I caught myself using a common phrase, accident of birth, sometime during my workday on Monday, and something in my mind tripped over it. This is the good kind of mental stumbling in that it’s a cue I take to explore a concept. I’m up too late, suffering from fatigue toxin and goofing up tomorrow’s workday in advance, but I want to type this before I lose the immediacy of these thoughts.
Accident of birth is most used, I think, to express disappointment at the lack of control over the circumstances that surround us when, some sufficient time after being born, we realize we might’ve been different had we been born somewhere else, in some other time. Alternatively, there’s what happens when we talk about other people. For example, atheists who want to argue the relative “validity” of different religions may be prone to saying things like, “It’s an accident of birth that [some person] was born into [some society] and therefore was indoctrinated into [some religion].” (I happen to find this construct annoying because it implies the person who was born existed before birth and then emerged, as if randomly, wherever that person sprung out of the womb. Aren’t atheists supposed to be skeptical regarding the existence of souls?)
But this isn’t about atheism (or souls). The you that you’ve become, the I that I am, neither of those are accidents. Who you are, who I am, we, and everyone else, could only possibly exist in the moment we’re in right now. I so often think how cool it might be (if I’m in a romantic mood) were I to have lived in some other time and place, imagining myself in Classical Rome or Revolutionary France. It’s easy enough to recognize the silliness of such imaginings when contemplating what the reality of those places and times must have been like. What’s not so easy to recognize is that I could not possibly be me in either of those locations in space-time. There is no possible way I could not be a different person. Even in the preposterously unlikely event that some human who lived a thousand years ago had my exact genetic makeup, that person would not, could not in any true sense be me. He might resemble me with respect to phenotype, but his mind, his thoughts, his conscious self, would be a unique creature shaped by his world, and utterly not me. This is not to say genetics are irrelevant, though…
When these thoughts started percolating toward awareness I recalled the scene from issue #9 of Alan Moore’s Watchmen where Dr. Manhattan recognizes the value of humanity after having carefully explained to Laurie Juspeczyk how unworthy humans were of even the remotest consideration compared to the grandeur of the universe. (Both of them are on Mars and Laurie is crying in the aftermath of Manhattan’s remarkably emotionless diatribe.) At the risk of breaching Fair Use…
Dr. Manhattan: Thermodynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter, until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.
Laurie Juspeczyk: But… if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle… I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!
Dr. Manhattan: Yes. Anybody in the world. But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget… I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away. Come… dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes, and let’s go home.
(Italics added to match boldfaced lettering in the original comic.)
To describe you, me or anyone else, the circumstances of our birth and the lives we lead, as mere accidents is to trivialize the stunningly improbably confluence of genes, ancestry, family, culture, geography, and every other thing I can’t think of right now, that makes each one of us a unique expression of the universe.