Scientists estimate that the odds of someone being born are about one in 400 trillion. They get to this number through multiplying all of:
- the odds of a man and woman meeting each other (one in 20,000) by
- the chances of them staying together long enough to have kids (one in 2,000) by
- the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg (one in 400 quadrillion) by
- the probability of every one of your ancestors reproducing successfully (one in 10).
All of this is basically ripped directly from a 2011 Huff Post article, which frames the math like this: “So what’s the probability of your being born? It’s the probability of 2.5 million people getting together — about the population of San Diego — each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice — and they all come up the exact same number — say, 550,343,279,001.”
I deal dice for a living, and I’ve witnessed some crazy shit. As a random example, I’ve seen the number “12” roll three times in a row. The odds of that happening are 1/36 • 1/36 • 1/36; in fraction form it comes out to 1/46,666; in decimal form it comes out to 0.0000214. To roll a single “12” is difficult enough. To do it two times in a row is absurd. And three times? That’s downright uncanny.
But it comes nowhere close — like not even in the same galaxy — to comparing to the odds of a person being born. You are roughly 800 million times more likely to throw “12” three times consecutively than you are of being born. So if anyone ever tells you that you aren’t special, they’re right. But they are also very, very wrong.
Apparently when guys ejaculate they release anywhere between 20 million and 100 million sperm cells. That’s quite a few. It means if you are here, presently, and able to read this, you were once stronger than 20-100 million of your closest competitors. I know as an 11- or 12 year-old taking sex ed I thought it was pretty fucking cool that I was the one — out of all of them — that won the race and made it to an egg that I somehow knew how to penetrate. It’s still pretty fucking cool, I think.
Now that I’ve established just how much of a long shot it is to make it here, I’ll get on with it. I honestly thought I was going to spend one paragraph talking about the unconscionable odds, but then I found out some new stuff and it’s kind of even crazier than I thought. For the purpose of this article, my first of 2019, I’m less interested in how miraculous it is that I’m here, and more focused on just how lucky I am to have been born in this place, at this point in history, when it’s just as likely (or unlikely) that I could have been born anywhere, at any time.
Think about it like this: the first homo sapiens arrived, depending on which evolutionary biologist you want to roll with, between 200,000 and 250,000 years ago. Most died at birth. The ones fortunate enough to survive infancy and childhood lived to be about 20. They had no answers for why the sun shined during the day, or why the moon came out when it got dark. They had no explanations for the violent volcano eruptions that altered and destroyed the landscapes around them, the plagues and diseases that wiped out entire tribes, the droughts and famines, the sharp fluctuations in temperature during the year, et. al. Bands of people were constantly at conflict with one another over food, territory, and women. Rape and murder were still a quarter-million years away from being capital offenses. This was just their way of life.
Being alive in 2019 is to understand just how far we, as a species, have come, while still being aware that there are still so many things we don’t know. Democracy didn’t come around until about 2,500 years ago; The Enlightenment, where civilization began making giant leaps in scientific discovery, didn’t occur until about 400 years ago; The Theory of Evolution wasn’t introduced until the 1850’s. I don’t have an answer for why I came out of my mother’s womb in 1990 rather than, say, 100,000 B.C., or 10,000 B.C., or the year 1500, or for that matter 10,000 years from now. But I’m glad that I’m here now, mostly because I’m here.
And while I’m here, I have to appreciate that I was born in the United States, a place that is full of problems (which I basically spend my blog documenting) but that beats the hell out of much of the rest of the world. I had just as good of a chance at being born in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated like second-class citizens and intellectuals and homosexuals are persecuted. I could have been born in North Korea where people are starving, don’t have any access to the outside world, and whose only purpose in life is to serve the state. I could have been born anywhere, and if I was then I wouldn’t know any better that something more was possible.
After 250,000 years, there remain scores of people who live under relatively similar conditions as the first homo sapiens. I don’t mean they are constantly raping and murdering (even though that still happens all the time), but more so that they aren’t equipped with the things so many of us take for granted. Namely, they are just worried about surviving the day. Where their next meal is coming from. Where they are going to sleep tonight. Whether they are going to see any of the people they love tomorrow.
