting consequence of Shermer’s model, we may ask why life as a whole doesn’t finally settle down to globally predictable unrolling, whatever the massive contingency of initial stages. Shermer points, correctly I think, to the importance of in frequentand highly disturbing events (such as mass extinction for faunas or punctuated equilibria for lineages) in derailing the stasis or predictable unrolling of systems otherwise stabilized. The theoretical importance of rare, and sometimes cataclysmic, events—as the preservers and reinvigorators of global contingency—may best be appreciated in the light of such historical models.

Gould then returns to his familiar metaphor of the tape, applying the model to the entire history of life:

But if I could rerun the tape of life from the origin of unicellular organisms, what odds would you give me on the reevolution of this complex and contingent insect-flower system? Would we see anything like either insects or flowers in the rerun? Would terrestrial life originate at all? Would we get mobile creatures that we could call animals? Fine-scale predictability only arises when you are already 99 percent of the way toward a particular result—and the establishment of this 99 percent lies firmly in the domain of unrepeatable contingency.

The contingent evolution of insect-flower systems, however, is not what makes contingency dangerous. It is that contingent little twig called Homo sapiens that tasks us. We want to be special. We want our place in the cosmos to be central. We want evolution—even Godless evolution—to have been directed toward us so that we stand at the pinnacle of nature’s ladder of progress. Rewind that tape of life and we want to believe that we (Homo sapiens) would appear again and again. Would we?

Most likely not. There are simply too many contingent steps along the way, too many trigger points where the sequence could have bifurcated down some other equally plausible path. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, toward the end of his life realized this in his book, Man’s Place in the Universe (1903, 73):

The ultimate development of man has, therefore roughly speaking, depended on something like a million distinct modifications, each of a special type and dependent on some precedent changes in the organic and inorganic environments, or in both. The chances against such an enormously long series of definite modifications having occurred twice over are almost infinite. And Wallace did not know what we know about human evolution: his million distinct modifications is probably off by an order of magnitude. We now know that human evolution goes back millions of years, and that is just for the lineage leading to us. What if we rewound the tape to include the evolution of all primates, or all mammals, or all life on Earth? Trillions of distinct modifications over the last three billion years since life began would need to proceed along similar lines to produce our little twig a second time.

Is the cosmos itself so contingent? If we rewound the tape back to the beginning of the universe would there be another big bang, another universe just like ours? No one knows, but if recent cosmological models pan out, it would appear that there are a near infinite number of bubble universes all with slightly different laws of nature. Chances are another universe like ours would reappear, which means that galaxies like ours with stars like ours would form again and again. Recent evidence also leads us to believe that planetary formation is a commonplace event in the galaxy. It is still a little soon to be drawing any definite conclusions, but with enough stars (roughly 400 billion in our galaxy alone), chances are there will be other Earth-like planets, maybe hundreds of thousands of them, the right distance from the home star to give rise to life. It would appear that physical systems are more governed by necessity, while living systems are more governed by contingency.

But this is oversimplifying matters. The actual evolution of life on a planet is really governed by contingent-necessity, and since we cannot remove living organisms from their physical environment, these relative estimates of potential other Earths depend on when in the sequence the tape begins again. Moreover, since no one really cares about whether cockroaches would reappear, let’s cut to the chase and ask whether a primate species with a big enough brain to have consciousness, symbolic language, religion, awareness of its own mortality, and a developed enough system of thought to ask this very question, would evolve again. We cannot run the experiment, of course, but we do not need to because history has done it for us. The fossil record, while still fragmented and desultory, is complete enough now to show us that over the past 30 million years we can conservatively estimate that hundreds of primate species have lived out their lives in the nooks and crannies of rain forests around the world; over the past 10 million years dozens of great ape species have forged specialized niches on the planet; and over the last 6 million years, since the hominid split from such great apes as gorillas, chimps, and orangutans occurred, dozens of bipedal, tool-using hominid species have struggled for survival.

If these hominids were so necessitated by the laws of evolutionary progress, why is it that only a handful of those myriad pongidids and hominids have survived? If braininess is such an inevitable product of necessitating trends of nature, then why has only one hominid species managed to survive long enough to ask the question? What happened to those big-brained hominids Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis? If big brains are so great, why did all but one of their owners go extinct (including the Neanderthals, whose brains were slightly larger than our own)? And before them, what happened to the bipedal, tool-using Australopithecines: anamensis, afarensis, africanus, aethiopicus, robustus, boisei, and, most recently, garhi? Discovery after discovery coming out of Africa reveals our ancestors to be puny little small-brained creatures walking upright, using tools, and eating meat, allegedly the ingredients that go into making big brains. If necessitating evolutionary progress were so potent, then why aren’t there a dozen modern human-like species that should have arisen out of these Australopithecine ancestors? Historical experiment after experiment reveals the same answer: We are a fluke of nature, a quirk of evolution, a glorious contingency.

