22 June 2008

To Live at All is Miracle Enough

I read Richard Dawkins book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ a little while ago and there was a part that really brought me up short with one of those ‘WOW’ moments. It really brings home the sheer unliklihood and odds against any of us actually being born and being able to experience and enjoy this only too brief sojourn on earth. I have been thinking about it quite a bit lately and and really wanted to reread it again. Unfortunately I have lent it to a friend and so was having to wait for it to be returned. Imagine my delight therefore when I stumpled upon a website with a transcript of this part of the book (plus other good stuff). I think everyone should at least read this part so I reproduce the first couple of paragraphs here, together with a link to the rest of it (when you get there, scroll down a bit to reach the right section). I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,”
of Richard Dawkins 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow

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. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. 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.

Moralists and theologians place great weight upon the moment of conception, seeing it as the instant at which the soul comes into existence. If, like me, you are unmoved by such talk, you still must regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortunes. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly became trillions of times more foreseeable than it was a split second before. To be sure, the embryonic you that came into existence still had plenty of hurdles to leap. Most conceptuses end in early abortion before their mother even knew they were there, and we are all lucky not to have done so. Also, there is more to personal identity than genes, as identical twins (who separate after the moment of fertilization) show us. Nevertheless, the 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 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. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:

Napoleon started it all. If it weren’t for him, I might not be sitting here now writing these words … for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of my great-great-grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.

Read the rest HERE.

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