musings on life part 1

Today's topic: Fate

I have always been a thoughtful and deep-thinking bugger, even though quite a lot of times my actions doesn't seem to indicate so, haha.. In recent times I have been thinking a lot about the question of fate and our existence here on Earth. And once I start thinking about such an interesting thing, it is very difficult for me to stop because my mind is just too worked up and is running on sixth gear. So, I have decided to blog it down here, not to show how 'cheem' I am, but rather to empty out all my thoughts so that I can attempt to forget them and calm myself down and not be bothered by it, safe in the knowledge that what I have been thinking would be stored here on my blog. It's a bit like Dumbledore's pensieve, for you Harry Potter nerds out there, heh..

In my imagination, I have always wondered and sometimes despaired at how little say we have in our fate. We cannot choose where we are born, when we are born, our parents, family, social conditions, genes, and so many other things. And a lot of times I feel great pity for those who end up drawing the lousy cards, such as been born in poverty, or been born disabled, or been born in a time where their race suffers from persecution or slavery. At other times, I would marvel and sometimes imagine myself being born in different societies and wonder how life would be like. What would it be like, to be born a king in ancient times and be worshipped as a demi-god? What would it be like to be born as a woman? What would it be like to be born a slave and be wretched all your life? What would it be like to be born etc etc etc? The mind boggles at such possibilities!

But just today, I realized that it would have been quite impossible for me to be born at another time, space and place, even though I have always fantasized about it. Why? It's simple. Because of genes. The genes that I possess and what defines me as me, could only have come from my parents. In order for me to have been born at another time, space and place, either my parents would have to be there, or that there is another couple whose gene combinations would allow them to bear a child with exactly the same genetic code as me, which in effect, would be me! haha.. Thus, I sadly concur, it would have been impossible for me to have been born in another time, space and place, no matter how much I fantasize about it.

But then, thinking about it has made me realize how LUCKY I am to be alive today and blogging about this, because the odds are so incredibly stacked against me (or you) even being here and alive today in this world. This is because in order for me or you to be alive today, there needs to be a sequence of past events that had to happen in order for us to be born. I was thinking about my life, and how lucky I am to have been born, because if luck would have it that a certain crucial event did not occur in my family history or even a country's history, I would not have been here today.

Let me start from myself and work backwards with 'what if' questions:

  1. What if the sperm that fertilized the egg had been a different one? Each sperm has it's own genetic variation, and during ejaculation a man releases millions and millions of sperm, each with its own genetic variation. Out of these millions and millions of potential combination, the one sperm that won the race to fertilize the egg is the sperm with the genetic combination that gave rise to ME
  2. What if my parents didn't fall in love in the first place? Then I would have never been born because the genetic code needed to make me would never have been possible.
  3. What if my father had never been born? His mother is Chinese whose ancestors migrated here from China. What if they had never made the trip? What if they had died making the arduous journey here? What if my grandma's parents never married in the first place? What if my father's parents never married in the first place - one is Chinese the other Malay, an unlikely pairing during the past where social practices would discourage such acts and prejudices were rife (even today). What if the sperm that fertilised my grandma's egg is a different one than the one which had resulted in my father being born? Every now and then when I think bad thoughts about other races I remind myself that I owe my life to these races whom I criticize.
  4. What if my mother had never been born? Her mother had a previous husband who had died, before meeting and marrying my grandfather. What if her first husband had not died - then surely my mum would not have been born. My grandmother already had a lot of children with her first husband - what if she had refused to have any children with my grandfather the second husband? My mother was their second child - what if they had said that one child was enough? My grandmother was of Javanese descent - what if her ancestors had decided not to come here from Indonesia, or had perished along the way? My grandfather was a soldier for the British army - what if he was posted elsewhere before he could meet my grandmother, what if he was killed during duty, what if the British had never colonized Singapore? As much as I absolutely despise colonialism, without it, I would not have been here, because it was the British who encouraged Chinese settlers to come to Singapore and allowed my grandmother's ancestors to come here, and also it was the British who hired my grandfather as a soldier, and he would not have met my grandmother otherwise. And my grandfather came from Malaysia - if his ancestors had not moved southwards - yes, I would not have been here also.
  5. What if...What if...What if...What if...
The processes which I have described above somehow resulted in my creation and existence here on Earth. What are the chances of that happening? I am extremely extremely extremely lucky to be alive. Not only are the genetic odds against it, but also historical and social odds are severely and heavily stacked against me being here today, typing this blog entry. And that very thought sends great shivers down my spine, and I feel extremely humbled that against such monumental odds, I am indeed here and alive. I am glad to have been given the chance to live, because billions of other potential human beings have been denied that, simply due to historical events not turning out in their favour. I am lucky just to be alive and I should make the most of it, the rest of my life that I have remaining, because life is too short and precious to be doing unproductive stuff (except for computer games! w00t! haha..).

I will end this entry with a few paragraphs from the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whom I greatly admire:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century.' The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century's being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest-festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of Earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random will have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation will put it at less than one in a million.

Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship's ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

But imagine that the ship's robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.

As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn't it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn't arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn't burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.

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