SHARE
Biol­ogist Sean B. Caroll calls the extinction of dinosaurs the mother of all acci­dents. Pixabay

The entire uni­verse and our very exis­tence is all due to a for­tunate series of chance inci­dents, said the author of the new book: “A Series of For­tunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You,” Sean B. Carroll.

Carroll spoke to Hillsdale stu­dents and faculty during a virtual event on Tuesday, Feb. 9, about the impact chance has had in the devel­opment of the world as we know it today.

Carroll is an evo­lu­tionary devel­op­mental biol­ogist, author, pro­fessor of Mol­e­cular Biology and Genetics at the Uni­versity of Wis­consin-Madison, and a film pro­ducer. He has written such books as “Endless Forms Most Beau­tiful” and “The Serengeti Rules.” As the exec­utive pro­ducer at Tangled Bank Studios, which is a branch of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Carroll has been involved in the pro­duction of several doc­u­mentary films.

Carroll’s talk focused on the impos­sible acci­dents and life-changing events that happen at just the right time in just the right place.

“What a dif­ference just thirty minutes can make. It’s sobering to think about what a thin line there can be between life and death,” Carroll said. “As we probe human biology and the factors that impact our indi­vidual lives, we’ve caught chance red-handed, reigning over that thin line between life and death.”

As humans we attempt to search for causes for the effects we see around us, Carroll said.

“Everyone wants every­thing to make sense, but it’s actually healthy to under­stand that not every­thing is going to make sense,” said Vis­iting Lec­turer in Biology Angelica Pytel.

Carroll pointed to examples of times in world history where chance has gov­erned over some of the most influ­ential events. One example is the extinction of dinosaurs, an event that depended on an asteroid hitting a spe­cific place at a spe­cific time for maximum impact.

“Three quarters of all plant and animal species, including the great dinosaurs, went extinct. This asteroid impact is what I call the mother of all acci­dents,” said Carroll.

It is only because of this extinction, a product of chance, that humans exist today, he said.

Humans them­selves are the product of chance. Two fer­tilized human eggs will never be the same. From just two indi­viduals, there exist more than 70 trillion genet­i­cally dis­tinct com­bi­na­tions. This number does not include the pos­si­bil­ities of genetic mutations.

“What this means is that we are each a one in a 70 trillion event, and that means fer­til­ization is the accident of all mothers,” he said. 

Genetic mutation itself is the product of flick­ering keto and enon forms of DNA. In 1/1000 of a second, DNA can flicker from its stable keto form to its rarer enon form which differ by one hydrogen atom and therefore bond to dif­ferent acids which code for pro­teins. If this flick­ering happens during DNA copying, the wrong base can be tran­scribed, and a mutation can occur.

“This tells us that chance is the source of all inno­vation, all beauty, all diversity in the living world. Kind of hard to imagine,” said Carroll.

It is only in the last fifty years that this idea of the role of chance in the devel­opment of our world even became a fea­sible idea, Carroll said.

“We only know what we know, we don’t know what we don’t know,” Pytel said. “That bit we don’t know is huge and vast and not insur­mountable in pieces, but as a whole, it’s insurmountable.”

If chance occur­rences are the source of all beauty and diversity in the world, then the tra­di­tional ideas behind cause and effect are chal­lenged, Carroll said. Quoting R.C. Sproul, who rejected the exis­tence of chance, Carroll claimed that if chance exists, then God is no longer necessary.

“God is not in the con­ception business choosing the winning sperm and egg, nor the genetic engi­neering business designing DNA, nor the weather-making business, nor the cancer business, nor, as it turns out the pan­demic business,” he said.