To Live at All Is Miracle Enough

by Richard Dawkins
excerpt from Chapter I, "The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,"
of his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow


To live at all is miracle enough.
     -- Mervyn Peake,
          The Glassblower (1950)
 

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.  

Morris tells how his ancestor's enforced change of career had various knock-on effects culminating in his own interest in natural history. But he really needn't have bothered. There's no 'might' about it. Of course he owes his very existence to Napoleon. So do I and so do you. Napoleon didn't have to shoot off James Morris's arm in order to seal young Desmond's fate, and yours and mine, too. Not just Napoleon but the humblest medieval peasant had only to sneeze in order to affect something which changed something else which, after a long chain reaction, led to the consequence that one of your would-be ancestors failed to be your ancestor and became somebody else's instead. I'm not talking about 'chaos theory', or the equally trendy 'complexity theory', but just about the ordinary statistics of causation. The thread of historical events by which our existence hangs is wincingly tenuous.

  When compared with the stretch of time unknown to us, O king, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight. Man's life is similar; and of what follows it, or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.
     -- The Venerable Bede,
          A History of the English Church and People (731)
 

This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'. Interestingly, some physicists don't like the idea of a 'moving present', regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don't misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random would have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation would put it at less than one in a million.

Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship's ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

But imagine that the ship's robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.

As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn't that what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn't arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn't burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we slowly apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discover it, should not subtract from its wonder.

Of course I am playing tricks with the idea of luck, putting the cart before the horse. It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose temperature, rainfall and everything else are exactly right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, it is that other kind of life that would have evolved here. But we as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.

Here, it seems to me, lies the best answer to those petty-minded scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science. In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. 'Sir,' Faraday replied. 'Of what use is a new-born child?' The obvious thing for Faraday (or Benjamin Franklin, or whoever it was) to have meant was that a baby might be no use for anything at present, but it has great potential for the future. I now like to think that he meant something else, too: What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how 'useful' it is -- useful for staying alive, that is -- we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers' money e species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who th ink that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they 'pay their way'. And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is.

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an s sssssenlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

Last updated by Morgan Matthew Jul 30, 2008.

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