What is contingency in history?


Contingency in history refers to the idea that historical events might have taken different paths based on chance or unusual circumstances. Dwarkesh Patel, in a conversation with Will MacAskill, discusses the concept specifically in the realm of economic history, suggesting that while there might be significant contingencies in technological advancements and societal developments, economic growth tends to display a less contingent nature over the long term. For instance, economies tend to rebound from setbacks robustly due to the strong underlying incentives for technological progress and economic growth. This conversation highlights how historical events like the European Black Death or the bombings in Hiroshima led to quick recoveries, underpinning the argument that economic growth has a kind of inevitability, even if specific technologies or models might be contingent 1.

In broader terms, contingency can affect how specific technologies, government forms, or cultural phenomena arise and stabilize within societies, demonstrating that while some developments might seem inevitable or universal, like the emergence of agriculture or industrial technologies, the exact paths they take can vary widely due to initial conditions or chance occurrences 2.

Contingency in History

Dwarkesh and Will discuss the role of contingency in history, particularly in economic history. They explore examples of societies rebounding from hardship and the non-contingent nature of economic and technological progress. The conversation also touches on the potential impact of individuals like Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.

The Lunar Society

Will MacAskill - Longtermism, Effective Altruism, History, & Technology