03 September 2008

Changing the course of history – by chance

In a film as recent and as mediocre as Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, actor Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Sloan’ talks of taking control and changing the course of history forever. For, the ability to do so is the ultimate show, and possession, of power.

If nothing else, history has been, and still is, about change. However, not all changes in history have been brought on by people – from their desires and their deeds. Much of it has happened by ‘existence’. Some of it has been accidental. Some of it has happened due to a combination of factors which were outside human control.

In his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, semiotics professor and author Umberto Eco mentions an instance in history when history has not been entirely in human control – that of Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas – in the chapter ‘The Force of Falsity’ from which I’ve quoted in another blog:

“And so you see how complicated life is, and how fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right – thanks to serendipity.”

This fact, that Columbus discovered the Americas by chance, is not an isolated example but seems to be a common occurrence in history.

For instance, the Stone Age cave paintings in Altamira, Northern Spain – one of the greatest historical discoveries – were found accidentally when, in 1879, a 9-year-old girl crawled into a cave while exploring her father’s estate. The Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, Southern France, were found in 1940 by a teenager (and his friends) when he followed his dog into the cave.

Similar examples of chance discoveries are quoted by war journalist and author Erik Durschmied in his 1999 book The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Has Changed History, and by British mathematics professor Jacob Bronowski in his famous 1973 BBC TV series The Ascent of Man, which was later published as a book in 1974. They make interesting reading (or viewing), for both academics and laymen, about how history is shaped through the years.

If we are to believe great scholars like Eco, Durschmied and Bronowski, be it exploring the new world or war upon nations or man’s scientific and technological achievements, much of the course of history may have changed simply by chance, and not because of great strategies by powerful and ambitious men.

No comments: