Chains of Unintended Consequences
Reality and the human history that has emerged from it are composed of events. By the term event I mean something that occurs in tangible, empirically-verifiable space-time, something which is observable (or at least observable in its effects). It happens in a particular place and has a particular duration, which is to say a definable (if arbitrary) beginning, middle, and end. It can be linked with innumerable other events happening simultaneously, or it can occur in relative isolation. (I say relative because no event happens in total isolation.) It can contain innumerable smaller events within itself, or it can be fundamental (such as an atomic nucleus decaying at a particular moment). I grant that this definition is extremely broad. However, I would add one other note: an event, in some way, affects the course of reality. Had it not happened, something would be different about the Universe. Even the most ordinary event reflects the unity of reality and the invariant nature of the four fundamental forces that govern that reality.
Some events are enormously huge in scale. The aggregation of gas and dust that created the Sun is such an event. Some events are the product of human volition, such as the decision to begin the exploration of the world ocean. And other events are so small and brief, such as an exchange of electrons, that they are not noticed at all. But all of them have an effect. That effect is to help write the story of the future, to help create the circumstances out of which other events will flow. And all of these events will be part of sequences of events that in some way can be traced or linked to them. I call such sequences chains of consequences.
Driven by the randomness inherent in the Universe’s nature and function, every event sets off chains of consequences that we cannot anticipate. The foundations of the Law of Unintended Consequences, an idea most widely popularized by philosopher Karl Popper, are the inadequacies of human understanding and comprehension in regard to these chains of consequences. So I have combined these ideas into what I call Chains of Unintended Consequences. It is precisely because humans overestimate their own capacities to deal with such chains that they are invariably surprised or astounded or shocked, or even horrified at how a given action or a given expression will ultimately manifest itself. The complexity and unanticipated nature of events unwittingly make a mockery of human expectations, alter human plans beyond recognition, and make predictions about the coming centuries meaningless. They put the lie to human notions of controlling the future. We can express our understanding of this situation in this way: Everything has such complex origins that the concrete expression or embodiment of these origins will in turn produce outcomes of roughly equal complexity—a complexity beyond either the human capacity to predict or comprehend.
So how might we understand the origins of events in space-time?
One of the basic laws of physical reality appears to be the law of cause and effect, or more simply, causality. (There are some physicists who have hypothesized that in a total space-time collapse causality would be reversed, but as yet no one can really say.) An initial event occurs; another event or events result from it. In all likelihood our ancestors, however limited in intellectual capacity, understood this instinctively. This is simply how things work. A causes B (and sometimes C, D, and E). What could be more basic than that?
Of course, as I have said, no event truly occurs in isolation. Everything that happens is the result of a chain of events which, if traced back far enough, goes back to the Big Bang itself. Historians generally refrain from trying to trace specific events back this far because it is a methodological error called the use of an infinite regress. While I grant that going back to the Big Bang as the source of all subsequent events isn’t really an example of establishing an infinite sequence, in ordinary human terms it is close enough to it. Historians tend to avoid doing this because it tells us nothing. Those who study the past must decide what the proximate causes of a particular event are, not all of the ultimate causes. It would be absurd, for example, to say that the breaking off of the four fundamental forces of nature from each other in the first moments of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago is the reason the United States of America came into existence. If we were to write that out as an equation, it could be said in fairness that we’d left out a few intermediate steps.
Still, events are the result of many causes stretching back into the past. By what process were these events brought about? To clarify the whole issue of causation, we need to imagine one series of events intersecting with another series of events which will in turn intersect with yet another series of events. The idea of intersection is a crucial aspect of this conception. Sequences of events, at least at the macroscopic level, in a sense create new realities, circumstances that have never been seen before. When one set of unprecedented realities encounters another set of unprecedented realities, they create a synthesis, a new reality that combines elements of the other two in an unpredictable fashion. This new reality unfolds as a sequence of events occurring across space and time that will encounter another sequence of events and create yet another synthesis. (The actual time in which the creation of such a synthesis can occur can vary from virtually instantaneously to many centuries or eons.) To express it in its simplest terms, things cause other things to happen which cause other things to happen, and so on, creating a “history”. When this history meets another history, a new potential history is created. By its very nature, this process is too hidden and too complex to trace, and fraught with possible outcomes too unpredictable to anticipate. This process will also be governed by the rules of probability and the boundaries of the logically possible.
