Is it all a matter of chance? Hoyle, Doyle and Einstein had a view:
The astronomer Hoyle saw some guiding hand when he concluded that random events and chance occurrences are insufficient to account for the complexity of living organisms.
Conan Doyle was a physician and writer, though we should recall that he became convinced by the Cottingley Fairies, which proved to be a hoax. In his Sherlock Holmes novel The Adventure of the Cardboard Box he provided Holmes with this observation. What is the meaning of it, Watson? […] What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.
Philosophers and scientists do not believe in blind chance, physicist Einstein commented that God does not play dice.
But to a large extent where we begin our life’s journey does feel very much something of an accident.
We do not choose our parents or their inception of our birth. Their act of procreation passes on genetic information. Our gender in some cultures will completely shape the child, the most extreme example being the Chinese one-child policy which The Peoples’ Republic enacted upon their massive population from 1978 to 2015. When restricted to one child the people preferred the child to be male and many female children were sacrificed at birth. The normal ratios male to female in China had ranged between 103-to-100 and 107-to-100, the policy tilted this to 117-to-100. There were thirty million more men than women in China by 2020.
It is sobering to think that even minor changes of 1% in space or time would have significantly impacted upon who I am.
If I had been born fifty miles west then I might have been Welsh. Two hundred miles (roughly) west I could have been Irish, 200 miles south and I might have been French, a little over 200 miles east and I would perhaps have been Dutch. Two hundred miles is a pretty insignificant shift of just under 1% around the earth’s circumference!
If I had been born fifty years earlier I would have been sixteen when World War I broke out and therefore become prime cannon fodder.
Born a hundred years earlier I would have emerged into one of my home town’s worst cholera outbreaks. Two hundred years earlier and I would have been born into what was then one of Britain’s busiest slave-trading ports (though Liverpool and London were busier!). A hundred years represents only four generations and a little over 1% of human recorded history.
Our year of birth, postcode and family circumstances are completely outside our control and yet they decide the access we have to good nutrition, the parental education we receive, how our limbic system evolves our emotions and drives, our cultural environment, the values and religious framework within which we are raised. We can influence very little of this – we must accept that it is what it is, and give our best shot at making the most of what we happened to be dealt.
My mother was from Bristol and my father from Manchester. The chance of any two specified individuals ever meeting is quite unlikely. Place them 175 miles apart and factor in a time of less social mobility and the odds get longer. They met after both had survived World War II, a war that killed 450,000, around 1% of the UK’s then 47million population.
My father’s aircraft carrier was heading towards Singapore as it fell to the Japanese, my mother’s home in the centre of Bristol was bombed and gutted while the family sheltered beneath it. Thus, their eventual meeting must be given an even higher level of improbability.
Add to this the fact that my grandmother was from Willenhall in the Black Country and my grandfather from Bishops Auckland in Durham – yet they met and married in Manchester.
The lottery of life continues in the womb. Just ten years after my birth, mothers were prescribed thalidomide during pregnancy. Worldwide some 10,000 babies were adversely affected, half of these survived with severe defects. A girl living ten doors away from my home in Bristol was born with her hands emerging directly from her shoulders.
The lottery continues postnatally. In the 1990s there was a scandal at the local teaching hospital, the Bristol Royal Infirmary, when the paediatric cardiac surgery team had unusually high death rates; a subsequent report concluded that treatment had not been up to the task at hand.
Back in 1948 around 39 in every 1,000 new-born babies were stillborn or died within a week (today it’s just 8), and 36 in every 1,000 births did not survive the first year – that’s a 1-in-14 chance of mortality.
|ASIDE: Intriguingly only 5.4% of births in 1948 were outside marriage, by 2013 the figure was 47.4%.|
We 1948-ers were born into a society plagued by diphtheria, measles, polio, rickets and whooping cough. We had food rationing and a post-war depression which meant good nutrition was by no means guaranteed. We were immunised for smallpox and diphtheria and occasionally anti-tetanus was used where necessary. Today some fourteen diseases have formal immunisation programmes.
Two months after I was born the National Health Service was launched and this has cared for me ever since (apart from our five years in Spain where their system proved good if you could communicate).
In 1948 a man could expect an average life of 66 years, and for a woman it was 72. Today it is 79.0 years for males and 82.9 years for females. (Office for National Statistics).
Back in 1948 some 65% of men smoked, as did 41% of women. Dad did, Mum did not, so while I have never smoked I must have passively smoked for the first ten years of my life before Dad gave up. Certainly during my early years of work it was not acceptable to complain of those who smoked in workplaces and meetings, thus my passive smoking continued. Thankfully the UK banned smoking in enclosed public spaces in 2007. But this was just when I moved to Spain for five years where the Spanish and other Europeans continued administering my passive dosage.
I grew up through the ‘50s and early ‘60s when we played on the streets and on bombsites and routinely cycled to school and for some distance from our homes for leisure. In 1963 there were 7,000 road accident fatalities, 349,000 non-fatal casualties (among our 53.6million population).
As a child I was hit by a motorcycle while returning from the ABC Cabot cinema’s Saturday-morning ‘pictures’, probably my fault. At sixteen I had a motorbike or scooter of my own and had several accidents, I hasten to add that none of them were my fault! It was just good fortune that I sustained no lasting injuries. So my journey through childhood and youth had significant potential issues that I managed to side-step, though there was no coherent plan at work here.
As Lennon (not Lenin), poet, songwriter and Beatle suggested, it just happened – as he said
Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.