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.