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Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters – Brian Klass

11th April 2024
fluke book cover

Review of Fluke

Fluke tries to reframes our sense of who we are and how our world works. The author aims to dispel some of the damaging myths we pretend are true while exploring 3 facets of human experience that can help us understand ourselves.

Storybook version of reality

We focus on big, singular changes to expel big event, ignoring the small grains of sand that pile up and create avalanches. It is the storybook version of reality where everything that happens has a cause.

To explain how we came to be who we are, we recognise the pivot points that so often were out of our control. But we ignore the invisible pivots, the moments that we will never realise were consequential, the near misses and the near hits that are unknown to us because we have never seen, and will never see, our alternative possible lives.

That is why we are prone to inventing and clinging to false explanations in the face of seemingly random misfortune. Humans cannot easily accept randomness as an explanation for why we get cancer or end up in a car accident.

Contingency vs convergence

Contingency is the stuff happens theory while convergence is the everything happens for a reason school of evolutionary biology.

According to the author, everything happens for a reason is just a coping mechanism but it is a useful, reassuring fiction. The truth is some things, even important and maddening and horrific things, just happen.

In a world driven by a sense that deliberate optimisation is always the route to progress, the contingent accidents sometimes are the ones that most inspire and improve our lives.

Everything is intertwined

Every present moment is created with seemingly unrelated strands that stretch far into distant past. Thus, a microscopic change to the past could fundamentally alter the world. On the other hand, if every detail of the past created our present, every moment of our present is creating our future too.

We live within an endless chain mail of interlocking causes, stretching far into the past, each link forged by the vagaries of time. Our lives are shaped by the decisions of alive and long dead humans, but also by the lottery of earth. Time is life’s invisible variable. There is no such thing as neutral timing.

Some paths that appear available to you now are about to be cut off, not by your actions, but by other people you will never meet wandering through their own lives. Each path we take, moment by moment, makes some worlds possible, others impossible.

Complex systems

Few complex social systems can be captured with stripped-down version of reality, with simple unidirectional arrows moving from cause to effect in such a basic way. Besides that, a society exerts significant control over individual behaviour. Furthermore, measuring and reporting changes what you are measuring and reporting.

Modern society is a complex system, seemingly stable, teetering on the edge of chaos until everything falls apart due to a small change, from the accidental to the infinitesimal. There is not a separate, objective, rational market economy that is detached from the storytelling animal because the market is the aggregation of billions of storytelling animals.

Over-reliance on probabilities

If we venture into an unknowable, uncertain realm armed with trusty probability to make decisions, we might be in for a nasty and potentially catastrophic shock. Untamable chaos is not tamable chance. Probabilities are not helpful in situations of genuine uncertainty. It is only useful in a simple, closed system.

It is impossible for us to know what is probable and what is improbable, particularly for rare, important events. However, the unanswerable mysteries of our lives, of our world and of our universe spark curiosity, wonder, awe, and also frustration and despair. Without them, we would not be ourselves.


Humans act according to our beliefs – the “why” that drives us. Those beliefs are constantly swayed by the arbitrary, the accidental, and the seemingly random. Humans are many wonderful things, but we are not objective, rational optimisers. We are often guided by satisfice, a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice, in which we choose not what is optimal but what is good enough.

Our beliefs are often the main event when it comes to understanding why things happen. Our subjective beliefs drive change, which makes the world even more contingent. Every human is irrational, susceptible to the seduction of narratives. Superstition is the daughter of the unexplained and the apparently random. Faith, by definition, cannot be defeated by rational, scientific argument.

Too many people rise to the top following the strategy of always certain, but often wrong, like the pundits who are always so certain but their hit rates are dismal. Thus, we should not put too much faith in those people who claim they are certain that an event would happen.

Decision theory

The world is chaotic and contingent. We could use decision theory to make decisions. When facing a choice with uncertain outcomes, you should weigh up the various options, consider the payoffs of each outcome, and adjust according to your best guess as to the probability of each outcome. This allows you to factor in such things as catastrophic risk alongside marginal benefits.

Nonetheless, there is one hitch: the assumptions for decision theory apply best to a simple social world that does not exist. Decision theory often pretends that your actions are isolated, not intertwined with everything else. It also operates on short time scales, in which the long-term effects are not part of the probability calculations used to make a cost-benefit analysis. Thus, decision theory is a flawed, sometimes useful, way of navigating the garden of forking paths before us. It is best to constantly remind ourselves that there will always be some uncertainty that can never be conquered.


Modernity is a collective mission to destroy the unknown, but we would be lost without it. We delude ourselves when we imagine that we would prefer a certain world that we could fully control. In truth, we crave a healthy balance between order and disorder, fulfilled by our world of contingent convergence. Life would be boring and monotonous if everything were structure and ordered, but pure disorder would destroy us.

Embracing the beauty of uncertainty means a bit less emphasis on how your individual action in the present can produce an optimised future, and a bit more emphasis on celebrating the present that has been created for you, the symphony of our lives that is being played by an orchestra of trillions of individual beings hitting their respective notes across billions of years, culminating in this utterly unique, contingent moment. Our best and worst moments are inextricably linked. The happiest experiences of your life are part of the same thread in which you suffered the most crushing despair. We should all take a bit less credit for our triumphs and a bit less blame for our failures.

The author called The Secret pseudoscientific nonsense. We could not make our wishes come true just by thinking about them. The materialisation of dreams require hard work and a bit of luck, which is contingent in nature.

In conclusion, nobody really understands our world. Life’s best flukes come not from ever-more-precise analytics of a seemingly stable past, but in exploring a fresh, uncertain future – sometimes even aimlessly.

One-sentence summary for Fluke

Not everything happens for a reason.


  1. We can’t know what matters most because we can’t see how it might have been.
  2. We control nothing, but influence everything.
  3. It’s impossible to calculate what you can’t anticipate.
  4. If necessity is the mother of invention, then timing is the mother of contingency.
  5. Perceptions do not make reality.


3 out of 3 stars

Interested in Fluke?

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