Communicating the complexities and abstractions of scientific findings is not easy. Anyone who has ever slogged through yet another dense paper or muddled presentation will acknowledge this. Our universe, it seems, cares not for the human quest of understanding it. One of the things, then, that makes popular science books such a treat is that they infuse scientific findings and speculation with a certain lyricism and good storytelling. This is why we flock to authors such as Nick Lane, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, and many others besides. This is why Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan remain household names decades after their death. The latter’s Pale Blue Dot segment still gives me goosebumps. With Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, science historian Oren Harman boldly turns the concept on its head: rather than bringing poetic flair to a pop-science book, he brings scientific flair to an epic poem.
Before I heap praise on this book, allow me a short whinge, for I was not quite sure what to make of the book’s brief. “For all its astounding achievements, has science provided protection from jealousy or love?” asks the dust jacket. This smacks of a caricature – what kind of a question is that? In his introduction, Harman mentions how we worship atheist horsemen, i.e. the likes of Dawkins (see The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that Sparked an Atheist Revolution). But they are a vocal minority – plenty of moderate voices warn of the dangers of scientism (see my review of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism). Others will affirm that whole fields of enquiry such as morality simply fall outside of the remit of scientific endeavour. To ask the above question and expect science to provide a sensible answer is, in my opinion, to misunderstand its limitations. I think you will find very few scientists, not even these horsemen, willing to argue that science negates more subjective experiences such as storytelling, music, art, or the human craving for these.
But enough already. Harman quoting Hubble as saying that: “the scientist explains the world by successive approximations”, and describing science as “the most honest attempt of our age to explain our greatest mysteries” makes it clear we are on the same page. Driven by a childhood fascination with Greek myths, Harman here uses the narrative structure of the epic poem to tell of our current scientific understanding of the history of life. A sort of “evolution’s greatest hits”, if you will, not unlike Nick Lane’s Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution or Matt Wilkinson’s Restless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements.
Thus, the opening chapter Fate, chronicling the birth of the universe, dark energy, string theory, and the idea of the multiverse, ponders and concludes that our universe is
“just one of infinite possibilities, necessary to no one but us“.
The hypothesis that Earth’s moon formed following a huge impact (see The Big Splat: Or How Our Moon Came to Be) becomes a parable for motherhood and the inexorable loss that comes as children grow up. The moon’s slow drift away from our planet
“not a child’s rebellion. But then again maybe it is your dark side, opaque to me. I am too young to know, and too old to find out.“
The chapter on love portrays our thinking on the origin of life, the idea of an RNA world and ribozymes (see Life from an RNA World: The Ancestor within) where
“lovers were those who exchanged genetic materials […] there were no scorned lovers, only lovers who had never met“.
Similarly, the rise of DNA changed the world order:
“With permission from Chemistry, the zippered potentate seized control of heredity.”
The rise of multicellularity and sex gave new meaning to Death, introducing
“a two-tier economy: like the flesh surrounding the seeds of fruit, bodies became shells, protecting the gametes. And when the seeds are planted the fruits can rot.“
An embittered trilobite speaks to us of the evolution of the eye and the Cambrian Explosion (see Andrew Parker’s argument in In the Blink of an Eye: How Vision Kick-Started the Big Bang of Evolution), and curses his vision, for it introduced the concepts of jealousy and unrequited love.
Endosymbiosis (see One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life), the first animals to appear on land (see Your Inner Fish: The Amazing Discovery of Our 375-Million-Year-Old Ancestor), the evolution of whales (see The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years), the otherworldly intelligence of the octopus (see Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life), and, of course, the evolution of man – Wrangham’s argument in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is beautifully paraphrased:
“as the unruly flames were turned into a hissing, purring pet, so was the brute himself domesticated, in a feedback loop of momentous occasion.“
These and other important chapters in evolutionary history are retold through the lens of mythology. At the end of the book, in a section called “Illuminations”, Harman provides context and explanation, as well as plenty of recommended reading, both popular accounts and classic papers.
The idea to write an epic poem on evolution’s milestones could have easily ended up a forced, cringe-worthy exercise. Instead, as I hope my liberal quoting above has convinced you, this book is anything but that. Evolutions stands out on account of its unusual take on the subject matter. I do slightly worry that, because of this, it runs the risk of being overlooked amidst the maelstrom of other good pop-science books that are being published. For anyone who enjoys the intersection of art and science, this unique and imaginative book is one to treasure.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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