Outlook | Review
June 22, 2018 at 7:00 AM
Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of “The Geography of Genius: Lessons From the World’s Most Creative Places.”
Historians have been striving to jazz up their subjects for as long as there have been historians and people ignoring them. A favorite tactic is the tight shot. Zoom in on a singular character or an unexpected catalyst. “Lincoln: The Early Tween Years” or “Parsley: The Garnish That Changed the World.”
Historian David Christian takes the opposite tack. He goes wide, very wide, panning from the big bang to last Tuesday. It is, if nothing else, an impressive act of authorial chutzpah.
“Origin Story,” thankfully, is more than moxie. It is a remarkably cogent and compelling history of everything. Christian, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, is a pioneer in “big history,” a big idea that aims to construct a meta-narrative from disciplines as disparate as astrophysics and anthropology. The field has attracted some influential backers, most notably Bill Gates, who is helping bring it to high schools around the world.
Origin stories are not new, of course. Nearly all cultures and religions tell them. Fantastical tales of how the cosmos emerged from chaos or amorphousness, these creation myths seek to explain where we came from and why we’re here. They supply meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe, even if they fall short on facts.
Christian has written an origin story in the language of science. Joseph Campbell meets Carl Sagan. He begins in the beginning, the second before the big bang, when the entire universe was so dense it could be contained in a dot smaller than the one at the end of this sentence. From there, he moves at a brisk, at times dizzying, pace through some 13 billion years.
A journey this ambitious requires mile markers. Christian’s answer is threshold events: spurts in complexity that mark transitions from old orders to new. Like any good yarn, this one features memorable characters. Complexity is the good guy. It strives to create order out of chaos. It is pitted against entropy, the bad guy, which works to tear down what complexity builds.
“Origin Story” contains plenty of mystery, too, and on a cosmic scale. Why does the universe contain any structure at all and “not just a random flux of energy”? Why did the agrarian revolution erupt almost simultaneously in places separated by thousands of miles?
The storyline occasionally gets lost in a blur of eons and protons, but for the most part Christian’s hand is steady and sure, his grasp of the science impressive. He makes it all accessible, too, as when he likens the universe to “a vast spring that has been uncoiling for more than thirteen billion years” or atomic particles to nervous children “constantly jiggling about with energy.”
Reading “Origin Story” makes you feel extremely fortunate to be here at all. Life requires “goldilocks conditions.” Not too hot, not too cold. Not too little oxygen, not too much. The unstated conclusion: Life is a miracle.
Not only human life but the “thin scum of life” that, despite the odds, survived for nearly 4 billion years and paved the way for our arrival. It took 3 billion years for life to evolve from single to multicellular organisms. During that time “so much could have gone wrong,” writes Christian. An exploding supernova in a neighboring star system, a collision with another planet. And yet it didn’t. And we’re here.
A history this big is also bound to make you feel small. Life on Earth doesn’t appear until Page 75, early civilizations not until Page 210, a good two-thirds into the book. This is by design. Big history is all about perspective. Life is a latecomer to the universe, and we humans arrived mere seconds ago.
“Origin Story” may not be a deep dive, but it is very wide. Christian stitches his tale from strands not typically found in the same quilt: astrobiology and archaeology, molecular biology and behavioral economics, among other disciplines. What’s most remarkable is how he manages to get these disparate fields to speak one another’s language. Densely populated villages resemble “the contracting clumps of matter from which the first stars formed.” The nobility of Mesopotamia pumped wealth into towns and cities “like the proton pumps that maintain an energy gradient across cell membranes.”
In big history’s egalitarian worldview, humans share the same stage as amoebas. Describing how two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, figured out how to draw nitrogen from the air to make artificial fertilizer, Christian notes that single-celled organisms called prokaryotes mastered this billions of years ago, but “Haber and Bosch were the first multicellular organisms to successfully fix atmospheric nitrogen.” Three cheers for multicellular organisms!
Christian pushes hard against now-ism, the notion that we are living in an unprecedented age of innovation. We are not. The agrarian revolution was a true “mega-innovation,” he writes. It changed the way humans interact and learn — even our genetic makeup, something your smartphone hasn’t done, at least not yet.
For Christian, the story of the universe is the story of energy and how it is produced, stored, traded, manipulated and consumed. Life, too, is in the energy business. It might be the energy of sunlight that plants tap into via photosynthesis or the huge amount of energy gobbled up by our big primate brains.
This systems perspective of the universe is fascinating but at the same time feels oddly detached and lifeless. Mankind’s accomplishments are explained in strictly utilitarian terms. Written language, for instance, was invented to help track flows of wealth and energy. Shakespeare and Goethe don’t factor in big history. Nor do Jefferson and Gandhi. Innovation is a product not of courageous individuals but of “the machinery of collective learning.” The advent of farming reflects not human ingenuity but, rather, “an energy and resource grab by a single, very resourceful species.”
Where “Origin Story” falls short is precisely where more traditional creation myths excel: meaning. Christian offers none. “The universe really is indifferent to our fate,” he writes in the final chapter. “It’s a vast ocean of energy for which individual wavelets such as us are ephemeral, passing phenomena.” Perhaps, but some of us wavelets are capable of great acts of courage and ingenuity, and of love, too.
None of which makes it onto the pages of “Origin Story.” So determined are big historians like Christian to avoid even a whiff of human exceptionalism that the resulting narrative feels eerily depopulated. In the end, the problem with big history isn’t that it’s too big but that it’s not big enough. Its wide arms embrace everything, except you and me.
A Big History
By David Christian
Little, Brown. 357 pp. $30