Chance has a conflicted role in narratives. On the one hand, narratives rely on chance: What would be the point of a narrative if everything was clear from the beginning? On the other hand, one of the main purposes of a narrative is to eliminate chance as the story proceeds: What would be the point of a narrative if nothing was clear at the end? I want to avoid the resolution that that chance exists in a narrative only in order to be got rid of. To be sure, narratives reduce chance, but they make productive use of chance as well. They eliminate alternative possibilities, but in doing so they reset the field of alternative possibilities that can subsequently arise and be acted upon. Interestingly, natural selection makes use of chance in a similar way, and for this reason has been construed as “creative,” even as a “composer” or an “author.” No wonder narratives are such an appropriate medium for Darwinian evolutionary explanations.
JOHN BEATTY is Professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on the theoretical foundations, methodology, and socio-political dimensions of genetics and evolutionary biology. His current research projects concern more specifically: 1) the distinction between “history” and “science,” and the respects in which evolutionary biology is as much like the former as it is like the latter, 2) changing views of contingency and necessity in the Darwinian Revolution, 3) the relationships between biology and “the state,” from the Manhattan Project to the Human Genome Project, and 4) issues concerning the nature of scientific “authority.” His articles have appeared in the Philosophy of Science, Annals of Science, Biology and Philosophy, Journal of Philosophy, and Episteme, to name just a few. He is the coauthor of The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press)