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May 28, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Science: What’s It Up To?

The Gambler

I know that people always talk about bad luck, and the odds being against your favour, but aside from us winning the global lottery in terms of which country we live in, have you ever considered what the odds of you being here are?

What were the odds of your dad meeting your mum? The world was smaller back then, but he might have had the potential to meet 20,000 women over 25 years. What then was the probability that they stayed together long enough to have kids? Say a 1 in 10 chance that they like each other, 1 in 10 chance of a second date, 1 in 10 chance they stay together for a while, and a 50/50 chance they stay together long enough to procreate? That brings the odds up to 1 in 40,000,000! (I realise that these numbers so far are pretty arbitrary and may not represent how your parents roll, but stick with me.)

Here is where it gets interesting. Eggs and sperm come in pretty large numbers. Mum has 100,000 eggs in her lifetime, and Dad makes about 4 trillion sperm during the years you could have been born. What are the odds that 1 egg met the 1 sperm that made you (and not your sister or your brother, or any of the others that weren’t made)?

Wait for it… 1 in 400,000,000,000,000,000, or 1 in 400 quadrillion.

But we’re just getting warmed up. Your existence here, now on this planet, presupposes another supremely unlikely chain of events. Namely that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age, going all the way back not just to the first homo sapiens, first homo erectus and homo habilis, but all the way back to the first single celled organism. You are a representative of an unbroken linage of life going back approximately 4 billion years.

Let’s say 1 in 2 odds that a child will be born, grown and reproduce per generation, for 150,000 generations. The odds of that are 1 in 1045’000—that’s a 10 with 45,000 zeros after it.

But wait! The right sperm had to meet the right egg for every single one of those ancestors. Odds of the right sperm meeting the right egg 150,000 times? 1 in 102’640’000. Add it all up: 102’640’000 x 1045’000 x 20,000 x 2000 = 1 in 102’685’000.

So the odds that you exist at all are basically zero, luck was seriously on your side. So the next time you make another failed bet on the Highlanders, remember that you’ve won the lottery of life.

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