If we could see the action of these intersecting chains in the aggregate, we would notice that numerous small intersecting chains of events would cause the emergence of larger chains (larger in the sense of expanding over greater areas of space-time) which would in turn cause the emergence of even larger chains, and so on. The actions of the chains of intersecting events would form an extremely complex branching-like pattern consisting of chains intersecting with other chains and creating new chains in a continuously growing and interweaving manner. We might see a thousand chains ultimately contribute to a single chain that in turn helps give rise to a thousand others. The pattern formed by these innumerable intersecting chains would be so dense that over time it would become virtually impossible to follow. And it would be extremely difficult to see in this unpredictable and utterly complex pattern any hint of intent or any discernible plan of organization.
The unintentional nature of this complex pattern can be understood in two senses: First, no human initiating an action can truly predict all the outcomes of that action. Things will happen as a result of a human’s action that he or she did not consciously will or foresee. Second, the chain of events triggered by an initial event, whether of human or non-human origin, does not seem to be governed or guided by any power or agency. Individual human volition may affect it at specific points, but no individual or collective human volition governs the entire sequence of outcomes, nor can it be argued definitively and empirically that any non-human agency is guiding the chain either. (Such non-human guidance is not, however, necessarily ruled out.) There is therefore probably no intentionality at work in the overall process.
So events are made up of sub-events, which in turn are made up of smaller sub-events. Within the realm of classical, fully decohered, macroscopic reality, the various levels of sub-event manifest themselves as events, consequences of events, and chains of unintended consequences. Incredible twists and turns of life flow from this.
Examples of Chains of Unintended Consequences
Who could have imagined where the invention of modern and efficient techniques for making paper would lead? When Cai Lun, a Chinese government functionary, devised such techniques early in the second century CE, he set off a gigantic number of consequence chains, as did every person who adopted, modified, and spread his techniques. The invention of paper-making altered human life on this planet profoundly. Would someone else have eventually figured out how to do these things? Perhaps. But Cai Lun did it first, where and when he lived, and that helped set the terms for what was to come.
Other technical developments unleashed numerous and enormous consequence chains. The ability to create fire helped open up the northern and far southern hemispheres to human habitation. The wheel’s development launched whole empires. Who could have foreseen what worlds would be opened up by the invention of the rudder or the employment of the modern sail? As I will emphasize elsewhere in this work, all truly great technological developments alter human possibility in countless, unpredictable ways.
And one particular technical development has the potential to end human possibility altogether. In 1933 physicist Leo Szilard was living in London and struggling to figure out the equations that would describe the efficient conversion of mass into energy. Frustrated, he went for a walk and in the course of crossing a street, in the words of one author, “time cracked open in front of him”1 Because Szilard figured this tremendously difficult problem out, nuclear weapons truly became possible, and the consequences that flowed from that incident are incalculable. Would someone have eventually discovered the method for converting small amounts of mass into enormous quantities of energy? Eventually, someone may have. But Szilard did so less than ten years before the eruption of the Second World War. From his discovery flowed the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear arms competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, the proliferation of nuclear weapons to numerous other states, and all the psychological fear and uncertainty that has attended the existence of a world whose inhabitants have more destructive power than their ancient ancestors could ever have imagined. His theoretical breakthrough, coming when it did, set off a chain of consequences that has yet to play itself out completely, and may yet end up destroying human civilization. Naturally, Szilard’s discovery was not in it itself sufficient to create all the consequences that flowed from it. The chain of unintended consequences launched by Szilard combined with other chains to create the various syntheses that put all of our lives at risk.
