My wife and I attended the wedding of a good friend today. A thoughtful and sometimes light-hearted rabbi presided over the ceremony.
This ceremony was quite a change of pace from most of the religious weddings I’ve attended. There was no somber talk about the heavy guilt we bear for being human or how small and pathetically helpless we are, or how we are at the mercy of a God who could crush us for no reason if He wanted. Instead, the ceremony focused on the interrelationships of the people attending the ceremony. We were all there to celebrate and support the new marriage as a newly bonded community. I was really getting into the ceremony, which is unusual for me (I generally prefer empty churches).
Toward the end of the ceremony, the rabbi invited each of us to take a moment to appreciate the sacrifices of our ancestors, to consider all those things our ancestors had done to enable each of us to be standing there today. Like most people, I started considering the sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents, but that got me thinking about the overwhelming odds that I shouldn’t actually exist at all.
I shouldn’t exist? Why would I think that? Because if my mother had not met my father at the right point in time, and if they had not been amorous at the right time of the right day, the sperm and the egg that became “me” would never have met each other in my mother’s fallopian tube. Just the tiniest perturbation of circumstances and some other sperm would have won the race. If that happened, I would be named Mary or Joe or Carol. Had I been somebody else, I might well have taken an incredibly different convoluted path through life and I might’ve ended up selling insurance policies or working as an engineer or staying at home to raise six children. Or I might have been wiped out in a traffic accident at the age of three.
There are a lot of other possibilities too. For instance, maybe my parents wouldn’t have had sex at all on the month I was conceived. Or maybe my father would have failed to say some clever thing on their first date and my mother wouldn’t have found him interesting enough to date, much less marry. If you consider just the task of getting the right gametes of my proper parents’ together, it is much more likely that I would not exist than that I should be sitting here writing this post.
Over the years, I have often considered the many permutations that preceded my birth, so I didn’t need to articulate this idea in my head, sentence by sentence, at my friend’s wedding ceremony. Further, this same basic idea was captured in a delightful way in the 1985 movie, “Back to the Future.”
Nonetheless, I found myself considering what had to happen in order for me to be standing there at that ceremony. The odds get even slimmer when one considers one’s grandparents. They had to meet each other at the right time and have sex at the right moment in order that my parents (their children) would exist. And there were so many things that could’ve gone wrong to keep my grandparents from meeting each other or having sex with each other. Maybe their parents would have moved to a different town than the one in which they actually settled. Maybe one of them wouldn’t have taken that walk to the park on that day when they met. There are millions of ways to go “wrong” and only one way to go “right” (by “right,” I’m admitting my vested interest in a particular outcome—my existence).
But we’re not done. After all, there are great grandparents and great great great great great grandparents to consider. During that short moment of silence at the wedding, I couldn’t find a reason to put on the mental brakes, so I kept the pedal to the floor. I considered that I had hundreds of ancestors running around during the Middle Ages. If any one of them failed to have sex with the right person at the right time, I wouldn’t be here. What is the likelihood of hundreds of people each having sex at the right moment during the right month such that thousands of particular sperm (out of billions) found the thousands of “right” eggs?
But there’s no reason to stop in the Middle Ages. As we go back further and further in time, it only gets less and less probable that I would be sitting here writing this post. Consider my ancestors in Africa, those people who were among the first modern human beings (we are thus all Africans). Thank goodness none of my relatives got eaten by a lion or fell over a steep cliff before sending their genes up the line! What are the odds that this whole complex and convoluted series of occurrences would play out in such a way that I would be sitting here today? The odds are so incredibly stacked against my existence that it unnerves me. The truth is that my own existence was anything but inevitable. I really shouldn’t be here. There would be only one sane bet to place 100,000 years ago: that Erich Vieth would never exist.
Then again, the rabbi asked us to consider the sacrifices of my “ancestors,” and I wasn’t finished. I needed to pay my respects to my ancestors who walked the earth as members of the species Australopithecus afarensis. That might have included Great Great Great . . . Grandmother Lucy (I don’t know whether the Mormons have tracked down her marriage certificate or birth certificate yet).
But I’m still not done. My ancestors also included shrew-like little mammals that crawled around among the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. In The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins (2004), we learn that those little mammals would have qualified as something like our “20 million greats-grandparents.” If only these early mammal relatives of mine could have endowed a small fund (even a dollar or two) to my benefit back then! But then again, they were probably too busy trying not to get eaten and trying not to get stepped on by dinosaurs.
It would seem to most people that I have now considered the great majority of my relatives, but I’m actually only getting started. To consider all of my ancestors, I would need to go at least far enough back to consider one of the earliest animals, the sponges (yes, sponges are “animals” and yes, they are in our lineage). I’ve long felt an affinity to sponges, as I’ve previously discussed. Have you ever considered going back in time to locate one of the sponges in your line of ancestry? How would you show affection to your Great Great Great Great… Grandsponge? Would you sit in “his” spongy lap and dream of all that is yet to play out?
I can’t stop with sponges, though. I shouldn’t discriminate against my ancestors who were so primitive that they don’t even constitute animals, so I will simply acknowledge all of the bacteria as a single group. In The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins writes that “perhaps two billion years ago, an ancient single-celled organism, some kind of proto-protozoan, entered into a strange relationship with a bacterium.” For further reference, I would highly recommend a slow-paced and reverent review Dawkins’ hefty but brilliant work.
Just imagine my personal family reunion! It would be a gathering of all of my ancestors in one place. Probably a few hundred of us could easily understand each other, but the other millions of us wouldn’t speak a common language. I would be inclined to take special pains to visit my missing-link ancestors—those folks who had some immediate ancestors whose other descendants took that other road, the road to becoming chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans. We would be careful not to be judgmental if anyone in the crowd referred to one of my ancestors as a “shrew,” because many of the guests would be shrew-like. We would need vast tanks at the reunion to provide a hospitable environment for my bacterial ancestors, though some of those relatives would doubtless confuse things by cloning themselves.
My mental journey caused me to miss a bit of the wedding ceremony, but I was jolted back to the present by the sudden applause for the new husband and wife. That round of applause was richly deserved because both of the newlyweds, and each of you who reads this, is a survivor of an incredible and perilous journey over great stretches of time. For each of us, our journey was so unlikely that our existence borders on miraculous (by this, I mean highly improbable!). Certainly, this true story of who you are is more incredible than any possible work of fiction.
So, go look in a mirror and give all of your relatives a round of applause for delivering you safely to the place you belong, Planet Earth, 2007.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Ancestors along the highway | Dangerous Intersection | October 25, 2010