If you want me to appreciate my ancestors, it’s going to take some time.

May 6, 2007 | By More

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.

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Category: Evolution, History, Meaning of Life, Religion, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

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 lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Ancestors along the highway | Dangerous Intersection | October 25, 2010
  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    An interesting flight of fancy. Didn't Paulos address this particular misinterpretation of probability in his book that you keep recommending?

    Given that survivors write the histories, it is not very unlikely that a particular survivor recounts his own unlikelihood of being. The low probability that you busily cite is the argument at the root of Intelligent Design as well as other "proofs" of God.

    Our human need to be special and to have heroes is also why a particular inventor is usually heralded as a shining beacon without whom the invention would never have existed. Let's not ignore the other five contestants who filed for essentially the same patent but moments or hours later, in most cases.

    Obvious inventions like the light bulb or the airplane had contenders snapping at the heels of the inventor of record. Less obvious ones like Newton's 3 laws had many people working on it, but it might have taken years to discover without Newton's carefully tuned and applied OCD.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan – I was trying to accomplish a couple of things. I wanted to illustrate that the common use of "ancestor" is artificially truncated.

    Second, I'm not claiming that "I" am anything particularly special, at least when I'm considered among the billions of other human animals that have ever lived.  Though I used myself as the example, this applies to every human who has ever been born.  Thus, the fact that amazing "coincidences" happened to get me her don't prove anything. If you imagine that the tree of life were just a tiny bit different (which, as I suggest, would be extremely easy to imagine), resulting in my non-existence, we'd still have billions of people running around. It thus doesn't "prove" anything that I happened to have won the lottery. That "lottery" exists only in my own mind. That I was born doesn't mean that any sort of Divinity was guiding the process. Nonetheless, it is almost breathtaking to consider.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Aw, quit yer carping. You were created by God, and endowed with certain qualities which make you both immoral, nihilist atheists but, loved anyway.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Tim: You evolved from bacteria too. In your case, they were tiny little beings who were frustrated that they didn't yet have hands to fold and knees upon which they could kneel.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    I once heard a corollary to this theme expressed this way: none of our ancestors died celibate.

    As regards Tim's comment, this article might help dispel his notion that we were created by God:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Earth

  6. Ben says:

    Too bad that about 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Good luck newlyweds!

    "3. PROJECTION/PREDICTION. This is the Census Bureau's often-cited "50%" rate, the proportion of marriages taking place right now that will eventually divorce, which has since been revised downward to roughly 43% by the National Center for Health Statistics but was moved back up to around 50% by the Census Bureau in 2002, with even more ifs ands and buts than usual. Most recently, according to the New York Times, it has been revised downward to just over 40%."

    http://www.divorcereform.org/rates.html

  7. Ben says:

    Actually Tim, the God of the Bible WANTS us to use our minds. Thats why he put us in the Garden of Eden. So, in effect we are just as Holy and moral as you, if not more so, because of our honesty. It's you who believe this ridiculous circular reasoning crap, NOT ME!

    Grumpy, great Wiki, thanks. I find that those who are most in need of seeing links like this are the same people who are reluctant/scared to click them. It is better to do a bit of cutting and pasting of the key parts, in addition to the link, so that mental laziness won't keep them from learning…

    "The surface cooled quickly, forming the solid crust within 150 million years; although new research suggests that the actual number is 100 million years based on the level of hafnium found in the geology at Jack hills in Western Australia. From 4 to 3.8 billion years ago, Earth underwent a period of heavy asteroidal bombardment. Steam escaped from the crust while more gases were released by volcanoes, completing the second atmosphere. Additional water was imported by bolide collisions, probably from asteroids ejected from the outer asteroid belt under the influence of Jupiter's gravity. The planet cooled. Clouds formed. Rain gave rise to the oceans within 750 million years (3.8 billion years ago, but probably earlier. Recent evidence suggests the oceans may have begun forming by 4.2 billion years ago) "

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Earth

    Don't stop reading…

    "Modern taxonomy classifies life into three domains. The time of the origin of these domains are speculative. The Bacteria domain probably first split off from the other forms of life (sometimes called Neomura), but this supposition is controversial. Soon after this, by 2 billion years ago, the Neomura split into the Archaea and the Eukarya. Eukaryotic cells (Eukarya) are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells (Bacteria and Archaea), and the origin of that complexity is only now coming to light."

