In an earlier post I described why you are probably not a big lottery winner, but there is one case in which you already are one.
The mathematical odds in favor of YOU being here to read this were incredibly low. Yet Poisson’s Law of Large Numbers presented in that earlier post, paired with an understanding of birth rates and reproductive biology, predicts the aggregate number of annual human live births among any demographic incredibly well. So, the probability of someone being here to read this right now is actually quite high, and you are that someone. It is a fascinating paradox, but mathematically true.
This “low probability of you” is often portrayed as a theological proof, but that approach usually leaves out the Law of Large Numbers. So we will approach this with some (hopefully simple) math. It starts out, rather uncomfortably for many to talk about, with one of my favorite words: fecundity.
Fecundity is one of the core principles of biological reproduction. You might think of this word as the biological term for the Biblical command to “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Once a basic “recombinant” DNA string emerged from the primordial soup on this planet about 3.5 billion years ago (insert your own “first cause” here), the replication of life quickly grew by the billions, and we humans popped out of that process somewhere along the way (again, insert your preferred “popping out” method here). 
That fecundity led eventually to about 7.6 billion people alive in the world right now, with all that history encoded in our DNA, and there will be approaching another 400,000 human births on the day you read this.  Back up about nine months and on that day there were many times that amount of “attempted fecundity activities,” some resulting in those 400,000 successes down the road. And at some point in the past, one of those successful attempts involved your biological parents.
That single encounter launched some 280 million of your father’s sperm , with only one required to manage a successful merger with just one of about one million potential eggs from your mother, but with perhaps less than 500 of those eggs ever making it to ovulation.  From there, up to 50% of the fertilized eggs fail to implant, even in the absence of human intervention.  And then you had to make it through nine months of fetal development, and finally to this day and time, with all the probabilities of fate working against you.
So even with that probability “filtering system,” the hundreds of millions of “lottery numbers” spawned in the beginning of the process pretty-well ensured that someone would be reading from the screen in front of you right now. And that someone is you. The math of fecundity has been working successfully for all those 3.5 billion years on this planet.
I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse about yourself. If you have theological issues with this post, I like to recommend the words of a now-deceased friend of mine, who liked to say (in a comment likely not original to him) that, “If God is real, then the more you learn about reality, the more you learn about God.” I would put Poisson’s Law of Large Numbers and DNA chemistry in the category of reality, myself.
And by the way, this is why it is pretty easy to dismiss Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster as myth. For all life on this planet, there is at least one parent, and always two in higher forms of life. So, in order for there to be a Bigfoot, there must also have been a mama and a papa Bigfoot, and their mamas and papas, and, for sustainability, multiple baby Bigfeet and lots more less-related Bigfeet practicing biological fecundity. That’s the way the math works, and it brought you to this blog. What are the odds? (Actually, quite good.)
I first saw the Biff Rose perform the Joseph Newman poem “Paradise Lost” live over 40 years ago at the Raven Gallery just outside of Detroit. This interesting mix of his performances summarizes this discussion pretty well.
- Genesis 9:7 (NRSV).
- I usually recommend three easy-to-grasp books for people still struggling to reconcile different accounts of the origin of human existence with their faith tradition:
- Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientists Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (1999). Miller is a best-selling biology science textbook writer and professing Christian. This is a good read for religious people who fear the word “evolution.”
- Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2009). Finding the “missing link” fossils, and what they tell us about human evolution.
- Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (2004). How we know what we know about DNA and the evolution of humankind.
- Lindemann, Charles. “Dr. Charles Lindemann’s Lab: Sperm Facts,” Oakland University.
- “Your Guide to the Female Reproductive System.” WebMD.
- Guin, Karen. “The Facts of Life,” U. C. Davis Magazine. Note that this inconvenient statistic is usually ignored in most theological and political discussions of the topic.
For additional posts on probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.
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Interesting perspective. I love (I know that is crazy) statistics. Not only do the “numbers” prove out that the probability is that we could be here…. we are here!
The same numbers can be applied to life outside our solar system… maybe not as pretty as our wives…. but still likely out there! [Insert your own view of how that mixes with your own religious perspectives.]
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