Multiple chains of consequences can sometimes converge in ways that cause enormous changes, which in turn launch even more chains. An example of this is the coming of the “industrial revolution” (as it is somewhat misleadingly known). At a particular historical moment, Britain saw the rise to power of a landed aristocracy committed to accelerating the on-going transformation of farming practices. This same aristocracy was also committed to enclosing what had once been commonly used pastures and fields, which had the eventual effect of displacing farm laborers. In that same general era, new methods for the weaving of cloth were invented, the steam engine was invented and then greatly improved upon, investment capital was growing, and the British discovered that the natural resources of their nation were perfectly suited to the new machines that were coming into use. A ready-made labor pool was available because of changes in the economy of rural England. These various elements came together to create a synergy (see Synergy and Feedback Loops) that radically transformed Britain.
Industrialism represented the greatest change in human economic and social life since the development of agriculture. The chains of unintended consequences in Britain that triggered it made the United Kingdom the first nation in the history of the world in which the majority of the working population did not work in food production or food gathering. Britain became the first great industrial power, with all the consequences that unleashed, and had the wealth to expand its already considerable empire. The industrial techniques that spread from Britain to America and the mainland of Europe transformed the power balance of the whole planet. They made possible trains, steamships, factories and mills, and Britain urbanized with amazing rapidity. The new advances also created modern warships, mass produced rifles, huge numbers of artillery pieces, and all the other tools of modern warfare. Singly, the chains that helped bring all this about could not have had such an effect. But their convergence transformed the world forever, for better or worse.
There have been so many of these chains of unintended consequences in human history. Their eruptions have frequently altered the entire course of human events.
Chains of unintended consequences erupted out of the decision of a German theology professor, disgusted with corruption, to nail a list of 95 of his ideas to a church door.
They erupted out of the decision by a Mongol chieftain in the late 12th century to subjugate the entire world (and also from his prolific love life, which has caused his DNA to be present in an astonishing number of contemporary humans).
They erupted from the decision in ancient India to start differentiating people by social rank.
They erupted from the conquest of central Mexico by a sun-worshiping tribe that practiced human sacrifice.
They erupted when a group of Japanese military and political leaders decided in the 1860s that their country was backward and had to catch up to the Western world.
They erupted when tribes of people living in northeastern Asia decided to follow the animal herds across the Bering land bridge.
They erupted when an Arab businessman became convinced that the angel Gabriel was dictating to him.
They erupted when the French defeated the last attempt of the English to hold on to an empire on the European mainland.
They erupted when a young South American man was told that his country was ready for independence, but that he was not the man to lead the effort to achieve it.
They erupted when the Songhai empire finally engulfed and absorbed, in the 15th century, what was left of what had once been Africa’s greatest kingdom.
They erupted when a Chinese alchemist finally got the mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, and carbon to explode.
Everywhere the student of history turns, he or she sees these eruptions and tries to follow the paths of the intersecting chains that flowed from them—with only limited success.
A Detailed Examination of an Unexpected Set of Consequences
A strange chain of unintended consequences that many people have heard about started out in the higher elevations of South America. A brief story, taken from The Cambridge World History of Food:
Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, who first observed the potato in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, compared the unfamiliar tuber food crop to truffles and adopted the Quechua name, papa. The first specimens, arguably short-day S. tuberosum ssp. andigena forms from Colombia, probably reached Spain around 1570. From there, the potato spread via herbalists and farmers to Italy, the Low Countries, and England, and there was likely a second introduction sometime in the following twenty years. Sir Francis Drake, on his round-the-world voyage (1577 to 1580), recorded an encounter with potatoes off the Chilean coast in 1578, for which British and Irish folklore credits him with having introduced the potato to Great Britain. But this could not have been the case because the tubers would not have survived the additional two years at sea. All European potato varieties in the first 250 years were derived from the original introductions, which constituted a very narrow gene pool that left almost all potatoes vulnerable to devastating viruses and fungal blights by the mid—nineteenth century. S. tuberosum ssp. tuberosum varieties, introduced from Chile into Europe and North America in the 1800s, represented an ill-fated attempt to widen disease resistance and may actually have introduced the fungus Phytophthora infestans, or heightened vulnerability to it. This was the microbe underlying the notorious nineteenth-century Irish crop failures and famine.2
So a tuber which some scientists believe was first cultivated in the Andes Mountains more than 3,000 years ago made its way to Ireland, where by the nineteenth century it became the staple food crop. The result, as the passage indicates, was tragic. In the 1840s, a virulent plant disease struck Ireland’s potato crop, and more than a million Irish starved to death. Another million of them left for America during those terrible years. Among the number of emigrants was Patrick Kennedy, of County Wexford, who left Ireland for Boston in 1849. Patrick Kennedy’s great-grandson was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first Catholic of Irish descent to be elected president. We could end the narrative here. But what lies beneath and all around this story?