    "Around 380 to 375 million years ago the first tetrapods evolved from the fish. It is thought that perhaps fins evolved to become limbs which allowed the first tetrapods to lift their heads out of the water to breathe air. This would let them survive in oxygen-poor water or pursue small prey in shallow water. They may have later ventured on land for brief periods. Eventually, some of them became so well adapted to terrestrial life that they spent their adult lives on land, although they hatched in the water and returned to lay their eggs. This was the origin of the amphibians."

    Might as well go ahead and just click the link…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Earth

    "Some twenty million years later (340 million years ago, the evolution of the amniotic egg allowed eggs to be laid on land, certainly a survival advantage for the tetrapod embryos. This resulted in the divergence of amniotes from amphibians. Another thirty million years (310 million years ago, saw the divergence of the synapsids (including mammals) from the sauropsids (including birds and non-avian, non-mammalian reptiles)."

    "A small African ape living around six million years ago (11:58 p.m. on our clock) was the last animal whose descendants would include both modern humans and their closest relatives, the bonobos, and chimpanzees. Only two branches of its family tree have surviving descendants. Very soon after the split, for reasons that are still debated, apes in one branch developed the ability to walk upright. Brain size increased rapidly, and by 2 million years ago (11:59:22 p.m., or 38 seconds before midnight) the very first animals classified in the genus Homo had appeared."

    Wikimagic 🙂

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Thanks, Ben, I'm glad you enjoyed the wiki article. I hope Tim reads it, especially after all the help you have given him!

    I actually stumbled upon that article while investigating the sixth great extinction that Vicki mentioned. For supposedly being God's creatures, we sure are managing to make a gigantic mess out of his planet.

    You mentioned the Garden of Eden…you and Tim might both enjoy an essay I wrote about it a while ago:
    http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=166/. If Christians are going to credit their god with the creation of the universe, then they should also make him responsible for screwing up so badly.

  9. Tim Hogan says:

    Grumpy, what makes my belief that the "Big Bang" is on the mark inconsistent with my belief in God?

    So what? In a universe of infinite possibilities, with an infinite number of other possible universes, can't you admit there is some possibility of a creator?

    I'll admit the possibility there is not one, but my faith is that there is one. Maybe I'm a cosmic joke, utterly fooled by my choice of belief. I'll admit that possibility. Some here are convinced of that as truth.

    But, I believe in God in the absence of proof. I have faith. Faith does not require a slavish devotion to some others' ideas of how the universe in its infiniteness came into being. I believe that when we look out into the universe and see the "dark" matter and energy, perhaps we look upon the act of creation and into the eyes of God.

  10. Ben says:

    Sorry if we are ganging up Tim. There was a great show on pbs about galaxies last night. It said that there is a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Stars get sucked into it, and then shoot out as rays of light. Pretty cool stuff…

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/3314_bla

    "NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Even though a black hole emits no light, is completely invisible, we know exactly what effect a black hole is going to have on its environment, on the stars in its vicinity, on the gas that wanders a little too close.

    So will we ever see a black hole? No. But that's not what's important here. What's important here is we can see its paw print.

    ANDREA GHEZ: Our view to the center of the galaxy is absolutely superb. And our ability to position stars at the center of the galaxy is like somebody in Los Angeles seeing somebody in New York be able to move their fingers, like this, okay? Just two centimeters. That's the precision with which we can measure something that is 26,000 light years away from us."

  11. Ben says:

    "Some here are convinced of that as truth."

    Tim, your truth is not any more truthful than mine. I believe that God does not exist, just like I believe that I am typing on a keyboard. I admit that could be wrong in both cases, God may exist, and I may not be typing this. Why are your beliefs about what you had for breakfast any different than you belief that God exists?

  12. Tim Hogan says:

    Ben, my breakfast, and many other occurrences are objectively verifiable phenomena. If you dispute this, I can barf my breakfast into a bowl and you may eat it! We can have others watch! Film at 11! YouTube! I'll pay you a buck!

