I think Rube Goldberg machines reveal something about the human psyche. Our species tends to think linearly - seeing how A can cause B which can cause C and so on. Moreover, we like control, and we convince ourselves that we HAVE control of a full series of events.
As a child, I would spend hours setting up dominoes in elaborate patterns in one upstairs room of our house. I would plan out a whole room, standing up each domino in just the right place - neither too close nor too far from the one preceding it. When the last one was placed, an intoxicating anticipation would set in. Did I set it up just right? Will one tiny oversight cause an hour's worth of work to be wasted? Or will it be perfect, allowing one single tap of the first domino to topple the whole room?
Later in life, I would learn about the more elaborate version of this childhood entertainment of mine - Rube Goldberg machines
. Essentially, they are devices that are designed to create a complex chain-reaction such that one action at the beginning (like flicking a domino) causes a final result at the end (like the last domino falling). Here’s one
that some high school students built around the theme of the movie Up. Here’s a massive one
used to light a Christmas tree. Here’s a classic domino one
using 32,000 pieces. And here’s one
that the band OK Go created for the music video of their song “This Too Shall Pass.” I apologize in advance for killing any productivity that you had today.
I absolutely love these contraptions, and I marvel at the creativity, skill, and patience that goes into creating them. Stepping back a bit though, I think Rube Goldberg machines reveal something about the human psyche. Our species tends to think linearly - seeing how A can cause B which can cause C and so on. Moreover, we like control, and we convince ourselves that we HAVE control of a full series of events. If there is an effect that we want, we can be the cause and can stack up every domino in between that can link the two. Unintended consequences? What unintended consequences? The only dominoes that will fall are the ones that we want to fall!
Alas, that is not the way the world works. So often, humans fail to see the system in which we operate. The world is full of pre-stacked dominoes to which we are oblivious, and we topple them all the time, usually to ill-effect. Let me give you an example.
Last week, I read this article on NPR
about a study finding that some elephants have evolved to be tuskless in Mozambique. From 1977 to 1992, a civil war
tore this African country apart, and fighters on both sides saw ivory as a valuable material that could finance their war efforts. As a result, up to 90% of elephants were slaughtered in some regions.
Of those that survived, most did not have the tusks that the poachers wanted for the ivory trade. At the time, tuskless elephants were rare, but a minority of elephants lacked them because of their genetic makeup. Typically, such elephants would have been at a disadvantage, because they wouldn’t be able to dig for water or scrape bark from trees for food. During the war though, lacking tusks was a huge advantage.
Now, decades after the war, researchers have found that lacking tusks is a trait commonly passed onto offspring in these elephant populations, and it may be a dominant trait. As a result, these elephant populations not only look different than they commonly used to, but their diets are changing too. Evolution usually takes place slowly over many generations, but in this case, long-lasting changes are seen in a single generation. Because of a civil war driven by human geopolitics, an entire population of elephants is now on a new evolutionary arc.
Our species has tremendous influence on others around the globe. Far too often, we ignore this influence and recklessly create change in ecosystems. We are the cause, and the effects are so often destructive. It’s time that we open our eyes and see how many dominoes our actions tend to topple over.