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When What Had to Happen Was Not Bound to Happen: History, Chance, Narrative, Evolution*

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AbstractWhat is it for history to matter? Stephen Gould argued that unpredictability is part of the answer. For example, the “fact” that repeated replays of the history of life would end differently every time is a sign that history matters to the course of evolution. But there is a problem here: if a particular point in the past leaves open alternative possible futures, then in what sense does that point in the past matter with regard to which of the outcomes occurs? We argue that unpredictability is central to the importance of history. However, it is not the unpredictability of the future, but rather the unpredictability of the past itself that is the key. History matters when a particular future depends on a particular past that was not bound to happen, but did.

1. FN0* We are grateful for advice and feedback from Roberta Ballerin, Marjorie Fee, Sergio Martinez, Gary Morson, Alan Richardson, Elliott Sober, Edna Suarez and James Woodward.
2. FN11) S.J. Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1989), 51.
3. FN22) Ibid., 48.
4. FN33) Ibid., 51.
5. FN44) “Introduction: The Scales of Contingency and Punctuation in History,” in J. Bintlif (ed.), Structure and Contingency: Evolutionary Processes in Life and Human Society (London: Lei¬cester University Press, 1999), ix–x.
6. FN55) Gould, Wonderful Life, op. cit., 283, emphasis added.
7. FN66) “Unpredictability” can mean many different things. What we mean is just that one event in the past can have multiple possible outcomes in the future. Or in other words, we are using “unpredictable” in the sense of “stochastic;” the outcomes in question have probabilities greater than zero and less than one. By “unpredictability” we certainly do not mean “uncaused.” Later, we provide concrete examples of unpredictable events. For our present purposes, it does not matter what numerical probabilities are associated with the unpredictable outcomes. Were we to take those probabilities into account, we would be able to say more about the degree to which history matters (see for example E.C. Desjardins, “Historicity and Experimental Evolution,” Biology and Philosophy, forthcoming). But again, that is beyond our purposes here. We allude to this in our conclusion, but only in a suggestive way.
8. FN77) Consider the viewpoint of the historian, Charles Gillispie: “If Newton had . . . died in infancy, the planets would still move subject to the inverse square law of gravity. Although no one else would have written the Principia, it could be argued convincingly that others would then or soon have written down everything in it that really mattered to later physics. Much the same is true of nearly all the great contributions to modern science.” From his “Essays and Reviews in History and History of Science,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 96, part 5 (2006), 408.
9. FN88) This was Gillispie’s (ibid.) position on history of the arts vs. history of science. Leading up to the quotation in the previous note, Gillispie wrote: “We say ‘creative writing’ and ‘creative art.’ We do not say ‘creative science’ in any symmetrical mode. The difference in usage bespeaks our sense that the work of art pertains to the writer or artist in a way that the work of science does not pertain to the scientist. Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, and the Mass in B-Minor would not exist if Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, and Bach had never lived. It is different with science, even the greatest science” 407–408. See Nicolaas Rupke’s discussion of Gillispie, together with Rupke’s contrary case study, “Darwin’s Choice,” 139–164, in D.R. Alexander and R.L. Numbers (eds.), Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). See also Gould’s contrary position discussed later in our essay. On Darwin in particular, see as well Gregory Radick, “Is the Theory of Natural Selection Independent of its History?” 143–167, in J. Hodge and G. Radick (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
10. FN99) N. Carroll, “On the Narrative Connection,” 118–133, in Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 130–131.
11. FN1010) P. Goodman, The Structure of Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 14.
12. FN1111) This idea also figures prominently in Eric Desjardins’ op. cit. account of “path dependence,” and his use of path dependence to make sense of the importance of history.
13. FN1212) S.J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 1342–1343, emphasis added.
14. FN1313) Ibid., 1342.
15. FN1414) As the classicist J.B. Bury put it, “the course of the world’s history depends on accidents like the shape of Cleopatra’s nose.” However, Bury proceeded to interpret the Cleopatra example not in terms of the accidental shape of her nose, but rather the accidental intersection of her life trajectory and Antony’s. It was their meeting – which was not bound to happen, but did – that mattered. See Bury, “Cleopatra’s Nose,” 60–69, in Selected Essays of J.B. Bury (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930); the quotation is from page 60.
16. FN1515) E.H. Carr, What is History (New York: Knopf, 1965), 128.
17. FN1616) For Yemima Ben-Menahem, the Cleopatra thesis has to do with “sensitivity to initial conditions.” History matters in the sense that a small difference in the size or shape of Cleopatra’s nose would have led to a large difference in the future. To us, this suggests that Cleopatra might possibly have had a longer or shorter nose, but Ben-Menahem argues that chance plays no role in the thesis. Perhaps that is because she is considering only the consequences of the past and not the unpredictability of the past itself. See her “Historical Contingency,” Ratio 10 (1997), 99–107. The idea that history matters more when small differences in the past lead to large differences in the future is worth pursuing. But we feel that history matters whether or not the alternative possible pasts differ a little or a lot, as long as they lead to different futures.
18. FN1717) See also Beatty, “Chance Variation: Darwin on Orchids,” Philosophy of Science 73 (2004), 629–641; J. Lennox, “Darwin was a Teleologist,” Biology and Philosophy 8 (1993), 409–421.
19. FN1818) C. Darwin, The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1877), 284–285.
20. FN1919) Ibid. 130.
21. FN2020) Ibid.
22. FN2121) Concerning the series of investigations based on this experimental setup, see also Beatty, “Replaying Life’s Tape,” Journal of Philosophy 103 (2006), 336–362; Beatty, “Reconsidering the Importance of Chance Variation,” in G. Müller and M. Pigliucci (eds.), Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); and Desjardins, op. cit.
23. FN2222) Z.D. Blount, C.Z. Borland, R.E. Lenski, “Historical Contingency and the Evolution of a Key Innovation in an Experimental Population of Escherichia coli, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105 (2008), 7899–7906, 7905.
24. FN2323) W.B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (New York: Schocken, 1964), 26.
25. FN2424) G. Morson, “Narrativeness,” New Literary History, 34 (2003), 59–73, 60.
26. FN2525) Ibid., 61.
27. FN2626) M.-L. Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 149, and all of chapter 8.
28. FN2727) Fictional stories can end quite unpredictably, the narrator supplying surprises all the way up to the final moment. We are concerned here only with historical (including evolutionary) narratives that turn mainly on past unpredictabilities, and that aim to reduce the unpredictability of the outcome of interest.

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Affiliations: 1: University of British; 2: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mé


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