Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Contingent World, Part 1 of 3

Artist Rendition of the K-T Extinction Event

Artist Rendition of the K-T Extinction Event

A month ago, I wrote here about about Nate Turner and statistical prediction. The post discussed forces big, slow, and predictable. It got me thinking about the opposite side of the spectrum: of forces short, swift, and unpredictable. So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to dig into this a bit, starting with politics.

In the next two weeks, election officials will finally decide Minnesota’s senate race between Norm Coleman (R) and Al Franken (D). Out of 2.8 million votes cast, Coleman and Franken are now separated by about fifty votes. I would like to remain optimistic about this but let’s face it: with such a narrow margin, it’s almost guaranteed that the loser will bring charges of fraud, lost ballots, etc.

Norm Coleman and Al Franken

Norm Coleman and Al Franken

After the fireworks are over, we will see a slow coming-to-terms by the losing campaign, a Kübler Ross-ian transition from bargaining to depression to acceptance. As this occurs, we will also see  “what if” stories blossom like desert flowers. Pundits and reporters will talk about how small changes in events, message, or media would have produced a different outcome.

The last bloom of political “what if” stories followed the 2000  U.S. presidential election. With great wailing and gnashing of teeth, Democrats tried to make sense of an election in which Al Gore won the popular vote yet still lost the election to George Bush. Razor thin victories for Bush in a number of battleground states, most famously Florida where he won by 537 votes of 6 million cast, fueled speculation about the many ways the election could have turned out differently.

Nader the Raider by Bill Day

Nader the Raider by Bill Day

For many, the spoiler was Ralph Nader, leader of the Green Party, who drew votes away from Gore. For others, it was the dysfunctional Florida voting system. Still others blamed Katherine Harris, Florida State Attorney General, who confirmed the official vote count. Or the Supreme Court.  Or Gore himself, who seemed so overstarched as a candidate that he even lost his own state of Tennessee.

In a sense, they are all correct. Any number of factors could have tilted the election in Gore’s favor. In the language of the Academy, we would say that the 2000 presidential election was highly contingent: the outcome wasn’t set in stone. It could have turned out differently.

As an idea, contingency has considerable heft across the disciplines of the Academy. On the science side, evolutionary biologists, have written extensively about the degree to which evolution  depended upon contingencies of the environment, that the concept of fitness does not only apply to the fleetest fox or the brawniest buck, but sometimes to the dumb luck of being well adapted to an unforeseeable event. Steven Jay Gould writes about this in regards to the middle-Cambrian organisms discovered in the Burgess Shale Formation.

Castorocauda lutrasimilis, the "Jurassic Beaver"

Castorocauda lutrasimilis, the "Jurassic Beaver," survivor of the K-T extinction event.

Better known to the rest of us are early mammals who managed to win the Darwinian lottery by being around when a comet the size of Manhattan plowed into the Earth 65 million years ago. Although the evolutionary implications of this event are still hotly debated, few doubt that something big happened to disrupt ecosystems all over the world, ultimately leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


The K-T extinction event, as its called, makes clear an important point: even if history of life on earth is based upon slow, incremental changes to species over time, its evolutionary course was unpredictable. Life, like the Cretaceous comet of death, could have taken a different path. Had it done so, perhaps we would all be frightened weasel-like creatures, stealing our food in the shadows of brontosaurs and pteranodons.  (For more on weasels and evolution, visit John Lynch’s Stranger Fruit)

Contingencies do not have to be comet-sized, however, to have big effects. Such was the discovery of meteorologist Edward Lorenz who found that weather simulations produced wildly different outcomes based upon minute changes in initial conditions. From this, Lorenz coined the term “Butterfly Effect,” the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the atmosphere enough to create (or prevent) a tornado from occurring at some future time.


Lorenz’s ideas are now a part of a larger corpus of work on chaos theory which shows the stunning effects of contingency (or as mathematicians call it, a ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’) in phenomena as disparate as air turbulence, irregular heart beats, and the eye movements of schizophrenics.

All of this happens at some distance from where I sit in the humanities, surrounded by books on art, maps, and social history. Yet contingency plays a critical role here too,  something I’ll take up in my next post.

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