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We are all star stuff!

Jul 31, 2010, 7:50 PM 2

For the same reason as in the deliberation that follows, I think it a very good idea for all to read the book. If you like, mail me, if it’s ur scene (the following words are not mine) but I can sort it. . .

… about four or five years ago, I suppose – I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out of the window at moonlit ocean, when it occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on. I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea. I didn’t know if the oceans were growing more salty with time or less, and whether ocean salinity levels was something I should be concerned about or not. (I am very pleased to tell you that until the late 1970s scientists didn’t know the answers to these questions either. They just didn’t talk about it very audibly.)


The Stuff of Life


IF YOUR TWO parents hadn’t bonded just when they did—possibly to the second, possibly to the nanosecond—you wouldn’t be here. And if their parents hadn’t bonded in a precisely timely manner, you wouldn’t be here either. And if their parents hadn’t done likewise, and their parents before them, and so on, obviously and indefinitely, you wouldn’t be here.

Push backwards through time and these ancestral debts begin to add up. Go back just eight generations to about the time that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born, and already there are over 250 people on whose timely couplings your existence depends. Continue further, to the time of Shakespeare and the Mayflower Pilgrims, and you have no fewer than 16,384 ancestors earnestly exchanging genetic material in a way that would, eventually and miraculously, result in you.

At twenty generations ago, the number of people procreating on your behalf has risen to 1,048,576. Five generations before that, and there are no fewer than 33,554,432 men and women on whose devoted couplings your existence depends. By thirty generations ago, your total number of forebears—remember, these aren’t cousins and aunts and other incidental relatives, but only parents and parents of parents in a line leading ineluctably to you—is over one billion (1,073,741,824, to be precise). If you go back sixty-four generations, to the time of the Romans, the number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived.

Clearly something has gone wrong with our math here. The answer, it may interest you to learn, is that your line is not pure. You couldn’t be here without a little incest—actually quite a lot of incest—albeit at a genetically discreet remove. With so many millions of ancestors in your background, there will have been many occasions when a relative from your mother’s side of the family procreated with some distant cousin from your father’s side of the ledger. In fact, if you are in a partnership now with someone from your own race and country, the chances are excellent that you are at some level related. Indeed, if you look around you on a bus or in a park or café or any crowded place, most of the people you see are very probably relatives. When someone boasts to you that he is descended from William the Conqueror or the Mayflower Pilgrims, you should answer at once: “Me, too!” In the most literal and fundamental sense we are all family.


PM me if you want the whole scene

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