The burdens of worrying about (relatively) petty issues, like some meaningless thing someone said about you, whether your significant other is cheating on you, or writing pointless blogs, are lost on these people. They are people, but first, like all the rest of us, they are animals. Their instincts tell them they have to survive. Everything else is completely, and necessarily, secondary.
I could have been born anywhere, anytime. I could have belonged to a tribe who thought the reason for all the terrible shit that happens throughout life was because my god was unhappy with me. I could have been an atheist at the time when the Catholic Church was strong, and I could have been burned at the stake. I could have been a black man who grew up on a plantation in the South during slavery. I could have been a Jew living in Germany at the height of Hitler’s power, and I could have died in a concentration camp. I could have been a Russian living at the height of Stalin’s power, and I could have died during the purges. I could have been brought into the world in 1990, just as I was, but had the misfortune of being born in the wrong place.
Despite the improbable odds that I was born at all, any of the above scenarios are just as likely as the way it turned out. It isn’t like I had any control over it. It just happens that I was born in a country that won most of the wars, in a state that pretty much lets people be, to a set of parents who love me — where I don’t have to sweat my next meal or where I’m sleeping tonight. I know I bitch sometimes about politics and the way things are, but the fact that I am able to be troubled by such bullshit is a testament to just how lucky I am. Because there are plenty of situations around the world where survival is the only thing that’s demanded, and where voicing any opposition to my government would put me at conflict that with that proposition.
The world is supposed to be better in the future. I’m happy to have been born 28 years ago, and getting to know more than literally any generation in the history of the planet, but in theory the best time to be born would be like 10,000 or 100,000 years from now — as far as your mind wants to take it. Maybe it’s a million years from now. Maybe it’s a billion years from now. Whatever.
I don’t mean the weather it going to be nicer, or that people are going to be better looking. I mean we are going to know so, so much more. The line graph of human knowledge — which for about 250,000 years looked like a straight, horizontal line, then shot through the roof like Amazon stock from about the year 1700 to where we are today — is one day going to make all our great advances in scientific theory and discovery look like the work of toddlers.
If we’re talking millions of years from now, we would certainly have colonized other planets. We would have the ability to pinpoint where and when exactly the Big Bang occurred. Trifling beefs about religion would be virtually nonexistent because civilization would be further removed from Bronze Age myths, as well as the fact that the amount of information people would be armed with would push Believers to the absolute fringes. Hot button issues like racism wouldn’t exist thanks to hundreds of thousands of years worth of people reproducing. The problems of the present — which seem so advanced when compared to even 50 or 100 years ago — will go the way of the dodo bird and be replaced by a higher level of thought and reason.
But who knows, really. I can say that I’m happy to have been born at the turn of the 21st century because I know the world is intact today. There is no such promise for tomorrow, let alone a hundred or a thousand years from now. A child born 2,000 years from now might have to live underground, or in a cave, for his entire life. A child born 10,000 years from now might spend his days in a rocket, and have no concept of earth or the generations of people who carried the torch long enough to sustain life in outer space. A child born a million years from now might live on a planet we have yet to discover, without any concept that humans started anywhere but there.
The beauty of being in 2019 is realizing what is possible looking so far ahead. The limits of the future seem boundless, whereas a couple hundred years ago people couldn’t have imagined even simple things, like gas-powered cars or cell phones. Just as those people couldn’t have imagined what life would look like in 2019, I, too, am a slave to the technology of the present, and of the vast but limited knowledge and information of today. Part of it feels like a tease, knowing I came around just slightly too soon to see the human race spread its wings to other planets. Then the other part feels like it’s a small miracle that we made it this far.
If the odds really are 400 trillion to one that I’m here, it means I’m not supposed to be here. Since I am, I think it’s my duty to appreciate where (and when) I happen to exist, and to do my small part in continuing to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before. Then one day, probably not for a while but it’s anyone’s guess, I’ll get in the business of bringing another long shot or two into the world.