The effects of little things on big things

Here’s a thought experiment I find myself playing with often. Let’s say I had never been born. (I was born in 1972.) That would mean that the daycare slot I took up would have gone to another child, who would not have had to go to another daycare further away, who would thus not have been in a car that was hit by a drunk driver, who thus would not have grown up to be a police officer and thus would not have been able to prevent the murder of an important person, who … etc., etc. …

If I had not been born, I would never have eaten dinner at McDonald’s on June 20, 1996, and the person in front of me in line would have been next to the person in back of me, and perhaps they would have struck up a conversation, gotten married, and spit out a few PhD kids. But they never met.

Countless little things we do every day have countless unknown consequences. Can little effects like these be aggregated to the point that I confidently could say: If I had not been born, George W. Bush would not president? Or, if some random, working-class German had not been born in 1870, Hitler would never have come to power? Or, if Joe Blow in Anyspringfield, Anystate had an omelette for breakfast instead of pancakes on December 2, 1950, Bill Gates would never have founded Microsoft?

You see what I’m getting at: As a general proposition, given a sufficient passage of time, are the facts and circumstances of one person’s life essential causes of the facts and circumstances of everyone else’s? (I understand the vagaries of “sufficient” time, but I think they can be worked through.)

Two things to inform your thoughts: the Butterfly Effect, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

For the record, jjimm, I’m rather pleased you linked to Butterfly Effect article, not the film of the same name. Or the direct-to-video sequel of said film. Of course, what the world be like without Ashton Kucher is an important question. I wouldn’t have to hear anyone used the word “Punk’d” in casual conversation. That’d be nice.

I had forgotten the plot of IAWL, which is odd since it is a fixture in the background noise of every one of the past twenty or so Christmases in my life.

As for the Butterfly Effect, I have a passing familiarity with it (but was smart enough not to see that movie, or any other movie in which Ashton Kutcher’s participation is put forward as a positive thing). I have always heard it discussed in the context of “scientific” systems, like weather, rather than in relation to human events.

So, I supposed my question is, in light of the implications of the Butterfly Effect, can it be said that every historical event (given the passage of time sufficient for effects to cumulate) is a necessary precursor to every future event? This surely cannot be literally true; the death of a specific bacterium on Julius Caesar’s hand was surely not a cause of George W. Bush’s presidency. So there must be some kind of materiality threshold. But how low is it? To what degree is everything entangled with everything else? (Obviously these are not questions with factual answers. However, if you can answer them factually, I will buy you an ice cream cone. The next time I see you.)

Are you mad?? If you do that, there’s no telling what might happen!

No. Strangers never speak to each other in the McDonald’s line. That’s the rule.

The OP may want to check out the books of British SF author Connie Willis, who writes mainly on the theme of time travel and thus the effects of accidental or intentional events that might alter history. Her take is that history is somewhat self-correcting and that minor perturbations dampen out: it thus takes a fairly large change to completely redirect events. One guy not meeting the train for his morning commute on any given day does not materially alter history; failure of a specific bombing raid on London to occur during the Blitz would.

All I can add to the topic (fascinating one, too) is that it seems to be common in most “pop history” stories to point out how if it hadn’t have been for some ironic twist of fate, so and so would never have been elected, won the battle, survived the crash, discovered the whatever, and so on. So the idea is at least a recurrent one.

For want of the nail the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe the horse was lost;
For want of the horse the rider was lost;
For want of the rider the battle was lost;
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost;
And all for the want of a horse shoe nail.

A lot of times, I find these “small things leading to big things” are done in retrospect.

I decided to save money by taking English 101 at the community college, rather than the university I was attending. It was a downtown campus and the credits would 100% transfer. I got the idea from a radio show, where the guy’s parents would pay for his school. He’d enroll at the class at the university, send the bill to his parents, then drop out and enroll at the CC and keep the 70% difference.

(I didn’t do anything that sneaky, I paid my own school, so that 70% would be very useful.)

Had I not heard that radio show, and then decided to do that, I would’ve never met a classmate, who introduced me to this girl, whom years later I married. So my daughter would not exist if:

I heard it and felt community college classes were “beneath” me, the hotshot freshman university student? Or heard that bit when it wasn’t convenient to drop and register at the CC? Or I put in a CD that day?

