Discover more from A User's Guide to History
How we got here and where we’re going
When the lottery yields a winner, local reporters often seek out the lucky person for an interview. If the winner agrees, the conversation frequently begins about like this:
"I don't usually buy a ticket but my car was running low on gas and I stopped in and something told me this was my lucky day. And my sister needed surgery but we couldn't afford it and now we can. I didn't used to believe in fate but now I do."
It makes a good story. But it suffers from the fact that the reporter knew who won the lottery before doing the interview. The reporter didn't interview the fifty million losers of the lottery whose faith in fate, if any, was shaken by their loss.
Groups of people—clans, tribes, nations—often ascribe to destiny or deity their place in history. Origin stories invariably situate the tellers at the center of the universe. Implicit in this egocentrism is the idea that if history could be rewound and played again, it would turn out much the same.
As it relates to the history of humans at large, the most encompassing version of this phenomenon is that our rise to dominance among the vertebrate species on earth was inevitable. Whether by divine decision or Darwinian evolution, we landed at the top of the food chain. Traditionally most humans thought this outcome a good one: better us than sabertooth tigers. Lately a dissenting view has arisen, asserting that we've screwed things up and the planet would be better off if we'd never appeared. But whether praising or blaming, both sides adopt a fundamentally anthropocentric view.
But were we inevitable? The divine is inscrutable, so we'll consider only the mundane. If we could treat evolution as a lottery with fifty million tickets, and could spin the wheel again, how often would it produce us?
Not very often, said Stephen Jay Gould. In his 1989 book, Wonderful Life, the Harvard paleontologist reported on the fossil record from the Burgess Shale, a formation in the Canadian Rockies. This record included many fascinating creatures that looked nothing like anything alive today. Their body plans seem bizarre, out of science fiction. Yet there is nothing obviously less fit about them.
Gould concludes that they simply lost the lottery of evolution. For millions of years they thrived in their environment. Then something caused that environment to change—an asteroid strike, a tilting of the earth's axis, a bout of vulcanism—and they didn't make the cut, while a few other species did. Had the catastrophic event occurred earlier or later, different species would have survived.
We humans are the descendants of those chance survivors. If other species had been the lottery winners, we probably never would have appeared.
Not all of Gould's colleagues accepted his particular interpretation of the Burgess Shale. But most conceded the importance of the underlying principle of contingency—accident, essentially—in evolution. They agreed that if paleontologists had been around in the heyday of the Burgess Shale critters, none of the paleontologists would have been able to pick the future winners from the losers. Only after the lottery played out would they know the difference.
It's a humbling thought that all the accomplishments of all the cultures in human history have depended on the luck of our forebears in the numberless spins of the lottery wheel that produced Homo sapiens. And it's sobering to realize that our winning streak might not last forever. True, we’re now more resourceful in dodging cosmic bullets than our ancestor species were. We’ll ride out bumps in the road that claimed some of our Burgess cousins.
Yet in the distant reaches of our solar system there might even now be an asteroid with our name on it. When it arrives, it will hit the reset button on terrestrial evolution.
And in the far future a paleontologist-equivalent that doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to Steven Gould or any other human will wonder at the sight of the fantastical species—including us—that got lost in the lottery of life.