To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had
somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to
create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never
been tried before and will only exist this once.
Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a
gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention,
your atoms don't actually care about you—indeed, don't even know that you
are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless
particles, after all, and not even themselves alive.
[...] And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some
other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you
down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for
Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the
universe it doesn't, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the
atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things
on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere.
Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane:
carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a
light dusting of other very ordinary elements—nothing you wouldn't find in
any ordinary drugstore—and that's all you need. The only thing special
about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the
miracle of life.
So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and that
they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here.
To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know
it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological
good fortune [...] Life on Earth,
you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of
our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life
but even better at extinguishing it.
If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here—and
by “we” I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe
of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly
lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the
singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it
better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.
We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time.
Behaviorally modern human beings—that is, people who can speak and
make art and organize complex activities—have existed for only about
0.0001 percent of Earth's history. But surviving for even that little while has
required a nearly endless string of good fortune.
We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make
sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good
deal more than lucky breaks.
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003.