So I owe my happiness to a radio show that gave me that idea at that moment! WHOA! :eek

I’m sounding like Josh McDowell explaining how “unlikely” evolution could happen…

Okay, slight exaggeration, but I guess you could choose any significant event and reduce it to the smallest decision.

Bzzzt! Not British. Sorry, she’s American, claimed by Colorado at the moment.

But the string of events that actually happened are just as unlikely as the ones that didn’t happen. How likely is it that you were listening to the radio that day, to that station, that you were actually paying attention, and that you were in that situation to take advantage of the information?

It’s like drawing cards. Draw 10 cards out of a shuffled deck. The odds of you drawing those particular cards in that order are huge against it. But it happened. One of the combinations has to happen.

That radio show just changed your path, it isn’t responsible for your happiness. It was just as likely that by going to that college you met a classmate who introduced you to girl who was already married. It’s also likely that if you had gone to different college you would have met someone similar and married them, and been just as happy.

You can take the ‘this little thing caused all this’ to ridiculous ends. The little things arent what caused anything, theyre just turns in the path. You caused things by making decisions, or other people caused things by the decisions they made.

While my anecdote about radio=CC=wife is true, it was tongue-in-cheek. You can reduce any event to the smallest thing… but it’s always done after the fact. Of course, I could’ve met another person (at the U’s English 101); and then also point to yet another insignificant first event.

Creationists do this, too. If air had 0.94% Argon instead of 0.93%, we couldn’t live on Earth. Yet here we are!! That just can’t be a coincidence…

There are causes, and there are causes. Lawyers, for instance speak of “but-for causation” and “proximate causation.” Proximate causation is the kind of causation you are talking about – usually motivated by some conscious or negligent act. That events have proximate causes does not mean they do not also have a very, very long chain of but-for causes – things but for which the final event would not occur.

That’s what I was getting at in my initial post, in a question that is probably rhetorical. Beyond certain limited thresholds of time and magnitude, hasn’t just about everything in the past been a but-for cause of just about everything in the present?

That’s a fairly common sf premise - Harlan Ellison used it in City on the Edge of Forever, and he hardly invented it. I think it gets used for story purposes, to preserve the similarities of the two worlds. I doubt that would actually happen. You don’t need to even think about people meeting. The time and position in which your parents had sex determines which sperm wins, and if you get born. If the phone rings at the crucial moment, poof, no you.
Benford got it much righter in Timescape, where minor technical differences changed major historical events - which I won’t spoil.

Hah, I just finished Connie Willis’ Bellwether–the one about chaos theory and the butterfly effect (well, more directly than usual).

You know, I have done this before, with a group of friends and found out that no fewer than six couples, each with one or more children originally met because of me. Not just a casual encounter, but invitations and introductions in the matrix of mutual interests, in several cases interests that they had not had before.

Three of the marriages are now over, three continue. One of the kids is gonna be somebody very significant, I think. Actually, now that I think about it, another of them has saved a life that would probably have been lost had he not married his wife.

So, yeah, I think things would have been different had I not lived the life I have lived. Not to mention that I have children of my own.


This sort of ‘What if…’ thinking only takes on significance if one believes in Fate, True Love etc. and believes things were ‘meant to be’. Without the possiblity of seeing the universe played out any way but that which it has, we shouldn’t dwell on what might have been if only I’d… It makes for good stories, science fictional or religious, if actions can be seen as going along with or counter to a preordained plan though I’d agree.

This is the key: sex. Major events could be self-correcting were it not for sex. Pretty much anything different in the life of your parents would change the highly chaotic die throw of which sperm/any sperm fertilize the egg that becomes you. If any other sperm did than you wouldn’t be you. This is one of the great mistakes in most change-the-past or parallel universe sci-fi. You will often see completely different political structures/environments, but with the same people. In fact, the political structures are much more likely to be the same but all the people different.

With one tiny difference between two parallel existences the geopolitical nature of the world would probably take quite a while to diverge greatly, while the people in it would be completely different in a generation or two.

Or might not!!

Events that could not have happened without a prior event happening are not caused by the prior event, they are allowed by it. Whatever caused the event to occur, generally a decision or action, is the cause, regardless of how many things were necessary for the event to happen.

If you take a different route home from work for some reason, and get into a car accident, then taking the different route home did not cause the accident in any way, it just allowed it. Your actions just prior to the accident, or the other driver’s actions, are what caused it. Things would have been different if you had taken your normal route, but that’s because the conditions necessary for the accident had not occured.