I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of life, spurred in part by the end of the school year and the inevitable reflection and soul-searching it engenders. There are two texts that have been on my mind this week: one is the essay “To Live at All is Miracle Enough” by Richard Dawkins, and the other is the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Let’s talk about Dawkins first.
Dawkins’ essay “To Live at All is Miracle Enough” (excerpted from his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow) is compelling reading, and a regular part of my English 11 course. Dawkins is a magnificent writer, and opens the essay with a thought-provoking declaration:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. . . . We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. . . . [T]he instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures.”
The first time I read this essay I was intrigued by the simple notion that my existence was so incredibly unlikely. Dawkins teases at it here but doesn’t give us the figures, so I did a little research.
Let’s start with the basics. In order for you to exist, one particular sperm cell had to fertilize one particular egg. Any substitutions would have resulted in a completely different person existing in your place.
So the question becomes, what are the odds of this happening? Of “your” sperm fertilizing “your” egg, leading to the embryo that would become you?
Let’s crunch the numbers on your conception. You were conceived, obviously, when your parents had sex at a particular point in time. When they did, your father released 40-600 million sperm cells in his ejaculation–only ONE of those sperm cells was the right one to create you. So, taking the low end of probability, we could start by saying that there was only a 1 in 40,000,000 chance of your conception taking place.
But wait a minute! It’s even more improbable than that. Because not just any egg would do. Every baby girl is born with 1-2 million eggs in her ovaries, and only one of those was the right egg to make you. So we have to combine the odds of your sperm reaching the egg with the odds of your egg being the one that was released into the fallopian tube. Again, taking the conservative end, that multiplies the odds against your existence by another million.
In other words, the odds against your conception and subsequent existence are at least 1 in [40,000,000 x 1,000,000], which is ONE IN FORTY TRILLION. Talk about winning a lottery.
But it gets even more mind-bending. Dawkins then reminds us that “[t]he lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn’t bear thinking about. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.”
So we have factor in the odds of your parents meeting each other, and the odds of their conceptions even happening in the first place, and the odds of your grandparents meeting each other, and the odds of their conceptions happening in the first place, and . . .
I suspect even IBM’s Deep Blue would have a hard time crunching these kinds of numbers.
Meditate on this for awhile. Think it through. Your existence and mine are so completely, totally, utterly implausible that it should make us tremble in amazement and joy.
Not a bad way to start thinking about the meaning of life.