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A Series of Fortunate Events

A lighthearted exploration of the roles that chance and coincidence play in human existence. Any book described by Bill Bryson as 'fascinating and exhilarating' has got to be worth considering.

That there is life on Earth at all, let alone human life, is a happy accident, Sean B. Carroll writes in his new book A Series of Fortunate Events. Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid destroyed three-quarters of life on the planet. In the subsequent era of climate variation, only the most resilient creatures, including semi-aquatic animals, burrowing animals, and hominids, endured. Since then, genetic mutations (which, like typos, seem small) have led to useful adaptations. For example, woolly mammoths thrived in the Ice Age because their hemoglobin was better at releasing oxygen at low temperatures.

Looking at the event that wiped out the dinosaurs 60 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico with devastating global effects, Carroll notes that Earth spins at about 1,000 miles an hour. If the asteroid had arrived 30 minutes earlier, it would have landed in the Atlantic Ocean; 30 minutes later and it would have splashed into the Pacific.

In neither case would the destruction have been as great as it was. Dinosaurs would have lived on; human beings would probably not have evolved. Half an hour made all the difference.

The Yucatan asteroid is an epic example of the sheer randomness which, as Sean B. Carroll argues in this short but thought-provoking book, rules both the universe and our own lives.

Until the 19th century, most people assumed that nothing in life was left to luck. Everything had been perfectly designed by God. It was Darwin and his theory of evolution that first replaced Providence with chance. The naturalist gathered much of the evidence for his theory during his round-the-world journey on HMS Beagle in the 1830s. As Carroll points out, even Darwin’s presence on board the ship was fortuitous.

The Beagle’s first captain had committed suicide. Its second, Robert Fitzroy, aware of his own tendency to melancholy, wanted a well-educated gentleman to keep him company on the voyage and save him from his predecessor’s fate. His first two choices turned him down. Third choice Darwin, ‘full of zeal and enterprise’, accepted. This fortunate event, as we all know, lead to Darwin's groundbreaking On the Origin of Species.

There are many, many more 'fascinating and exhilarating' reflections in Carroll's book. Pop it on your reading list this autumn and, better yet, buy it from your local bookshop.

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