Did you ever hear someone say, “if only I could go back in time, knowing everything I know now”?
Ever thought it would be great to be young again and start over?
Perhaps as an eighties lover you like to sing If I Could Turn Back Time. Maybe you regret every sorry, misinformed action you ever took. It could be that you’re old, creaky and jaded and simply yearn for the carefree days of youth again.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all been captivated by this thinking at some point. There’s an entire grammatical structure dedicated to the concept, among the most complex in the English language. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 3rd conditional. It goes something like: “if I’d known I would get diabetes, I would never have eaten all those goddamn pies.”
The 3rd conditional speaks of regret. Being regretful beings, time travel permeates our popular culture. Thousands of books and movies with wild, frivolous inaccuracy broach the topic of going back in time to change historical events.
With so much time-bending temptation in our paths I felt it was my duty to put this message out there, in case anyone should anyone happen upon the opportunity:
Listen, man, don’t go back in time to change things!
Because I guarantee you, no matter how crappy your past, no matter how much of a pickle it’s left you in today, no matter how much youth you’ve lost, you haven’t correctly considered the consequences.
Consider this: you’re just thinking about how rubbish everything became since you got out of nappies, and on the point of chucking yourself into the Bosporus, when a magical genie appears and says, “you’ve got one wish, as long as it concerns going back in time to when you were younger.” So you ponder, and let’s say you prudently decide that being a defenceless baby suckling your mum’s boob while secretly being an adult inside wouldn’t be so great, so you come to the decision that you’re going to do your life over from age four. You can walk, you can talk, no one’s awkwardly changing your nappies, but basically you’re not going to have any responsibility except crayoning, and even if you do that badly they’re going to praise you. Hooray!
Boop! You appear in your four-year-old body. If you’re me, or one of several other people, it’s 1984. You’ve just changed your four-year-old brain into an adult one. Aside from being a physical impossibility (capacity, memory, behaviour etc all depends on shape and size of the brain, none of which would fit in a four-year-old skull), having a different brain at this juncture means you’re going to behave in a completely different way than your original four-year-old self. Yes, even pretending like you’re a four-year-old, you’re going to do things completely differently. No way around it. These differences range from the microscopic: being in a different space, breathing in and out different molecules and bacteria at different rates – to the seemingly trivial: leaving different objects in different locations; eating different foodstuffs at different times – to the interpersonal: acting in a different way inviting varied behavioural responses from those around you.
So you change the course of your life, that changes the course of those lives and objects around you, and they go on to change the course of those around them etc etc – and we have a chain reaction. A butterfly flaps its wings.
Let’s be what I imagine to be conservative. In two days you’ve changed the course of history for your home town and everything passing through it, in a week you’ve remoulded the path of your entire region… I’m going to say in a month you’ve irrevocably affected everyone and everything in the world. Why not. Who can prove otherwise.
So now you’re thinking, “yay! The original course of history sucked.” But I remind you, you haven’t thought this through. Not with your swollen four-year-old head. There’s one overriding theme that makes this jaunt back into the past changing destinies a supremely bad idea.
And it’s this: sex.
Or rather, procreation. Sexual reproduction is a highly randomised process by design. That’s because it benefits animal life to vary the genetic pool A.M.A.P. Variation drives evolution and kicks degenerative defects in the arse.
The production of sperm, and I’ll presume, (somehow I know less about this) ova, depends upon physical factors such as diet, stress, physical activity. The genes of a person – and therefore a potential parent – actually change over time in relation to experiences. And get this, genes are mutated by the bombardment of cosmic rays (sounds like the Twilight Zone, is actually an essential element of evolution).
By changing the course of everyone’s history you have randomly changed their diet, stress, activity, experiences and even which cosmic rays they are bombarded with. Even if the same woman and the same man were to create the same sperm and same egg with the potential to create the same person (warning: not possible) the chances that they would have sex at exactly the correct time in the same way and that the same blindly swimming sperm would win what basically amounts to a 20 million contestant episode of the Running Man melded with Wacky Races, is woefully unlikely. It’s what we call impossible.
Under normal circumstances, the odds that a specific person is conceived are so negligible you can count yourself a miracle. The reason we exist is that the probability of someone-in-the-ballpark-of-us being born under the circumstances (two virile mates having successful sex at that point in time) is pretty good. But we’ve just changed the circumstances.
Sit down. I’m telling you that no one who was born after you were four is going to exist. What you’ve gone and done is annihilated everyone you know and care about who was conceived much after what we’ll call your “reentry point,” along with several billion you don’t know. You cut off their timeline – wrenched it backwards and set it on a new path in which they no longer exist. You have instantly become the largest mass murderer in history, even if only you know about it. Fair enough, you’re also the unwitting agent of billions of lives that didn’t get the chance first time around, but did you have the right to destroy all those lives that existed and arbitrarily replace them?
Consider younger siblings, friends, children, nephews, nieces, lovers, colleagues. Tell me as time progressed and they failed to appear that wouldn’t haunt you, and I’ll give you a mirror and point out a sociopath. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to live with the burden of that shit.
This feeling would be compounded by the fact that none of the historical events you remember would happen a second time around. They’d be replaced almost randomly with other ones. Of course, you may feel happy one moment when a disaster you remember is bypassed, but when another disaster occurs which never happened originally, you might find yourself counting bodies, all of it beyond your control. It’s possible that an event far more catastrophic than anything in the original timeline happens, and, in a way, you’d be responsible. And you’d know it.
Culture itself would develop unrecognisable to you. Art is a highly capricious process. Cher may continue with a successful career, having appeared before 1984, but she would never sing If I could Turn Back Time in 1989. Any hits she had would be alien to you. None of your favourite artists growing up would be the same, none of your favourite movies would come out. You’d be lucky if Michael Crichton writes Triassic Fairground. Of course, this says nothing of quality. Some art would be of higher quality, some lower. The point is that along with all the previously mentioned head-blags, you would come to feel you were living in a universe to which you don’t belong. And here’s the biggie (if the mass murder wasn’t enough) – all of those preconceived “when such-and-such happens again, I’ll do this instead of that,” ideas (the reason we get to thinking about resitting our lives in the first place) would go redundant, as life would very quickly start to hit you with completely unexpected events and none of the original ones.
So, when someone asks you if you would go back in time and kill a baby Hitler to save millions of lives, you know your answer. You would go back to ten years before Hitler’s birth and simply have a chat with someone, instantly abrogating the births of most of the players in WWII. Except you couldn’t, because if you did that you’d never exist. Your time machine would go putt! putt! putt! and collapse, leaving you looking stupid in front of the news cameras.
Just don’t go back in time, okay?