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.