Butterfly effect on steroids

Published Jan 21, 2024


Durban — The couch has been upended by 270 pages.

Among the soft cushions, the five fluffy (hot!) bodies make sure something of theirs is touching something of the human’s. They take turns in what looks like uncontrolled musical chairs, but there is an order to it. It’s strictly according to “rank”: the big boy is top dog and the 2IC is the feisty littlest one. The others take any gaps when the Establishment is otherwise occupied to enjoy the happy moments of snuggling as they happen. No big existential challenges.

Admittedly disillusioned social scientist Brian Klaas credits his dog Zorro for happy moments walking, playing frisbee and incubating the startling theories he presents in his latest book Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters.

Nothing in the universe, it appears, is a fluke. And no one really has free will.

You have to read Fluke slowly – and then re-read it – because the concepts are too monumental to digest in one go.

It’s not that it’s difficult: Klaas does an amazing, entertaining job of laying out his fascinating argument and conclusions about, well, how everything affects everything.

Chaos theory, quantum physics, probability theory, history, complex systems, evolutionary biology and other scientific systems are examined in this absorbing and, frankly, scary, thesis.

Life being a series of curveballs and random chaos have always been my favourite life philosophies. I have an A-Z of back-up scenarios planned out for any “what if?”s and “so what?”s: is it a bump in the road or a train smash?

What has never been on the radar is the terrifying thought that all control is an illusion, that everybody’s actions, depending on space, time and the intertwinement of the universe, puts everyone at the mercy of everybody else’s acts and decisions. And we’ll mostly be unaware of the connections.

It also blew hard on an ember that has been sitting in my brain: why does the world seem to be exploding into a cauldron of murderous mayhem? Using Klaas’s theory suggests it is a red flag; warning of the failure of the evermore complex systems humans have built to reach an elusive goal of perfection, success and control over the chaos.

Very basically, and among other ideas, it’s kind of like the butterfly effect on steroids. Fluke considers convergence (there is a master plan, yours or a Higher Power’s) versus contingency, where stuff happens and unknown lives are forever changed. Whether we have free will. The accidental geography of where you were born.

It opens the doors to many journeys through scientific discoveries, time and space, chance and timing. It is about our history, geography, our ancestors and how the exact “you” or “I” – not some reasonable facsimile – came to be part of this extraordinary thing called life. How genetic evolution points to “survival of the luckiest” rather than “survival of the fittest”. And how, if the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs had been one minute earlier or one minute later, life on Earth would be impossible or at least unrecognisable as we know it.

The flukes include how the couch residents ended up here: what moment led to these particular rescued canines and this particular (rescued) human to this particular couch? We’ll never know, but you can be sure we’ll make the most of any and all cuddles and hope the randomness of that love is what lives on. The inner control-freak will probably survive, but there’s hope for an evolution.

Independent on Saturday