I’m not a numbers guy. I never had any interest in statistics, and I tremble when I see my accountant’s number pop up on my phone at tax time. But exponential sequences have an inherent fascination. Think about your ancestry (I recently wrote about genealogy and that got me pondering). You have two parents. And they each had two parents. By the time you get back to ten generations (eight greats before grandparents) you have 1,024 ancestors of roughly the same generation. That’s a lot of people just to make one individual. Think of all the circumstances that might’ve led to any two of them having been kept apart—then where would you be? Of course the numbers double each generation which is where my reasoning capacity shuts down.
At some point, doesn’t it seem, that there wouldn’t be enough people available to make you? I know that’s not true—you’re reading this and that proves this false—but it does make each individual life a thing of wonder. Or even at the level of your own parents. If you have siblings you know how different even biologically similar people can be. And there are many others who could’ve been conceived instead of you or me. The chances are astronomical that we’re here at all. I often wonder if such circumstances are why our minds seek religious answers. People are meaning-seeking creatures. And against such long odds, it seems that maybe we’re a miracle after all. Naturally, a driving force behind it all suggests itself.
Science has been a real boon for the billions of us alive today. There’s no doubt that dispassionate, rational thought can lead to amazing outcomes. At the same time, the doubt creeps in that this is the only explanation. It occurs to me when watching the birds in the spring. How do they know their own species and with whom to mate? Is all of this driven by that notorious fudge factor we call “instinct”? I have no answer to what the source of that will to keep life going is. Biology tends to be among the slipperiest of sciences. Life is difficult to define when we don’t even know everything that’s out there in our infinite but expanding universe. The numbers are just too massive. All I know is that by the time you get back to twenty generations (eighteen greats) it took over a million people to make just one of us. And that’s by the numbers.