Alternative histories

One of my minor enthusiasms is alternative histories. You know the sort of thing – what-ifs about the wrong side winning wars, Jesus not being crucified, and so on.

My personal favourite is what would have happened if Napoleon had not sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. In those days, Louisiana was rather more than the present-day state – it included all of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, plus much of Minnesota west of the Mississippi, most of both Dakotas, north-east New Mexico, all of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide, plus all of the modern state of Louisiana that lies to the west of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans. It’s more than 800,000 square miles or 2 million square kilometres. That’s about a quarter of the modern USA, and completely divides the east and west coasts. As Napoleon rightly said of the Purchase that ‘This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.’

So what would have happened had the Louisiana Purchase not happened as it did in 1803 (at 3 cents an acre!)? Assuming that the USA had no later opportunity to buy this land, plainly the USA would have been a much lesser country – locked to the east coast, cut off from the Great Plains, Texas and California, with no interest in the Pacific, Hawaii or Alaska, and extremely unlikely to emerge as the Great Power sans pareil at the end of the 20th century.

And what about Napoleon? Assuming that he was still defeated in 1814, what if he had fled to a still-French New Orleans and been welcomed (or at least forced his acceptance) as ruler? It is not hard to envisage his subsequent career, with two basic themes: keeping Americans to the east of the Mississippi, and establishing a new French empire to the west. Imagine the results: all the familiar additions to the USA – Oregon, Texas, California, maybe even Hawaii and Alaska now go to a new French-speaking power. Mexico defeated and perhaps absorbed. New French conquests in central America and the Caribbean, perhaps. A great French naval power in the Pacific. Conflict with Britain over western Canada. All of the oil wealth in the hands of a new power.

But whenever I think about alternative histories, I never get very far before a quite different train of thought sets out. For how long would even such a great change have made a difference? A century later – certainly. A millennium? Well, less so, at least as far as the general shape of the world is concerned. And the longer you wait, the smaller the likely impact. Or at least so I would have thought. I really don’t know. There are countervailing arguments. Chaos theory, for example, seems to suggest that, for some phenomena at least a small perturbation in 1803 would change the future irreversibly.

But I am not convinced. I do not doubt that, at the level of, say, who is born and who dies, a great funnel of causality spreads out indefinitely, within which nothing is the same again. But in terms of the larger structures of society and history, two things occur to me. Firstly, are social systems sensitive like the weather? A butterfly may change the weather halfway around the world (though I have never seen a convincing proof of that idea!) but great systems such as capitalism or feudalism do not look quite so touchy. And secondly, what of all the things – the infinitely many more things – that do not change? Is their effect erased? Presumably not. For human (and intelligent) systems have two features that make this unlikely.

Firstly, like living systems, intelligent life does not react to things like a billiard ball- just bashed about willy-nilly. A living system assimilates the things it encounters (i.e., adjusts them to it own patterns of activity), or if it cannot, it accommodates to them in ways that are as specific to its own nature as they are to the thing to which it accommodates.

As for any intelligent system (e.g., a human being or society), not only do they (like all living things) respond only in ways that reflect their own structure, but they also – and in this they transcend non-intelligent organisms completely – include within themselves knowledge of the principles through which they do this. That is, they include within themselves their own values, goals, methods – any number of other more or less explicit, more or less deliberate structures that ensure that the randomness of the chaotic system is replaced by its very opposite.

So is the result an ever-widening funnel? Or a lens-shaped hole in history that widens and widens and widens – and then narrows and narrows and narrows again, until the point is reached where you can no longer tell whether or not the original trigger actually occurred? At that point, the effects of the initial cause have been so dissipated and diluted by the effects of all the events that were not changed that everything – or at least things of a more structural and functional level – are as they would have been anyway?

I suspect that the answer depends on the relative breadth of this causal ‘funnel’ at its widest and the historical ‘space’ into which it irrupts. Where the former exceeds the latter, it would seem that irreversible change is unavoidable. Even if it is smaller, there is presumably a kind of ‘critical mass’ of effects that set history on a radically new course. Hitler dies in the First World War? Climate change devastates civilisation? Nuclear winter kills every large animal and literally every bird and mammal (i.e., every potentially intelligent organism) on the planet? And planet Earth would otherwise have founded of a galaxy-wide society?

Or are there rules to the structure of human history that either are not affected by empirical events, or at least can force themselves back into control? As I have argued (implicitly) in my History of Human Reason, there are. If there is life, there will be intelligence. And if there is intelligence, there will be history and consciousness. And if there is history and consciousness, there will be something very like feudalism and capitalism and their successors – the still more advanced social systems we did not quite get up to.

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