Your “existential” birth lottery ticket revisited

What if I were never born? This is one of the “big questions” in life that can lead to unresolvable human angst. Some recent articles in the New York Times on the subjects of abortion rights and in vitro fertilization (IVF), resulted in a published selection of letters to the editor in which this theme bubbles up a repeatedly, including one person who was put up for adoption rather than aborted, and one who was the result of an IVF “choice.” On a less serious note, the same newspaper was widely mocked for initially presenting former Trump aide Hope Hick’s recent dilemma regarding a Congressional subpoena to testify as an “existential question.” [1] Let me suggest that Ms. Hicks’ question is not quite so existential as is the “never born” question.

While I respect the seriousness in which people ask themselves this question, I’d like to perhaps extend this feeling of “existential angst” to the rest of us. Here is the math: If your biological father was even one second earlier or later in “delivering the package” on that fateful day, you would have likely been a very different person, including a good chance of being of a different sex from what you are now, and with over a fifty-fifty chance of not being born at all.

I wrote last year about why you are the product of a biological “birth lottery,” and some of that bears revisiting with this “What if I were never born?” question. For starters, the number of sperm in the teaspoon-sized package that resulted in you likely contained between 200 and 300 million “chances to win,” which is approximately the same odds, interestingly enough, as picking the winning ticket in the nationwide Mega Millions® lottery. [2]

Each of those little swimmers contained a unique “haploid genome” consisting of a random selection of half of your 46 chromosomes (you carry 23 chromosome pairs in the “diploid genome” in most of your cells). The chances of “the winner of the race” being a “Y” chromosome carrier, and thus generating a male “zygote,” are roughly 50-50, with the other half carrying an “X” chromosome, which would result in a female zygote.[3] Thus, your question of “Which 23?” came from your father and which came from your mother, including the one that determined your sex, could have easily changed, along with the shape of your nose, with a slight “shift of the mix” physically or temporally.

Like the weeks when no lottery winner is drawn from the pool, not every “birth lottery” (thankfully) produces a “winner.” Indeed, the fact that you and I and the rest of us were even born at all given these odds evidences Poisson’s Law of Large Numbers, which, in short, suggests that there are a lot of “tickets sold” daily around the world to make up for the long odds.

And all this is before your fertilized zygote makes its way toward implantation in your mother’s uterus and subsequent fetal development. In up to two-thirds of cases, “God/nature” intervenes and either implantation does not happen, or the zygote is naturally aborted after implantation. If you are here to read this, you made it through that gantlet as well. But for those couples who struggle to successfully conceive or bring a fetus to term, these odds represent a very cruel lottery indeed, not to mention a very difficult theological question if you are a “conception equals soul” believer.

My point here is not to make light of the “Why was I born?” question. This question is central to many of the world’s religious faith traditions. However, there is faith, and then there is math. In some ways, we speak up to three different languages in alternating thoughts on these types of questions. Whether we speak the language of “God’s grace,” or of the Greek “Fates,” or the language of mathematical probability, our individual existence on this planet is quite the marvel.

Philosophical existentialism has as one of its tenets that the language of rationality usually takes a hind seat for most people to feelings on these types of questions, and so my math here may strike you as very irrelevant. Let me throw up, then, as an alternative the late moral philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002). Rawls suggested that if we could somehow don an imaginary “veil of ignorance” that prevented us from knowing how we were going to come out in that “birth lottery,” whether born rich or poor, or not knowing the color of our skin or our place of birth or our physical attributes, we would then better envision the “rules of the world” that we would choose to live under. That remains a powerful concept when thinking and “feeling” about the future of “all the children of the world.”

My favorite film on the subject of “Why am I here?” is 1991’s Defending Your Life, starring Meryl Street and Albert Brooks. I don’t endorse the theology here (which is an interesting, romantic and very funny take on reincarnation), but it is a great discussion-starter.


  1. While the “existential” quote remains online in a Times tweet, the word has been replaced with “a crucial question” in the online version of the story.
  2. Here is one estimate of typical sperm count, at 280 million. Your mileage may vary. A recent configuration of the Mega Millions® lottery contained 302,575,350 different number combinations in any one drawing.
  3. Human sex selection is more complicated than that (and it’s not exactly a “race”) with a lot of chemical and other factors coming into play, but the near-50% chance of fraternal twins being of different sexes demonstrates a pretty “fair fight” statistically. Some studies do show slightly more males being born than females, and so there may be a slight edge to males at conception, but there are complicated reasons for that. If you are wagering on the outcome, it’s still a pretty even bet.

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