The Full Impact of Contingency

It is not surprising that the idea of glorious contingency does not have a wide following among the religious. But what is more surprising is that many scientists still cling to a more sophisticated notion of progress as “trends”, where humans—or sentience, cognition, big brains, or some other form of advanced mentation—sit atop the phylogenetic bush because evolution “moves” in this direction. (In more extreme versions, such as in Freeman Dyson’s Infinite in All Directions or Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality, it seems as if the universe “knew” we were coming). Even the more modest progressivists manage to find a special place for humans on an evolutionary pedestal. Philosopher of science Michael Ruse (1996, 1999) calls such evolutionism a “secular religion of progress.” Surveying the writings of some of today’s leading evolutionary biologists, and reading the message between as well as on the lines, Ruse concludes: “If one came away thinking that evolution is progressive and that natural selection is the power behind the throne, one would be thinking no more than what one had been told” (1999, 131-132).

But as Gould shows in his 1996 book, Full House, these “apparent trends can be generated as by-products, or side consequences, of expansions and contractions in the amount of variation within a system, and not by anything directly moving anywhere” (33). Gould claims that things like .400 hitting in baseball are not “things” at all, in the Platonic sense of fixed “essences.” They are artifacts of trends, which disappear when the overall structure of the system changes over time. No one has hit .400 in baseball since Ted Williams did it in 1941 (for every 10 times at bat he got four hits), and this unsolved mystery continues to generate arguments about why it hasn’t happened since. The mystery is now solved, says Gould. It is not because players were better then (what he calls the Genesis Myth :”There were giants on the earth in those days”—or as Williams himself put it, “the ball isn’t dead, the hitters are, from the neckup”), or because players today have tougher schedules, night games, and cross-country travel. (Rod Carew says night games are easier on the eyes and travel by jet beats a train any day). It is because the overall level of play—by everyone from Tony Gwynn and Eddie Murray to Backup Bob and Dugout Doug—has inexorably marched ever upward toward a hypothetical outer wall of human performance. Paradoxically, .400 hitting has disappeared because today’s players are better, not worse. But all of them are better, making the creme de la creme stand out from the mediocre far less than before. The best players may be absolutely better (better training, equipment, diet) than players 50 years ago, but they are relatively worse compared to the average level of play. It was easier for Ted Williams to “hit ’em where they ain’t” 50 years ago than it is for Wade Boggs today, because every position in the field is manned by players whose average level of play is much better than before.

Consider these numbers: Only seven other players have hit .400 since 1900, and three of those in one year (1922). Add Williams in 1941 and the list is complete at eight, out of tens of thousands that have played. And the difference between .400 and George Brett’s .390 in 1980, for example, based on his 175 hits in 449 at bats, is five hits! That computes to only one hit in every 32 games. How many times did Brett face top relievers in late innings, or defensive alignments (based on computer analyses of his hitting style) that Williams and Cobb never faced? Surely at least once every 32 games. William’s feat of 1941 would not be discussed today except for three hits (the difference between .406 and .399 in his 185 hits out of 456 at bats). Would Williams have been deprived of one hit per 54 games by today’s players? Most assuredly.

So what? For Gould, the disappearance of .400 hitting is just one of many examples of how systems change over time and how our bias of progress and complexity has led us to misunderstand historical change. “All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning—our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence. This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases—that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex; and that almost any subject can be expressed and understood in terms of an average” (132).

In baseball, there is a bell curve variation from worst to best players; what has happened in the past century is that while the league average has remained the same, the “spread” has shrunk as the entire system has marched closer toward that outer limit. It is this spread that matters, not the single point on it. As an example of the latter Gould relates his personal battle with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and usually fatal form of cancer for which he was given eight months to live. That was in 1982. What happened? The eight months was a median that did not describe the variation within the entire system (the spread) which, fortunately for Gould, has a long right tail on which he is located.

