A SERIES OF FORTUNATE EVENTS
by Sean B. Carroll (Princeton University Press £18.99, 224 pp)
Sixty-six million years ago, the world nearly came to an end. An asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico with devastating global effects. The dinosaurs were effectively wiped out.
Mammals, better equipped to survive, were able to take their place.
The Earth spins at about 1,000 miles an hour. If the asteroid had arrived 30 minutes earlier, it would have landed in the Atlantic Ocean; 30 minutes later and it would have splashed into the Pacific.
In neither case would the destruction have been as great as it was. Dinosaurs would have lived on; human beings would not have evolved. Half an hour made all the difference.
The Yucatan asteroid is an epic example of the sheer randomness which, as Sean B. Carroll argues in this short but thought-provoking book, rules both the universe and our own lives.
Sean B. Carroll says that everything in life and the universe is controlled by an element of randomness (stock image)
In the first century AD, Seneca wrote: ‘We live as it were by chance, and by chance we are governed.’ Seneca was a man who knew something about fortune’s ups and downs.
A Roman philosopher who was Nero’s tutor, he fell out of favour. The emperor eventually forced him to commit suicide.
In the past couple of hundred years, science has been able to prove his insight correct.
Until the 19th century, most people assumed that nothing in life was left to luck. Everything had been perfectly designed by God. It was Darwin and his theory of evolution that first replaced Providence with chance.
The naturalist gathered much of the evidence for his theory during his round-the-world journey on HMS Beagle in the 1830s.
As Carroll points out, even Darwin’s presence on board the ship was fortuitous.
He claims that the dinosaurs would not have been wiped out if the Yucatan asteroid had hit Earth 30 minutes later (stock image)
The Beagle’s first captain had committed suicide. Its second, Robert Fitzroy, aware of his own tendency to melancholy, wanted a well-educated gentleman to keep him company on the voyage and save him from his predecessor’s fate.
His first two choices turned him down. Third choice Darwin, ‘full of zeal and enterprise’, accepted. In doing so, he was making his first steps towards understanding how species evolved.
In the Galapagos, he noticed differences between creatures on each of the islands. Mockingbirds had varying markings; tortoises had different-shaped shells.
Had God created a distinct species for each island? Or were they all variations of one type? If so, how had this occurred?
On his return, Darwin began to ponder the puzzle. There are always chance variations in individuals of a given species. What if, Darwin thought, certain chance variations proved favourable to the individual? These would be preserved and unfavourable ones would die out. Slowly, species would change.
Continuing on the theme of luck, Carroll points out that parents could have had 70 trillion possible unique children from one conception (stock image)
The biological sciences have made giant strides since Darwin’s time. Carroll highlights one of the more extraordinary examples when he tells the story of the Soviet scientist Ilia Ivanov and his attempts in the 1920s to create a hybrid between a human and a chimpanzee — a ‘humanzee’.
An expert in artificial insemination, Ivanov hoped to impregnate female chimps with human sperm. When that failed, he called for human volunteers to receive chimpanzee sperm.
Astonishingly, some women did volunteer but Ivanov, like Seneca before him, got on the wrong side of a dictator. Stalin exiled him to Kazakhstan where he died in 1932. We now know his experiments could (thankfully) never have worked.
However, modern genetics does reveal how each one of us is a unique but accidental arrival in the world. The odds against you being you are astronomically high.
A SERIES OF FORTUNATE EVENTS by Sean B. Carroll (Princeton University Press £18.99, 224 pp)
Out of 100 million or so contending sperm, only one will successfully fertilise the egg. And no two fertilised human eggs will ever be the same.
Carroll shows that the number of genetically unique children your parents could theoretically produce is 70 trillion. That’s a seven followed by 13 zeros. As the novelist Kurt Vonnegut once remarked: ‘All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.’
The view of life that A Series Of Fortunate Events unveils is not always comforting. What do we make of the knowledge that we are all here, both collectively and individually, because of a sequence of accidents?
And yet there is something awe-inspiring about the realisation that all the beauty and complexity of the world has been created by the operations of chance.
In addition, Carroll’s book is unexpectedly funny. More likely to quote Monty Python than Richard Dawkins, he proves an excellent guide through this accidental universe.