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A Series of Fortunate Events

A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You

Sean B. Carroll
Princeton University Press
2020
224 pp
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Through a series of chance events, the pathogen we now know as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 emerged in 2019 and infected millions of humans within a span of 6 months. But chance has driven more than just the planet’s latest pandemic. In his new book, A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You, Sean B. Carroll takes readers on an entertaining tour of biological discovery that emphasizes the dominant role played by chance in shaping the conditions for life on Earth. Along the way, he provides insights and humor that make the book a quick, lively read that both educates and entertains.

Carroll begins with one of the most consequential chance events to have occurred in the history of our planet: the Cretaceous-Paleogene asteroid impact on the Yucatán Peninsula that resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs and expansion of mammals. Given Earth’s rotational speed, if the asteroid had hit 30 minutes earlier or later, scientists believe it would have made a much less consequential impact, landing in either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. If that had happened, there might still be dinosaurs today, but no humans. As he does throughout the book, Carroll compares the example from science with an example from popular culture, describing the comedian Seth MacFarlane’s good fortune to have narrowly missed (by 30 minutes) one of the flights that was hijacked on 11 September 2001.

Fundamental topics such as the roles that mutation and natural selection play in the evolution of diverse life-forms, the genetics of human reproduction, cellular mechanisms of acquired immunity, and the development of cancer are all treated within a framework where chance dominates. Carroll explains in detail how chance creates the genetic diversity upon which natural selection acts and results in the richness of species on Earth, as well as how random combinations among just 163 gene segments make possible a human immune system that can produce up to 10 billion different antibodies. Readers will likely be particularly interested to learn that their genome is only one of the 70 trillion possibilities that could have been produced by their parents.

Written in a conversational style, the book reads like an updated version of Jacques Monod’s 1970 Chance and Necessity that speaks directly to the reader, making complex subject matter more accessible. There is also a suggested reading list and an extensive bibliography included for further exploration.

Carroll’s central argument, that we are all here by luck, is certainly clear and compelling. What we choose to do with that luck, however, is where things really get interesting. Books such as this remind us to make our unlikely time here count.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Biology, The Behrend College, Pennsylvania State University, Erie, PA 16563, USA.