Think of all the intersecting chains of consequences represented in this brief account. To choose a reasonable (if arbitrary) starting point, we might begin with the evolution of the potato in a particular region of South America, its discovery by the local peoples, the discovery that it was edible, the development of the techniques that went into its effective cultivation, and the surprisingly high number of different varieties that were developed. We might then consider the impact of the discovery of the Americas on the minds of so many Europeans. We might consider all the ways in which the history of Spain brought it to a point where some of its subjects set out to explore the New World. We might consider the individual biographies of the various Spanish conquistadores and reflect on the complex interaction of their genetic predispositions and their environment, an interaction that helped shape their adventurous and deeply avaricious mentalities. We might think about the specific circumstances that caused some of the Spanish to set out for the Andes Mountains. We might imagine the discovery by the Spanish of the usefulness of potatoes, the transportation of potato plants to Europe, and the first efforts to grow potatoes in soil so distant from their origin. Then there are all the chains of consequences involved in the spread of potato cultivation throughout Europe, and the sequence of events that caused them to be raised in Ireland.
It is at this point that all the chains of causation that created the reality of 19th century Ireland need to be taken into account—the settlement of ancient Ireland and the evolution of Irish society and culture, the long and unhappy relationship between England and Ireland, the subjugation of Ireland by England begun in the Middle Ages and completed in the 1690s, the circumstances of the Irish Revolution of 1798 and its impact on the thinking of the English, the impact of Ireland’s absentee landlord class on the Irish people, and all the circumstances that led so many Irish farmers to be utterly impoverished and dependent on potatoes for nourishment. And then we would have to consider the evolution and spread of the plant diseases that devastated the potato crops of Ireland in the mid-1840s, a biological detective story in its own right. We would then need to know the impact of the Great Famine on the people of County Wexford and all the variables involved in the decision of Patrick Kennedy’s family to flee the country for America (rather than northern England, as many Irish did). The social history of the Irish in Boston would come into play, the circumstances surrounding the rise of the Kennedy family to prominence, and the particular biography of John F. Kennedy. Finally, we would need to consider the political history of the United States and all the chains of consequences that led to the political confrontation between Kennedy and Richard Nixon. When we consider all the sequences of events that had to intersect to bring this reality about, we begin to understand how it is possible that the evolution of the potato in South America helped lead to the first Roman Catholic president in American history—and for that matter, put him in the line of fire in November 1963. The whole story took thousands of years to unfold across three continents—the true power of chains of unintended consequences in action.
The individual events and the causal chains they comprise are the “particles” of history, to borrow a metaphor from the physical sciences. It is the interaction of these “particles” over space and time, “particles” that comprise and are affected by multitudinous variables, that brings about the emergence of human reality in any given place, at any given moment. Nothing at the macroscopic level on this planet happens in nice, neat, predictable ways. The inherent ability of chains of unintended consequences to alter the course of reality is such that it should give us pause before we embark on any great scheme to transform the world. It might also give us pause when we remember how frequently our individual biographies have been touched by the unexpected outcomes deriving from these chains. In our own lives, countless sequences of events have acted to create our personal stories, such as the chains that led to our parents meeting. All around us unintended consequences are flowing into each other in a blindingly complicated fashion, guided by huge mazes of probabilities, creating a future no one can foresee in any detail, in a process that no one really seems to be guiding (although such guidance may in fact exist), over a scale of space and time that no human can grasp.
And so it ever was. And so it will ever be.