As in baseball and disease prognosis, evolution can be illustrated by a bell curve of organisms from simple cells to complex mammals of today. But what else could evolution have done, Gould asks? In the spread of life, there is a left wall of simplicity, any simpler and it would not be alive. For life to evolve it could only have gotten more complex—evolution reflects “an increase in total variation by expansion away from a lower limit, or ‘left wall,’ of simplest conceivable form.” Same thing with size: “Size increase is really random evolution away from small size, not directed evolution toward large size” (169-172).

Why is this idea revolutionary? Because change is a result of the whole system (the “full house”) expanding, not a progressive march of an average “toward” something. Evolution is not “going” anywhere in a teleological sense. It is massively contingent and we are but a minor twig on the richly branching bush of life. “The vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity” (173). With that the full impact of the Darwinian revolution is felt. We are not even special in the impersonal world of materialistic evolution. Where, then, shall we turn?

Contingency and Freedom

In numerous places, Dennett accuses Gould of “radical contingency,” particularly with regard to its significance for human freedom: “If we can just have contingency—radical contingency—this will give the mind some elbow room, so it can act, and be responsible for its own destiny, instead of being the mere effect of a mindless cascade of mechanical processes! This conclusion, I suggest, is Gould’s ultimate destination” (300).

Nowhere that I know of has Gould modified contingency with “radical” (i.e., to the exclusion of necessity, or to the degree that necessity becomes irrelevant, which is what most philosophers mean by radical contingency). Yet I partly agree with Dennett. Whether it is Gould’s ultimate destination or not, it is the ultimate implication of contingency. But contingency is not in contrast with the algorithm of natural selection—Dennett’s “mindless cascade of mechanical processes.” Contingency interacts with the necessitating force of natural selection. Natural selection is both constrained by contingencies and, in turn, confines them—for example, genetic mutations, chromosomal aberrations, and asteroid-triggered mass extinctions. Natural selection is also constrained by other necessitating forces, such as geography, climate, and self-organizing complexity. Natural selection may be Darwin’s dangerous idea, but it is not the only one. (Contingency would also seem to undermine critics’ charges that Gould’s Marxist beliefs have shaped his evolutionary theories: contingency not only subverts evolutionary determinism, it negates socioeconomic determinism, the very foundation of Marxist ideology, because “When we realize that the actual outcome did not have to be, that any alteration in any step along the way would have unleashed a cascade down a different channel, we grasp the causal power of individual events. Contingency is the affirmation of control by immediate events over destiny” {1989a, 284}).

Contingency helps us think about human meaning and freedom within a scientific perspective. Although all contingencies are caused—and thus determinism lives in the model of contingent-necessity—the number of contingent causes, and the complexity of their interactions with necessities, make the predetermination of human action essentially impossible; but because of this, the determination of human action on history becomes possible. An analogy between the physical and behavioral sciences is helpful: The movement of atoms in space, like the movement of people in the environment, is caused, but their collisions (atomic) and encounters (human) happen by contingent-necessity. Contingency leads to collisions and encounters; necessity governs speed and direction. An effect, dependent upon the activity of one or more causes, may seem to be produced by accident but is really the result of contingent-necessity, or a conjuncture of events compelling a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions. The words “compelling” and “constraining” were chosen to convey powerful influence but not omnipotence. Since we cannot possibly understand the innumerable and interactive causes of our actions, and since we will never know the initial conditions of our own personal histories, we feel free. And why not? No cause or set of causes we select to examine as the determiners of human action can be complete, thus they cannot be considered as determining causes, only influencing ones. There will always be other causes left unexamined. Human freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes, and the model of contingent-necessity explains why. And because of the trigger effect of contingency, and its cascading consequences, we are also free to change our history. Therefore: Human freedom is action taken with an ignorance of causes within a conjuncture of events, that compels and is compelled to a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Though the majority of Gould’s focus has been on paleontological contingencies, his exemplar for human historical systems is the 1946 holiday film classic by Frank Capra—It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a small-town building and loan proprietor who, after decades of hard, honest work feels his life has been a failure because he sees nothing of the results of his efforts, and his youthful dreams of seeing and changing the world have seemingly been lost to age and responsibility. Further, some of his friends have managed to break away from the small town to make more money. Where others have ventured out to see the world, George only fantasized about it. His own brother is a decorated war hero, who saved the lives of many men in battle. But George has done seemingly little. His life seems stalled and stagnant, and when financial and familial pressures finally build beyond control on Christmas Eve, George decides to take his life by leaping into the rapids of a nearly frozen river. Fortunately he is interrupted by his guardian angel—Clarence Oddbody—who, knowing George’s humanitarian disposition, jumps in the river before him, triggering George to follow him in to save his life. In recovery, George unloads his problems on Clarence, and then exclaims that he wishes he were never born. Clarence grants him his wish, taking George out of the historical picture and rerunning the story of what his little town of Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

Suddenly things are not what they used to be, and the changes are mostly slanted toward the negative. The people George helped financially are instead poor and wretched, the buildings he constructed are nonexistent, his wife is a lonely unmarried librarian, his children unborn, and the town is renamed “Pottersville,” after the treacherous banker whose miserly ways prevented those George had helped from ever owning their own homes.

