Blips in a larger pattern


Spring has finally come to the Okanagan Valley. The peonies and rhubarb poke through the mulch. Crocuses shine amid last autumn’s leaves. The forsythia hovers on the brink of blossom.

But if I don’t write now about one of the final snowfalls of winter, I’ll have to wait until next December.

Fine, fluffy snowflakes sifted through the air. A breeze eddied around the corners of our house, swirling the snowflakes. Most of the flakes settled slowly downwards. But many went sideways, often in opposite directions. Quite a few actually drifted upwards.

It struck me as a visual illustration of chaos theory. No one could predict the path of any individual snowflake. But the general direction of all those snowflakes was totally predictable. They all fell, eventually.

In a friend’s house, a few years ago, I chanced upon James Gleick’s book about chaos theory. Even with the most precise measurements, the most powerful computers, the most comprehensive formulas, weather predictions remained notoriously inaccurate.

Chaos theory, as I recall Gleick’s thesis, looks for the underlying order in apparently random data.

Gleick offered an illustration. If you draw a rapid series of freehand circles without lifting your pencil off the paper, none of those circles will overlap exactly.

But the over-all shape is predictable.

So too with the weather. The same seasons will come around, year after year. Never identical, but still recurring.

But if your hand slips sideways, while still drawing circles, the whole series of circles will seem to move.

That shift, Gleick suggested, illustrates climate change. Specific summers and winters may not match the forecasts. They may be warmer or cooler, wetter or drier. But the general direction of the shift remains clear.

To argue that one circle breaks the pattern is to miss the point. Of course it does. But individual variations do not invalidate the long-term pattern.

Sir Kenneth Clark made a similar point in his television series Civilization, 40 years ago. All civilizations are unique, he said. But all civilizations also move the same direction as they mature — toward greater equality, greater compassion.

Clark used literature as his example. In their youth, all societies tell tales of conquest, dominance. The narrator looks down the shaft of a spear. Or, since the invention of television, down the barrel of a gun.

As that civilization develops, it finds ways to explore what Hamlet called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” It learns to imagine being on the receiving end of that spear, that bullet, or that insult, that prejudice.

Each raw new civilization or society repeats that pattern, Clark asserted. But the pattern is not a straight line. Any more than the seasons are. Or the flight of a snowflake.

And so there are blips, reversals. Some societies, some religions, some nations, lurch backwards. They restrict women’s rights; they cut back on children’s education; they attack collective bargaining; they devalue human life.

But such reversals are temporary. An occasional setback does not negate the long-term direction of civilization’s progress.

Any more than an occasional snowflake falling upwards invalidates the inevitability of gravity.





Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments;