October 6, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 37: The miracle of life, bottlenecks, and the present moment

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  The miracle of life

Dr. Ali Binazir estimates the probability of being born as 1 in 10 to the power of 2,685,000. That's a 10, followed by 2,685,000 zeroes. Putting aside the lineage of Homo sapiens until the meeting of our parents, our conception itself is a miracle, as William MacAskill describes in What We Owe The Future:

"Consider that a typical ejaculation contains around two hundred million sperm. If any of the other two hundred million sperm had fertilised the egg that you developed from, then you would not have been born. Instead someone else—with 75 percent of your genes—would have been born in your place. So, as much as I'm sure you don't want to think about such things, if your father's ejaculation had occurred just milliseconds earlier or later, it would almost certainly have been a different sperm that fertilised your mother's egg. And so any event that affected the schedules of your biological mother and father on the day that you were conceived, even if only by a tiny amount—such as a longer line at the supermarket or an additional car ahead of them on their way home from work—would have prevented you from being born."

Our conception point was just the last in a chain of sheer impossibilities. Consider the probability of our biological parents meeting, then their parents, and theirs, going back 150,000 generations, or 2.5 million years. This period only accounts for the genus Homo; and increases to 14 million years if we include the Hominidae family, whose members include humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Dr. Ali Binazir takes this thought process a step further:

"Because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events.  Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age – going all the way back not just to the first Homo sapiens, first Homo erectus and Homo habilis, but all the way back to the first single-celled organism. You are a representative of an unbroken lineage of life going back 4 billion years."

Dr. Binazir goes on to compare the probability of life to the following analogy:

"It's the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice – and they all come up the exact same number."

None of this accounts for the Earth's existence and ability to support life, with one study estimating that probability to be 1 in 700 quintillion. Or the larger near-impossibility of our universe forming 13.5 billion years ago. Despite there being hundreds of millions of habitable planets in the galaxy and 13.5 billion years, we have found no evidence of alien life. One explanation for this paradox might just be the sheer rarity of life.

In other words, we are a statistical impossibility, yet here we are.

Read my three takeaways from What We Owe The Future

II. Bottlenecks

"All systems have parts that are slower than others. The slowest part of a system is called the "bottleneck" because, as the neck of a bottle limits the amount of liquid that can flow through, bottlenecks in systems limit the amount of outputs they can produce. Using bottlenecks as a model gives us insight into how a limiting factor can hurt or help us. No one wants to be a bottleneck, which is easily conceptualized as that person who makes everyone else wait. We see this behavior in people who can't delegate. If you have to make every decision yourself, there's likely a long line of people twiddling their thumbs while waiting for you to move their projects forward.

"Bottlenecks tend to create waste as resources pile up behind them. In manufacturing, they limit how much you can produce and sell. If you work in an industry that depends on timely information, then you risk inputs becoming irrelevant before they make it through the bottleneck. A bottleneck is also the point that is most under strain. It can be the part that is most likely to break down or has the most impact if it does. In trying to improve the flow of your system, focusing on anything besides the bottleneck is a waste of time. You will just create more pressure on the bottleneck, further increasing how much it holds you back by generating more buildup.

"Every system has a bottleneck. You cannot completely eliminate them because once you do, another part of the system will become the new limiting factor. You can, however, anticipate bottlenecks and plan accordingly. Or you can leverage the need to overcome them as an impetus for finding new ways of making a system work. Sometimes you can overcome bottlenecks by adding more of the same, such as dedicating more resources to ease the pressure on a bottleneck. But sometimes the sole solution is to rethink that part of the system. What you want to avoid is opening up one bottleneck only to create additional, worse ones for yourself later on. If bottlenecks are unavoidable, we at least want them to be in a less disruptive place.

"Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, a bottleneck is different from a constraint. A bottleneck is something we can alleviate; a constraint is a fundamental limitation of the system. So a machine that keeps breaking down is a bottleneck, but the fact there are twenty-four hours in the day is a constraint." — From The Great Mental Models Volume 3: Systems and Mathematics by Rhiannon Beaubien and Rosie Leizrowice

The term 'system' is often used to describe a process in manufacturing, such as an assembly line. However, systems govern our everyday lives. Our productivity, time management, and financial budgeting are each a system.

We might view these practices as routines, but routines are usually performed unconsciously or followed as part of a regular procedure rather than for an intended outcome. In most cases, systems aim to achieve a numerical or efficiency goal. By seeing our lives as a series of micro-systems, we can search for optimizations that allow them to run more smoothly. I like to imagine life as a piece of software, where adjusting the systems is like tweaking the code.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Douglas Harding on being grateful for life.

"It's the very last thing, isn't it, we feel grateful for: having happened. You know, you needn't have happened. But you did happen."

II. Arthur Schopenhauer on missing out on the present moment.

"To attain something desired is to discover how vain it is; and…though we live all our lives in expectation of better things, we often at the same time long regretfully for what is past. The present, on the other hand, is regarded as something quite temporary and serving only as the road to our goal. That is why most men discover when they look back on their life that they have the whole time been living ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely in expectation of which they lived."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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