Friday, June 20, 2008

The Improbability of Being Alive

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the fragility of life (for pretty straightforward reasons – see my previous post). I’ve also been thinking a bit about the sheer improbability of being alive.

Here’s the most dramatic personal example I can come up with of what I mean:

Members of one of the families from whom I’m descended, specifically my father’s mother’s mother’s family, emigrated from Ireland to Virginia sometime in the late 1600s, establishing a nuclear family household there. Sometime shortly thereafter, this household was wiped out in a raid by local Native Americans, except for an infant son, my ancestor, who was left alive, found by other members of the Euro-American community and taken in.

Whatever their particular grievance, whether against the specific family or against Europeans in general moving into the area, and there were likely plenty of grievances to choose from, had this particular raiding party chosen to completely finish off the household, the world today would be little if any different in any big way, but I wouldn’t be here. Likewise if the child had died of starvation or exposure before being found and taken into another household. Even if the Native Americans in question had chosen to adopt the child into their own community, a not unlikely scenario in the circumstances, that child might have had descendants alive today, but I wouldn’t be here.

In many more mundane ways, my mere existence depends upon a highly improbable concatenation of little decisions having been made by untold numbers of people. Upon having his job as an engraver transferred from a paper plant in upstate New York to a new plant outside of Pensacola, Florida in the early 1950s, had my grandfather and grandmother decided that job or not job, they weren’t moving to muggy Northwest Florida in those pre-air-conditioned Jim-Crow-era days, then my mother and my father would have been around, but never met, resulting in no me.

Given that the human species did evolve, and given that the Neolithic transition occurred (both improbable to varying degrees beforehand), I don’t find it particularly improbable that there are people around now, or even that there are 6 billion people around now, but each of those 6 billion people, as individuals, is the result of an astronomically improbable chain of prior human actions and decisions.

Perhaps not the most profound or original thought (it is, after all, a basic premise of the movie Back to the Future), but something I’ve been thinking about lately.


brian salchert said...

You are absolutely right, and I--one who has been thinking about this for a long time--have concluded that even the mistakes I've made are part of the reason I am still alive.

Actually, why I came to your site today is/ my wishing to know how you and your partner are doing.

I do hope the doctors there are keeping up on what is new in cancer research.

My best to you, Robert Philen, and
to Reginald Shepherd.

vmh said...

I'm very sorry for your loss. My condolences.

Mark Granier said...

Just heard the tragic news about your partner Reginald. My condolences.

Nicolette Bethel said...

Condolences as well. Stay strong.

Hedgie said...

I, too, wish to express my sorrow and my sympathy to you for your loss. I know this is an unbelievably difficult time, but I wish you strength, as well.

Don Share said...

So many of us are thinking of you. Please call on some of us if there's anything in the world we can do. Many condolences.

Lisa said...

Robert, I am so sorry for your loss. Please take good care of yourself in this difficult time. You have the support of people who do not even know you.

Sebastian Leopold said...

This realization hits almost everyone at some point, but is actually entirely a matter of perspective, known as the Argument of Retrospective Improbability.

The examination of the sequence of events leading up to your current situation is mind-boggling because from the perspective of the individual assessing their past, an insanely improbable series of occurrences are responsible for their existence.

However, one must remember that an insanely improbable series of occurrences predates every possible incarnation of every possible being's experience. The act of a tree shedding a limb is the product of a monumentally rare sequence of events, but so is everything else.

The significance of these sequences is only gained in our personal reflection that these events led to us rather than something meaningless, like the tree branch example.

Robert Philen said...

Sebastian Leopold,

Gee thanks for letting me know what I said by basically recapitulating my argument. Given the context of this post and the other comments here, I find the lecturing tone of your comment a bit insensitive to say the least. The last paragraph of the post also should have been a tip-off that I wasn't claiming any profound insights, but simply sharing ruminations I had been having at the time. If I'm misreading the tone of your comment, my sincere apologies.