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Lewis Thomas – On Probability and Possibility

The following is the 28th essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.

On Probability and Possibility

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.

Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is random- ness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. We make our living by catching electrons at the moment of their excitement by solar photons, swiping the energy released at the instant of each jump and storing it up in intricate loops for ourselves. We violate probability, by our nature. To be able to do this systematically, and in such Wild varieties of form, from viruses to whales is extremely unlikely; to have sustained the effort successfully for the several billion years of our existence, without drifting back into randomness, was nearly a mathematical impossibility.

Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Everyone is one in 3 billion at the moment, which describes the odds. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.

Perhaps it is not surprising that we do not live more surprised. After all, we are used to unlikelihood. Being born into it, raised in it, we become acclimated to the altitude, like natives in the Andes. Moreover, we all know that the astonishment is transient, and sooner or later our particles will all go back to being random.

Also, there are reasons to suspect that we are really not the absolute, pure entities that we seem. We have some sense of ordinariness, and it tends to diminish our surprise. Despite all the evidences of biological privacy in our cells and tissues (to the extent that a fragment of cell membrane will be recognized and rejected between any conceivable pairs among the 3 billion, excepting identical twins), there is a certain slippage in our brains. No one, in fact, can lay claim with certainty to his own mind with anything like the specificity stipulated by fingerprints or tissue antigens.

The human brain is the most public organ on the face of the earth, open to everything, sending out messages to everything. To be sure, it is hidden away in bone and conducts internal affairs in secrecy, but virtually all the business is the direct result of thinking that has already occurred in other minds. We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind, so compulsively and with such speed that the brains of mankind often appear, functionally, to be undergoing fusion.

This is, when you think about it, really amazing. The whole dear notion of one’s own Self–marvelous old free-willed, free-enterprising, autonomous, independent, isolated island of a Self–is a myth.

We do not yet have a science strong enough to displace the myth. If you could label, by some equivalent of radioactive isotopes, all the bits of human thought that are constantly adrift, like plankton, all around us, it might be possible to discern some sort of systematic order in the process, but, as it is, it seems almost entirely random. There has to be something wrong with this view. It is hard to see how we could be in possession of an organ so complex and intricate and, as it occasionally reveals itself, so powerful, and be using it on such a scale lust for the production of a kind of background noise. Somewhere, obscured by the snatches of conversation, pages of old letters, bits of books and magazines, memories of old movies, and the disorder of radio and television, there ought to be more intelligible signals.

Or perhaps we are only at the beginning of learning to use the system, with almost all our evolution as a species still ahead of us. Maybe the thoughts we generate today and nick around from mind to mind, like the jokes that turn up simultaneously at dinner parties in Hong Kong and Boston, or the sudden changes in the way we wear our hair, or all the popular love songs, are the primitive precursors of more complicated, poly-merited structures that will come later, analogous to the prokaryotic cells that drifted through shallow pools in the early days of biological evolution. Later, when the time is right, there may be fusion and symbiosis among the bits, and then we will see eukaryotic thought, metazoans of thought, huge interliving coral shoals of thought.

The mechanism is there, and there is no doubt that it is already capable of functioning, even though the total yield thus far seems to consist largely of bits. After all, it has to be said that we’ve been at it for only the briefest time in evolutionary terms, a few thousand years out of billions, and during most of this time the scattered aggregates of human thought have been located patchily around the earth. There may be some laws about this kind of communication, mandating a critical density and mass before it can function with efficiency. Only in this century have we been brought close enough to each other, in
great numbers, to begin the fusion around the earth, and from now on the process may move very rapidly.

There is, if it goes well, quite a lot to look forward to. Already, by luck, we have seen the assembly of particles of exchanged thought into today’s structures of art and science. It is done by simply passing the bits around from mind to mind, until something like natural selection makes the final selection, all on grounds of fitness.

The real surprises, which set us back on our heels when they occur, will always be the mutants. We have already had a few of these, sweeping across the field of human thought periodically, like comets. They have slightly different receptors for the information cascading in from other minds, and slightly different machinery for processing it, so that what comes out to rejoin the flow is novel, and filled with new sorts of meaning. Each was able to do this, and what emerged in the current were primordia in music. In this sense, the Art of Fugue and the St. Matthew Passion were, for the evolving organism of human
thought, feathered wings, apposing thumbs, new layers of frontal cortex.

But we may not be so dependent on mutants from here on, or perhaps there are more of them around than we recognize. What we need is more crowding, more unrestrained and obsessive communication, more open channels, even more noise, and a bit more luck. We are simultaneously participants and bystanders, which is a puzzling role to play. As participants, we have no choice in the matter; this is what we do as a species. As by- standers, stand back and give it room is my advice.