    Faith is by definition not objectively verifiable. I can't barf faith into a bowl and watch you eat it. Others can't watch or record faith, or post it on the internet. I don't claim any "truth" of "mine" to be anything "more" than any others' truths. I simply state my faith; it is for you to choose for yourself. Go with God! (or Not!).

    P.S. As for "circular reasoning" and "crap", I'll leave that to you!

  13. Ben says:

    Tim, I hope God was not reading that… judgement…remember…

    I would take you up on the barf bowl, if it helped you snap out of it. Plus I would get famous on youtube. Man eats barf to prove faith in lord jesus! Anyway, if God actually exists, it is holy barf, so more power to me. Trust me, I have worked in restaurants… barf is what you WANT to be eating when you go the restaurant.

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    What if your mother stood right behind you, and your mother's mother stood right behind her? Then your great grandma and then your great great grandma. Just line them all up, one foot apart, in a long line. If a generation is deemed to be 25 years, a line as long as a football field (300 feet) would stretch backwards 7,500 years, to a time when agriculture just began in ancient Egypt. You'd still recognize each of your ancestors in that line to be fully modern biologically humans.

    Wouldn't it be amazing to think that you could run along side that entire 300 foot line of ancestors in only 15 seconds (I'm assuming your not an Olympic caliber sprinter) to reach one of your ancestors who was alive 7,500 years ago?

    But think even further back. Dawkins has calculated that 20,000,000 great-grandparents ago, our relatives were small shrew-like animals living at the end of the Cretaceous period. What if you spaced out your relatives one foot apart to extend all the way back to these shrew-like creatures. That line would be 3,787 miles long. That's about the distance from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri to Anchorage Alaska. Imagine speeding alongside that line of your relatives at 60 mph, seeing generations of your relatives wiz by, more than 5,000 of them every minute.

    Biologically modern humans likely started occurring 100,000 years ago. Driving along that line of your relatives, you'd run out of biologically modern humans in 4,000 generations. That's less than one minute driving along your line of relatives at highway speed.

    If you wanted to drive all the way to your shrew-like relatives (at 60 mph), you'd drive alongside that entire 3,787 mile long line of relatives in only 63 hours. Only 63 hours to get back to a relative who was literally a shrew!

    You can't possibly write a work of fiction that is more amazing than these facts.

    We are all survivors. If any one of those ancestors failed to reproduce, you wouldn't be there. Just think of how likely it was that you would never exist.

  15. Ben says:

    First and foremost, it would probably only take me 13 seconds to run the football field. That is, if I was not so intrigued by the figures I pass, to stop and have a quick chat. I'm a bit (lot) confused though. My mind can't seem to get past the first few generations, without straining, then I end up at the end with a rodent. Are the folks (mice) way back at the beginning still my *direct* decendants? Or is there some extinctions or branching out or… okay it is just too hard to comprehend, for me.

    Another interesting thing, not that it really matters, but EVERYONE reading this is part "black".

    http://www.dnaancestryproject.com/

    DNA studies have shown that people shared a common ancestor who lived in Africa between 50,000 to 200,000 years ago. As our ancestors migrated out of Africa into the rest of the world, small changes called mutations occurred in their DNA. As generations passed, each mutation links our ancestor to a specific time and place in history. The mutations that we find in our own DNA tell the story of our own ancestral past.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: Someday I'm writing a post called "I am African," and it doesn't matter who you are–it's true for you. In fact, on the Census form and other forms that ask the ridiculous "race" question, I check all relevant boxes, including African, because that's where at least some of our ancestors were from. It's a thought that liberates, because it helps us realize that we're not so different from different looking others after all.

    As to your first part, after you run past the football field length line, just to get an idea, you may, indeed, come back and chat with some of these folks.

    Since this is a thought experiment–what if all of your relatives were standing in that line as fertile adults. I'd bet you'd think some of the women were fetching. The incest taboo wouldn't kick in, because you weren't raised in the same house with most of them. This might cause you a conundrum. If you can marry a second cousin, can you marry your great great great (X20) grandmother? The shared genetic material you share with that woman would be far less than that of your second cousin. Such a potential, hypothetical conundrum!

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben – This idea intrigues me enough that I'm going to start another post based on this same idea. In fact, I'm cutting off comments here, and I'm redirecting anyone interested to the new post:   http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1429