August 5, 2014

You're a champion of champions

I DON’T SUPPOSE you ever think of yourself as being someone quite exceptional; but you are. I mean, the mere fact that you use a small boat for pleasure singles you out from the great unwashed herd. After all, the number of people in this world who go boating purely to make themselves happy is probably fewer than 1 percent of the population.

But, in addition to that, you are a Very Special Person for another good reason. In fact, you are  incredibly special because the improbability of your being here on Earth at all is literally so extreme as you make you a mathematical impossibility. That’s the view of the late Guy Murchie, renowned author of The Seven Mysteries of Life (Mariner Books). I’ll let Murchie explain:

“To begin with, you are a champion of champions, genetically speaking, because you are the product of an inconceivably complex and diverging web of ancestors, spiraling and branching back for billions of years into the primordial ooze of the proto-Earth, not a single individual of which, man or woman, animal or vegetable, ever failed to grow up to maturity and to beget viable offspring, while most other creatures around them, including many of their own brothers, sisters and cousins, faded away, and the majority eventually disappeared forever into extinction.

“This has to be true because of the finite dimensions of Earth and because, if your ancestors hadn’t been such top performers that they were 100 percent successful in procreation, obviously your ancestral lines of descent would be broken and you could not exist.

“But this is only the beginning of your improbability. Have you ever considered the odds behind conception, when only one out of tens of millions of sperms succeeds in siring a new offspring? . . . If we calculate very conservatively that each of your direct ancestors had somewhat less than one chance in a million to be conceived and raised to maturity (as he or she obviously succeeded in doing) your first-generation improbability (something a mathematician could write as 10--6) would still increase backward in time by several exponent numbers in each generation of each line of your descent, multiplying generation by generation to the population limits of your species, thereby reaching in the millennium now ending an improbability number far exceeding 10--110.  I chose 10--110 because that is the reciprocal of a thousand times more than all the atomic vibrations of all known space-time.

“Which, putting it rather mildly, would imply that your conception was inconceivable — and that, if anyone in some wild moment ever got the impulse to call you ‘impossible’ or (more diplomatically) ‘miraculous,’ he or she actually had a more than reasonable claim to being right.”

So there you are. Not only are you exceptional, but, because you are a boater, you’re in the top 1 percent of exceptional human beings. You are, in fact, so exceptional as to be totally improbable, at least mathematically.  And, as Murchie points out, only your actual presence here and now prevents you from being quite impossible.

Today’s Thought
Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.
— Ralph Ellison, Time 27 Mar 64

The Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) reports that a city council meeting was held yesterday evening.
“The chairman of the Works Committee was asked to give figures for how many people are employed by the City, broken down by sex.
“ ’Not too many,’ he replied. ‘Liquor is more of a problem for us.’ ”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)  

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