His brother, whom George saved in childhood, is not there to save other lives in that specific battle, with the contingent consequences that the lives the brother saved are now also gone. As Clarence guides George through his now unfamiliar surroundings, he is dismayed and shocked. The history of his town is quite different without the influence of George Bailey. He never realized just how many people were dependent upon his seemingly routine existence. “Strange, isn’t it?,” queries Clarence to George at the appropriate moment of enlightenment. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

In the end, of course, Clarence restores the historical sequence to its original condition, with George’s contingent influence in tact, and makes areassuring pronouncement to him: “You see George, you really had a wonderful life.” In this sense, then, we are all individuals of power and importance. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, every encounter and every action, can and does make some degree of difference, ranging from virtually negligent to powerfully diverting. A seemingly innocuous decision, carefully placed in time and circumstance, may affect uncounted others in multitudinous ways.

Because of the trigger effect and contingent-necessities, and the fact that at any point in the system it could be early as well as late (since we do not know when our personal system will end), one never knows which actions will or will not make a difference. Only the historian looking back is privileged to so judge. It is this lack of foresight and prognostication that makes the potential for the power of contingency and individuality so puissant. Since we do not know for certain which actions will matter and which will not, it is as rational as not to assume the former than the latter. It may be nothing but wishful thinking to desire one’s place in history to be contingently significant, but since we do not know, why not act as if it does?

Finding Meaning in a Contingent Universe

I am often asked by believers why I abandoned Christianity and how I found meaning in the apparently meaningless universe presented by science. The implication is that the scientific worldview is an existentially depressing one. Without God, I am bluntly told, what’s the point? If this is all there is, there is no use. To the contrary. For me quite the opposite is true. The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest.

This is not to say that those who are religious cannot share in these freedoms. But for me, and not just for me, a world absent monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back. The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us—indeed, that it was not designed at all. If we are nothing more than star stuff and biomass, how special life becomes. If the tape were played again and again without the appearance of our species, how extraordinary becomes our existence, and, correspondingly, how cherished. To share in the sublimity of knowledge generated by other human minds, and perhaps even to make a tiny contribution toward that body of knowledge that will be passed down through the ages, part of the cumulative wisdom of a single species on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star on the remote edge of a not-so-unusual galaxy, itself a member of a cluster of galaxies millions of light years from nowhere, is sublime beyond words.

Since we are such a visual primate, perhaps images can help capture the feeling. The Hubble Telescope Deep Field photograph revealing as never before the rich density of galaxies in our neck of the universe is as grand a statement about the sacred as any medieval cathedral. How vast is the cosmos. How contingent is our place. Yet out of this apparent insignificance emerges a glorious contingency, the recognition that we did not have to be, but here we are. In fact, compare this slice of the cosmos to two of the most hallowed and sacrosanct structures on Earth—both medieval in age but on opposite sides of the planet, literally and figuratively—Machu Picchu and Chartres Cathedral. Machu Picchu captures the numina through an interlocking relationship between nature and humanity that generated in me an almost mystical connection across space and time with the ancients that had once lived and loved atop this 8,000-foot precipice.

This is the “lost city” in so many ways. When I stood inside Chartres Cathedral with my soul mate, lit candles, and promised each other our eternal love, it was a more sacred moment than any I have experienced. Skeptics and scientists cannot experience the numinous? Nonsense. You do not need a spiritual power to experience the spiritual. You do not need to be mystical to appreciate the mystery. Standing beneath a canopy of galaxies, atop a pillar of reworked stone, or inside a transcept of holy light, my unencumbered soul was free to love without constraint, free to use my senses to enjoy all the pleasures and endure all the pains that come with such love. I was enfranchised for life, emancipated from the bonds of restricting tradition, and unyoked from the rules written for another time in another place for another people. I was now free to try to live up to that exalted moniker—Homo sapiens—wise man.