Joel Klebanoff: Stuff & Nonsense

To worry is to be. To be is to worry.

The Improbability of You

Here’s a notion that lodged in my brain recently: You are astronomically unlikely. To be clear, I don’t mean specifically you. I mean each of us, with us being everyone alive now, everyone who has ever lived, and everyone who will ever be born. In short, I’m referring to everyone ever.

What nonsense am I spouting now? Here’s what:

You are the result of a single sperm from your father (your biological father, of course, which may or may not be the man you think is your biological father; only your mother knows for sure, and maybe not even her if she was particularly promiscuous) fertilizing a single egg from your biological mother.

(Note for the benefit of sticklers: In the discussion above and below I’m ignoring the rare cases of polyspermy, i.e., fertilization by multiple sperm. I’m also ignoring births that resulted from in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. People conceived under any of these conditions are as worthy as anyone else and I don’t mean to slight them in any way. There. Political correctness message complete.)

Your Dad

You got half your genes from your biological father, but each of his sperm contained a different half of his genes. So, which genes you got and, therefore, which genes made you what you biologically are depended on which of his little sperms won the swimming race and impregnated your mother.

According to an article on OpenLearn, a typical human male ejaculates an average of 80 to 300 million sperm per ejaculation.

Let’s take the low end of that scale, 80-million sperm per ejaculation. That means that during the ejaculation that resulted in your conception, there was only a one-in-80-million chance that the sperm that did result in you would have been the one to result in you. If another of those 80-million or so spermatozoa had done the job, you would have received a different mix of genes from your father and you would have been a different person than you are.

And consider this. Even when a man’s erect penis is inside a fecund woman, unsheathed and successfully pumped (pardon the rated-R imagery), not every ejaculation fertilizes an egg, not even when that egg is in position to be fertilized. If you had been conceived by another sexual encounter than the one you were conceived from then, even if it involved sex between your biological parents, as opposed to your mother and another man, you would still have turned out to be a different person than you are.

Thus, the probability of you having resulted from the successful swimming of any one spermatozoon is considerably lower than calculated above. However, a more accurate calculation requires answers to questions about how frequently your parents had sex while your mother was fertile and, ahem, whether other men might have had a go at it, so I’ll ignore that complication.

Your Mom

Then there is your biological mother’s side of the equation.

According to a page on the Go Ask Alice! microsite of the University of Columbia Web site, a baby girl has “about one to two million immature eggs, or follicles, in her ovaries” when she is born. Most of those follicles—all but about 400,000—die before the woman reaches puberty. During each menstrual cycle about 1,000 follicles are usually lost and one matures into an ovum.

In total, only about 400 of those original one- to two-million follicles manage to mature into ova. Any of those original follicles could have been among the charmed ones that matured and then became you, but only one did.

Each follicle had half of your mother’s genes, but each had a different half. So, if it had been a different follicle that matured into a different ovum that was fertilized by one of your father’s sperm and became you, again, you would have been a different you.

For no good reason other than the fact that it makes the arithmetic somewhat easier (otherwise I’d almost certainly accidentally add or drop a few zeros), let’s consider only that smaller number, 400 mature eggs, rather than one- or two-million follicles that could have become mature eggs. You could have been created from any one of those 400 eggs, so there was a one-in-400 chance that the egg that was fertilized and became you would have been the one to do that.

But, as stated above, probably at least 80-million sperm were swimming toward that egg just before it was fertilized. So, even ignoring the very much higher number of potential eggs (follicles that didn’t mature), taking the low end of the sperm-count estimate, and ignoring the fact that not every ejaculation successfully fertilizes an egg, the probability that you would have stemmed from the egg that you were indeed stem from and that egg would have been fertilized by the sperm that did indeed fertilize it was one in 400 x 800-million, which is one in 320-billion (using the American definition of billion, i.e., 1,000-million).

If I included the factors that I ignored, the calculation would have showed that you were even less likely—very much less likely—to be who you turned out to be.

So the you that you are was, to say the least, exceptionally unlikely from a biological perspective.

Nature and Nurture

What’s more, the above considers only the nature side of who you are. Nurture also played a role in you becoming the person you are today. If, for example, instead of the childhood that you had, you had been adopted (or not adopted if you were), you would likely have had very different experiences than the ones you did have.

Different experiences would have fired different neurons, creating and strengthening different synapses and, therefore, giving you a different mind than the one you have.

For example, if you had been raised in a different environment you might have spoken (a) different language(s), held different social and political values, had different hobbies and skills, and had more or less self-confidence than you now have.

Thus, the you that you are now was, to say even less than the least, super-extraordinarily unlikely when considering both biological and sociological possibilities.

Philosophical Meaning

As I pondered the above, it quickly became abundantly clear to me that the unlikeliness of each of us has deep philosophical meaning and portent. Unfortunately, I haven’t got the slightest idea what that meaning and portent might be. If you are a philosopher and you have some thoughts on the matter, please enlighten us in a comment here. Otherwise, I’m sorry for having wasted my readers’ time so utterly.

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Categorised as: philosophy


11 Comments

  1. The improbability of us reinforces life’s randomness and mystery. A fascinating topic.

    • I think it’s fascinating too, although for the life of me I can’t think of why.

      Life is random and mysterious. Yup. That sounds about right. Although some people are more random and mysterious than others.

  2. I’ve often thought we were largely impossible.

  3. A great topic. Like you I don’t know what the philosophical implications are. I’m just glad it was me.

    • Thanks.

      If you had been another you you may or may not have been glad.

      The mind boggles! Then again, if I had been another me my mind would not have boggled if it had been able to figure out the answer or if it didn’t know enough to be boggled.

      • But I couldn’t be another “you”. That’s the astonishment of it. I just wouldn’t be.

        • I find the whole concept that we are what we are because one of probably at least 80-million sperm available at the time fertilized one of 400 or so mature eggs that our mother had and that we would have otherwise been at least a slightly different person (and, therefore, not us at all) difficult to wrap my mind around. Then again, that’s irrelevant in our lives that are our lives.

  4. Once I saw my dad and ejaculate in the same sentence, I threw up alot. I’m going to try to finish reading after some booze. Brb…

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