Contingency, Anarchy and Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the most influential books in my life is the late Stephen Jay Gould’sWonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History,” about the evolution of life during what is known as the “Cambrian explosion,” about 505 million years ago.  Gould’s thesis is that contingency–chance–is perhaps the most important factor in evolution.  Rewind the tape of life and let history unfold again and the evolutionary outcomes, including Homo sapiens, are impossible to predict.  Gould argues that we humans are a great–but wonderful–accident.

With this introduction, readers may understand why a post about how Oliver Wendell Holmes ended up on the U.S. Supreme Court caught my attention.  The short answer (re: why Holmes ended upon on the court) is that an anarchist assassinated President McKinley.  That’s contingency in operation folks.



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