October 2, 2013


Richard Dawkins: It's insane that people still doubt Darwin : In an excerpt from his new book, the famed atheist wonders what would have happened if Hitler's dad only sneezed (RICHARD DAWKINS, 9/29/13, Salon)

 I've already speculated that we mammals owe our existence to a particular sneeze by a particular dinosaur. What if Alois Schicklgruber had happened to sneeze at a particular moment - rather than some other particular moment - during any year before mid-1888 when his son Adolf Hitler was conceived? Obviously I have not the faintest idea of the exact sequence of events involved, and there are surely no historical records of Herr Schicklgruber's sternutations, but I am confident that a change as trivial as a sneeze in, say, 1858 would have been more than enough to alter the course of history. The evil-omened sperm that engendered Adolf Hitler was one of countless billions produced during his father's life, and the same goes for his two grandfathers, and four great-grandfathers, and so on back. It is not only plausible but I think certain that a sneeze many years before Hitler's conception would have had knock-on effects sufficient to derail the trivial circumstance that one particular sperm met one particular egg, thereby changing the entire course of the twentieth century including my existence. Of course, I'm not denying that something like the Second World War might well have happened even without Hitler; nor am I saying that Hitler's evil madness was inevitably ordained by his genes. With a different upbringing Hitler might have turned out good, or at least uninfluential. But certainly his very existence, and the war as it turned out, depended upon the fortunate - well, unfortunate - happenstance of a particular sperm's luck. [...]

If his father had sneezed at a particular hypothetical moment, Adolf Hitler would not have been born. Nor would I, for I owe my improbable conception to the Second World War - as well as to much less momentous things that happened. And of course all of us can take the argument back through countless previous generations, as I did with my hypothetical dinosaur and the destiny of the mammals.

Taking on board the contingent frailty of the event chain that led to our existence, we can still go on to ask - as I did a moment ago - whether the course of a named individual's life is sucked back, magnetically, into predictable pathways, despite the Brownian buffetings of sneezes and other trivial, or not so trivial, happenings. What if my mother's joking speculation were really true, if the Eskotene Nursing Home really had muddled me up with Cuthbert's son and I had been brought up as a changeling in a missionary household? Would I now be an ordained missionary myself? I think geneticists know enough to say no, probably no.

If my family had stayed on in Africa and I had persisted at Eagle rather than moving to Chafyn Grove, and then been sent to Marlborough rather than Oundle, would I still have got into Oxford and met Niko Tinbergen?

Posted by at October 2, 2013 7:54 PM

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