I was intrigued to read an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’ new book, An Appetite For Wonder: The Making Of A Scientist, in Salon.com that offers some interesting counterfactual observations underscoring the tenuousness of human existence.
Dawkins asks: “How can we know whether the course of a life would have been changed by some particular alteration in its early history?”
After discussing a series of decisions made by his parents (to move him from one place of residence to another; to enroll him in a particular school instead of another), he moves on to ask whether such decisions would have permanently altered his development or whether “life has a tendency to converge on a pathway, something like a magnetic pull that draws it back despite temporary deviations.”
To answer the question, he argues, “The hypotheticals that I posed are relatively large. Take something utterly trivial yet, I shall argue, momentous. I’ve already speculated that we mammals owe our existence to a particular sneeze by a particular dinosaur. [Earlier in the book he writes: I have put it before, if the second dinosaur to the left of the tall cycad tree had not happened to sneeze and thereby fail to catch the tiny, shrew-like ancestor of all the mammals, we would none of us be here. We all can regard ourselves as exquisitely improbable. But here, in a triumph of hindsight, we are.]
He then goes on to employ the classic scenario of the contingency of Adolf Hitler’s existence, noting “What if Alois Schicklgruber had happened to sneeze at a particular moment – rather than some other particular moment – during any year before mid-1888 when his son Adolf Hitler was conceived? Obviously I have not the faintest idea of the exact sequence of events involved, and there are surely no historical records of Herr Schicklgruber’s sternutations, but I am confident that a change as trivial as a sneeze in, say, 1858 would have been more than enough to alter the course of history. The evil-omened sperm that engendered Adolf Hitler was one of countless billions produced during his father’s life, and the same goes for his two grandfathers, and four great-grandfathers, and so on back. It is not only plausible but I think certain that a sneeze many years before Hitler’s conception would have had knock-on effects sufficient to derail the trivial circumstance that one particular sperm met one particular egg, thereby changing the entire course of the twentieth century including my existence. Of course, I’m not denying that something like the Second World War might well have happened even without Hitler; nor am I saying that Hitler’s evil madness was inevitably ordained by his genes. With a different upbringing Hitler might have turned out good, or at least uninfluential. But certainly his very existence, and the war as it turned out, depended upon the fortunate – well, unfortunate – happenstance of a particular sperm’s luck.”
Dawkins does not go on to probe the consequences of Hitler’s failure to be born, but merely by invoking the premise, he seeks to emphasize the sheer randomness of human existence.
Whether or not this is an assertion that gets us very far is open to question. We can marvel at the mathematical improbability of it all, but then again, there are close to seven billion such improbabilities alive on the planet right now, and billions more who have lived at one time or another beforehand. Facing the numerical magnitude of so many real lives, it seems somehow besides the point to overly emphasize their improbability.
As for Dawkins’ invocation of Hitler: despite qualifying his claim about the contingent nature of the “evil” sperm that led to Hitler’s birth (among the billions of others that might have produced “other” presumably less evil children for Alois Hitler), it seems to me that his conclusion, that “If his father had sneezed at a particular hypothetical moment, Adolf Hitler would not have been born,” ultimately distracts us from the circumstances (political, social, economic, etc.) that helped make Hitler into Hitler and lulls us into the complacent belief that had he not been born, the world would have been spared a mid-century catastrophe.