Events of great rarity make history.

by Stephen Jay Gould

Nothing much happens for most of the time when evidence abounds; everything happens in largely unrecorded geological moments. We could attribute this pattern to either a devious or humorous God, out to confuse us or merely to chuckle at our frustration. But I choose to look upon this phenomenon in a positive light, for it is trying to tell us something important. There is a lesson, not merely frustration, in the message that change is concentrated in infrequent bursts and that stability is the usual nature of species and systems at any moment.
Evolution has constructed the tree of life; yet, at almost any moment for any species, change is not occurring and stasis prevails. If we then ask, What is the normal nature of a species, the only possible reply is, stability. Yet exquisitely rare change has built the tree of life and made history on a broad scale. The defining property of a species, its normal state, its nature, its appearance at almost any time, is thus contrary to the process that makes history (and new species). If we tried to infer the nature of species from the process that constructs the history of life, we would get everything precisely backward! -- for events of great rarity (but with extensive consequence) make history.
This same tension and contrast exist between human nature and the events that construct our history. We have committed an enormous error in assuming that the behavioral traits involved in history-making events must define the ordinary properties of human nature. Must we not link the causes of our history, or so the false argument goes, to the nature of our being?
But if my analogy holds, precisely the opposite may be true. If rare behaviors make history, then our usual nature must be defined by our ordinary actions in an everyday world that engulfs us nearly all the time, but does not set the fate of nations. The causes of history may be opposed to the ordinary forces that prevail at almost any moment -- just as the processes that construct the tree of life are invisible and inactive nearly all the time within stable species.
History is made by warfare, greed, lust for power, hatred, and xenophobia (with some other, more admirable motives thrown in here and there). We therefore often assume that these obviously human traits define our essential nature. How often have we been told that "man" is, by nature, aggressive and selfishly acquisitive?
What do we see on any ordinary day on the streets or in the homes of any American city -- even in the subways of New York? Thousands of tiny and insignificant acts of kindness and consideration. We step aside to let someone pass, smile at a child, chat aimlessly with an acquaintance or even with a stranger.......Many of us have the impression that daily life is an unending series of unpleasantness ......but think about it seriously for a moment. Such levels of nastiness cannot possibly be sustained. Society would devolve to anarchy in an instant if half our overtures to another human being were met with a pinch in the nose
Why then do most of us have the impression that people are so aggressive, and intrinsically so? The answer, I think, lies in the asymmetry of effects -- the truly tragic side of human existence. Unfortunately, one incident of violence can undo ten thousand acts of kindness, and we easily forget the predominance of kindness over aggression by confusing effect with frequency. One racially motivated beating can wipe out years of patient education for respect and toleration in a school or community. One murder can convert a friendly town, replete with trust, into a nexus of fear with people behind barred doors, suspicious of everyone and afraid to go out at night. Kindness is so fragile, so easy to efface; violence is so powerful.
This crushing and tragic asymmetry of kindness and violence is infinitely magnified when we consider the causes of history in the large. One book burning in the library of Alexandria can wipe out the accumulated wisdom of antiquity. One supposed insult, one crazed act of assassination, can undo decades of patient diplomacy, cultural exchanges, peace corps, pen pals -- small acts of kindness involving millions of citizens -- and bring two nations to a war that no one wants, but that kills millions and irrevocably changes the paths of history.
The alternative view might grant that stability must rule at nearly all moments and that much rarer events make history. But perhaps this stability arises by predominant behaviors of geniality only in relatively free and democratic societies. Perhaps the stability of most cultures has been achieved by the same `dark' forces that make history when they break out of balance -- fear, aggression, terror, domination of rich over poor, men over women, adults over children, and armed over defenseless. I allow that these forces have often kept balances, but still strongly assert that we fail to count the ten thousand ordinary acts of non-aggression -- done if only because people know their places and do not usually challenge the sources of order -- that overwhelm each overt show of strength even in societies structured by domination. To base daily stability on anything other than our natural geniality requires a perverted social structure explicitly dedicated to breaking the human soul -- the Auschwitz model, if you will.........Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetuate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time.
This is not an essay about optimism; it is an essay about tragedy. If I felt that humans were nasty by nature, I would just say, the hell with it. We get what we deserve, or what evolution left us as a legacy. But the center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. Nothing can be more tragic than that this Everest of geniality stands upside down on its pointed summit and can be toppled so easily by rare events contrary to our everyday nature -- and that these rare events make our history. In some sense, we do not get what we deserve.
The solution to our woes lies not in overcoming our `nature' but in fracturing the `great asymmetry', and allowing our ordinary propensities to direct our lives. But how can we put the commonplace into the driver's seat of history?
Stephen Jay Gould who wrote this article teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.