What are the Odds?
I just finished the book by Walter Alvarez called A Most Improbable Journey, where he introduced me to a concept that struck a chord in my brain. We are the product of an infinite number of chance events. At each branch point, had it been different we would be different we would not even be us, or worse not even exist at all.
Alvarez and his father, Luis, were the scientists that came up with the idea that it was a 6 mile diameter asteroid that hit an area in the Yucatan 66 million years ago, where now the small town of Chicxulub exists. That created a 110 mile diameter crater which spewed out billions of tons of dust, blocking out the sun for years, which in turn led to the demise of the dinosaur. This asteroid , as most asteroids, contained a large amount of Iridium (a rare element not found in great abundance on earth). When all the dust finally settled a thin layer of Iridium covered the earth. That created the K/T layer, a layer between the geologic strata of the Cretaceous and Tertiary Era, below which there are lots of dinosaur skeletons and above which there are none. That was certainly a chance event that could not be predicted nor avoided. The dinosaur was evolving just peachy keen before the disaster. They were the masters of earth for 165 million years. There is evidence that they lived in families and some of them had become very social animals that hunted in cooperating packs. The movie Jurassic Park got some things right. Their brains were getting bigger and better because their source of energy was high grade protein, the exact stuff that made our brains bigger, and eventually lead to our ability to have an awareness of ourselves and our surroundings that created minds like Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Mozart, etc. etc. The death of the dinosaurs left a big void, and the heretofore not very successful, evolutionarily speaking, rat like mammals were there to fill that void. Had the asteroid not hit that fateful day, this essay may have been written by a highly evolved Velociraptor instead of me. That is just one of the many ducks that had to line up to set the stage for my appearance on this tiny third pebble from an average medium pulsar star in the far corner of the Milky Way, one of billions of galaxies in our Universe.
There are chance events, like that asteroid impact, that took place millions of years ago, of which we have no knowledge and are still learning about through our discoveries of the formation of our solar system and the creation of our planet. But then there are more recent events in our history which also have had profound effects on our present lives. Take an event like the birth of Philip II of Spain. What on earth does that have to do with me or you? Philip was the unlikely heir to the throne of Spain. His father, Charles the fifth, was the third or fourth in line and only became king after all his potential predecessors died off for a variety of reasons, leaving him the one to become the king. Phillip II was raised Catholic and he became particularly obsessed and enraged by England being Protestant. That fact was in itself another unlikely event. Henry VIII could not have children with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, as she was barren. The Pope refused to grant him a divorce, so he created the Church of England, a Protestant variant that allowed divorce. Philip became convinced that England must be brought back into the Catholic fold. He amassed the largest fleet of ships ever to have been amassed in the history of man, the great Spanish Armada, laden with 8000 seamen and 19,000 soldiers. The fact that he could do that was due to another accident of nature. When the earth was in its formative stages, gold was distributed on the globe unevenly and South America got more of its share of the precious metal. Gold has 79 protons in its nucleus. That makes it a heavy metal. In the beginning the earth was in a molten state. As earth was rotating, the heavier elements were distributed disproportionately. When the crust hardened some of the crust had more gold than other parts. All land was first concentrated in one large continent, Pangea, surrounded by one large body of water called the Panthalassic Ocean. Pangea then split into smaller continents separated by the oceans that now exist. South America wound up getting a large chunk of that heavy metal: gold! When the Spanish came to the new world they quickly discovered that fact. Because Spain had gunpowder and small pox on their side, the indigenous population of South America got all their gold taken away. Philip II became incredibly rich, so therefore he could build the world’s largest navy. The purpose of such a big naval force was to force the English from their wicked ways of the evil started by a German monk, Martin Luther, who was appalled by all the injustice and corruption in the Roman Church. He created a new branch of Christianity, Protestantism, when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the doors of the Cathedral of Wittenberg.
Philip II planned a major invasion of England in 1588. Because of miscommunication, confusion was created by an English attack on the Armada with old ships the English set on fire and sent into the midst of the 130 Spanish war ships. This tactic served to scatter the Armada. Then a fierce storm further divided and weakened the fleet sending the Armada all the way to Scotland. The Spanish lost half of their ships and 15,000 men. They were forced to retreat to Spain, never landing on English soil to carry out their mission of vanquishing the English and converting them back to the one true religion. England would remain English and Protestant. That eventually lead to the English domination of North America. Without that victory, we would be speaking Spanish right now. One more chance event that prepared the way for me to be who I am.
What if Hitler had been allowed to become an artist, as were his intentions, and had never become the Führer of Germany. He was not all that bad an artist and certainly would have done much less harm to canvasses and paintbrushes had he painted to his heart’s content. My parents would have stayed in Europe and never immigrated to the USA. Speaking of my parents, I was created as most humans, by sexual reproduction (I say most, as I strongly suspect some of my fellow humans, especially the ones with the pea brains who cannot think beyond their myopic horizons, came about by simple cell division like the amoeba, although some I know for a fact came about by spontaneous generation, like when you leave a pile of rubbish undisturbed, all kinds of vermin crawl out. You can easily identify those humans by their wormlike countenance and mean-spirited demeanor). I don’t like to think about my parents having sex, but I believe they did. How many times? I don’t know, but they were married for a decade before I came along. One ejaculate has 20,000,000 or more sperm. If you multiply that, by more or less, 1000 matings that gives you 20,000,000,000. I came from just one of those sperm of twenty billion. The likelihood of me being who I am is 1 in 20×109.
I met my future wife at UCLA. I was a medical student working in the Emergency Room. She worked in the business office, across the hall, but because she was a Spanish major she was often called upon to translate in the ER. One day a dishwasher from a nearby restaurant had cut his hand and came to get stitched up. He was Spanish speaking only and I needed a translator. It was meant to be and three years later we were married. If I didn’t work the ER that day, if she were a history major instead, if that dishwasher spoke English, if I could have spoken better Spanish, if, if, if… things would have been different.
The point of this is that the odds of us being on this planet, in the country where we live, doing the work we do, having married the person we did, achieving what we have achieved, and being who we are, are the product of happenings in nature, in history, and in every day events that present us with a myriad of possible paths to take. At every branch point in our life we choose or fate has chosen for us, a path that will most certainly lead to different outcomes.
Yet I am here despite all the odds against me being me. I beat the odds. I am incredibly lucky by winning the lottery of life. The odds of winning the Powerball lottery is 1 in 175,000,000. That is a pittance compared to the lottery of life which I did in fact win. This justifies my occasional transgression of paying “the stupid people tax”… When the lottery goes over. $100,000,000 I do buy a lotto ticket. Who knows? Lightening sometimes strikes the same place twice!