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  1. The Weekend Interview
27 January 2024

Your entire existence is a fluke

The political scientist Brian Klaas believes that the world is defined by randomness.

By Rachel Cunliffe

By reading this sentence, you are changing the world.

None of us can say how. Maybe the extra time reading this article will delay your morning travel, thus steering you out of the path of an out-of-control bus that would have run you over had you left five minutes earlier. Or maybe you’ll end up discussing these ideas at a drinks party next week and get into a heated debate with someone you wouldn’t otherwise have talked to, who then offers you a job, or decides to ruin your life, or falls in love with you. You’ll never know it, but you’ll have been set on an entirely different trajectory. Your whole future and your impact on the world – the people you’ll meet, the children you will or won’t have – will be altered forever.

This is the premise of Fluke (published 1 February), a new book by the political scientist Brian Klaas that aims to take the concept of chaos theory familiar to mathematicians and apply it to everything else. The butterfly effect – the notion that weather patterns are so complex and contingent on tiny changes that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could theoretically set off a tornado in Texas – isn’t hard to understand. But what most of us don’t realise, Klaas argues, is that it’s not just weather patterns. It’s economic cycles and presidential races and geopolitics and wars and pandemics.

“There’s a huge amount of discourse that’s all about separating the signal from the noise, don’t worry about the small stuff,” he tells me. “But small stuff matters. Black swans of the world, things that are very unusual but change our world a lot, they’re the noise. The pandemic was the noise. No matter what happened in terms of how it started, it was a single virus infecting a single human. And eight billion people’s lives were completely and irrevocably changed forever.”

We’re in his office high up in the eaves of University College London, where Klaas, 37, is an associate professor in global politics. His last book, Corruptibleon why the wrong people keep getting into power, was published in 2021. Meeting him, I get a sudden flash of what it must be like to be one of his students, going off on tangents as the conversation switches from physics to philosophy to evolutionary biology.

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But Klaas’s perspective on how randomness shapes geopolitics doesn’t just come from textbooks. In the years he spent doing fieldwork, studying dictators and coups all over the world, he got the nagging sense that the way he’d been taught to think about social science – that X causes Y, and big events have big, easy-to-define causes – was all wrong. On a trip to speak to people involved in the failed 1997 insurrection in Zambia, he heard of how rebel soldiers had attempted to kidnap a general and make him announce the coup on national radio. The plan might have worked if the general hadn’t escaped by a millisecond, the fabric of his trousers slipping through the fingers of the rebel.

“I interviewed this soldier, and I think Zambia’s government survived by a split second,” he tells me, grasping at the invisible trousers in mid-air. “If it had been a split second faster, I think the coup would have succeeded. And you can’t model that.”

Anyone who’s seen the 1998 film Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow will instantly grasp how a single moment – catching or missing a train – can have a profound impact on the course of our lives. But what most of us don’t realise, Klaas argues, is that every moment is like that, subtly changing what we think of as the course of the future in ways we can’t even imagine.

Fluke is full of examples of such mind-boggling randomness. A man who once wandered into an art museum on a whim developed a love of impressionist paintings; years later, the gift of a Monet-themed tie would delay him for a business meeting and save him from being in Tower 1 of the World Trade Centre when the planes hit on 9/11. A 1926 tourist trip to the historic temples of Kyoto would in 1945 cause Henry Stimson, by then President Truman’s secretary of war, to ensure the atom bomb was dropped somewhere else in Japan, sparing 100,000 lives in one city and condemning them in another. (This story is mentioned in the 2023 blockbuster Oppenheimer – though Klaas, who seems to live for such details, notes the film wrongly suggests the holiday was Stimson’s honeymoon.)

For a more modern example, look no further than Donald Trump, whose fanbase-winning reputation as a business genius was entirely fabricated by the producers of The Apprentice in the early 2000s and who was reportedly spurred to run for president after Barack Obama humiliated him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

[See also: Are you ready for Elon Musk to read your mind?]

“When you think about Trump, he obliterated a political-science-accepted viewpoint that the presidency matters, not the president,” Klaas says, noting that experts in his discipline usually prefer to think about institutions and trends rather than individuals. “But nobody in the world believes the United States would be the same today if Hillary Clinton had won. It’s an absurd position to hold.” Understanding the set of flukes that led to the rise of Trump, he admits, can be uncomfortable, because it means recognising how arbitrary the world can be. “A lot of people suffering from it might not be suffering if Obama hadn’t told a joke.”

But it’s also necessary, he says, both on a macro level and for individuals, if we want to make better choices. For all the physics, existential philosophy and evolutionary theory in Fluke (and there is a lot), its core premise is that the world is a lot more uncertain than we like to believe it is – and if we want to have healthy, happy lives, we should probably stop pretending we can eliminate randomness. Modern societies’ misplaced (and recent) faith that we exist in a “closed system”, where we can measure all the important factors that determine what happens and optimise our economy accordingly, can have devastating consequences.

“We’ve designed the most fluke-prone world that’s ever existed,” Klaas warns, pointing to the speed at which one infected bat in China brought the Western world to a standstill in a matter of months, or the Ever Given container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021.

“A gust of wind hits this one boat, it twists sideways, it gets stuck in the canal, $54bn of economic damage. From one boat. That has never been possible in the history of the world. You couldn’t have one boat cause massive economic dysfunction everywhere in the world. But it did. And the reason that exists is we have optimised to a hyper-efficient world that has no slack.”

His prescriptions for policymakers are simple: admit what we don’t – can’t – know. Accept that flukes are inevitable. Stop trying to squeeze every last bit of inefficiency out of the system; build in more slack, more resilience. And experiment more.

“Trying new things is a very smart strategy in an uncertain world,” he says. “The wisdom of evolution is basically undirected experimentation.” Flukes underpin our entire existence. An infection in a shrew-like creature millions of years ago led to the development of the placenta and the evolution of mammals. Human eyes are a mutation. And most life forms on this planet are only here at all because a stray asteroid once hit the Earth and killed off the dinosaurs. “We’re a cosmic accident.”

Klaas owes his existence to flukes on a more personal level too. A century ago, his great-grandfather came home to find that his wife, in a moment of madness, had killed the couple’s four young children and then herself. Klaas is the descendant of his great-grandfather’s second marriage – a marriage that would never have happened if not for that horrific tragedy. “Everything good in my life is derived from a mass murder. That doesn’t mean we should mass murder people. But it does mean that our greatest joys and our worst tragedies are inextricably linked, because that’s how causal change works.”

Some might find this overwhelming, depressing even. For Klaas, it’s uplifting to acknowledge the interconnected, contingent nature of our world. He hopes letting go of the false notion we can model every aspect of life, forecast the economy and predict elections, can help make us more forgiving of each other, more resilient to shocks, more open to new experiences and, somewhat counter-intuitively, more invested in the future. “We control nothing, but influence everything,” he writes in Fluke.

I ask whether this revelation has changed how he feels. Originally from Minnesota, he remains deeply anxious about the fate of American democracy, the rise of populism, and the existential risk to humanity thanks to the flukes we’ve engineered into the global economic system in our quest for optimum efficiency.

“But how I live my life? I feel happier,” he says. After our conversation, strangely, I do too. There’s something empowering about feeling every moment of your life could change the world.

[See also: Jake Humphrey: “I would not have succeeded in TV without failure”]

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