I’ve been meaning to write for a long time about the role of chance … luck … whatever you want to call it … in life, from the grand sweep of evolution to our individual existence.
Well, just this morning, I came pretty close to demise by random genetic drift. Almost every weekday, I walk to and from work at Michigan State University. It’s a pleasant walk through pretty neighborhoods and the beautifully landscaped MSU campus.
Today was not much different from most other days. It had been sprinkling lightly, but no wind or anything out of the unusual.
I walked the route I usually take, crossing the streets by habit in more or less the same spots every time, I guess. The only moderately big road I cross is Grand River Avenue, where it intersects with Bogue Street. No problem on Grand River.
I walk down Bogue on the east side or the west side of the street depending on the traffic light, where cars are, on whimsy I guess. I was walking on the east side, though I would have to cross over to the west to get to the building where I work.
At this point in my walk, I’d guess that’s the side I’m still on maybe 80% of the time. Lucky today was one of those days. I heard a loud crack on the other side of the street. A tree limb snapped and crashed hard on the sidewalk.
Maybe half a second from snap to crash? And the limb was big and bifurcating, with two main branches, each maybe a foot in diameter. It came down straight, square and hard against the sidewalk. Even if you had an instant to react, it wouldn’t be clear which way to run to avoid one branch and not get smacked by the other.
I wasn’t the only lucky one. No one was there to get hit. A student was walking toward the spot, maybe 100 feet away. I called out something like “That was crazy, lucky you weren’t there.” He nodded and crossed to my side of the street.
It was only in walking the next couple hundred feet that I realized I had been lucky, too, to be walking this morning on the east side and not the west side of the road.
Indeed, each of us is incredibly lucky just to be here—the product of billions of generations of parents who were not only fit enough to survive and reproduce, but also lucky enough to have escaped the random drift of life and death.
[Both photos: Richard E. Lenski.]
Added November 1: The second tree to come after me this autumn … or maybe I should say this fall. This one was much smaller but fell just a few steps behind me on my morning run!
[Photo: Madeleine Lenski]