December 1st, 2018


Of Chance and Chimpanzees

Give a million chimpanzees typewriters, and one of them may end up writing a sonnet by coincidence, they say. Even so, no one will think that chimp is a poet.

Equally, give a million entrepreneurs a start-up loan, and they will make various business and investment decisions. Some will pay off, many will crash and burn; but perhaps at the end of it all, one of that million will be a billionaire. That billionaire will not be treated like the lucky chimp, though. On the contrary, they will be interviewed by Forbes magazine about their business philosophy, and in general will be treated as if their wealth were entirely the result of their savviness and cunning, rather than the likely result of a million coin tosses. Since human beings are inclined to narrativise history (especially their own) they will likely come to believe this themselves, seeing purposefulness and connection between events that were in large measure unpredictable and serendipitous.

The cases are of course not exactly alike. Diligence, intelligence and imagination will indeed give some entrepreneurs a better shot at success than others; but theirs is a trade where chance is far more responsible for success than it is generally given credit for. I feel similarly about generalship, and indeed any profession so at the mercy of an environment full of unpredictable “noise”. “Pang Juan will Die under this Tree” is a great story, but I don’t believe it’s history. Similarly, whenever I see the latest business guru’s book of ideas, I read it as if were entitled Shakesepeare – My Way, by Bono the Bonobo.

Bogs, Dams and Revenants

In the early 1940s they drowned the village of Derwent in Derbyshire to make the Ladybower reservoir, to slake the thirsts of Sheffield and Nottingham. Shortly afterwards, the new reservoir was used by the "Dam Buster" squadron, as practice for destroying the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe Dams.

This year the dry weather revealed part of the village again, and it drew tourists, some of whom amused themselves by drawing graffiti or taking stones from walls. This has caused quite a lot of angst. For example:

There's a fair amount of graffiti and defacement on the ruins. It's a huge part of our history and now "Cheryl" and "Steve" have scratched their names in the rock. We need to look after it, we have a responsibility like you would at any historical site. (Steve Rowe, Edale Mountain Rescue Team)

Whilst we understand that people are fascinated by the appearance of these usually hidden ruins, the structures remain an iconic archaeological feature of the Peak District National Park. As we wouldn't expect people to vandalise any of the National Park's many heritage buildings or other archaeological features, the remains of the homes and other submerged buildings are no exception. We urge people to leave these features intact to open a valuable window onto history, not just today, but for future generations to enjoy. (Anna Badcock, Park Authority Cultural Heritage Manager.)

Well yes, I kind of agree, and yet it wasn't "Cheryl and Steve" who destroyed the village in the first place, nor bounced bombs on top of it shortly after. If Derwent is such a valuable part of our heritage, why is it at the bottom of a lake?

The answer is of course that it's only valuable because it was destroyed - or rather, its destruction led paradoxically to its partial preservation. We must be grateful to the large-scale municipal vandals of 1940, even as we condemn the small-scale private vandals of 2018.

Similarly, if I marched into the British Museum and took an axe to the Lindow Man I'd be arrested - but it is only thanks to the actions of the people who did the same thing 2,000 years ago that we have his body at all. We owe those people a debt, it seems, for killing him and leaving him to our mercies, tender or otherwise.