A chronicle of events from the Big Bang to the origin of life to the development of human consciousness, written as folktales.
In the introduction, Harman (History of Science, Science Technology and Society/Bar-Ilan Univ.; The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, 2010) reminds readers that all cultures rely on myths: stories, often supernatural, that explain their origins and the great deeds that followed. The rise of science has marginalized them, but are we better off? The author asks, “has the knowledge of the inflating universe gotten us closer to understanding Fate?...Have the shadows of Jealousy or Love or Sacrifice been further illuminated by the understanding that emotions must have conferred an advantage in evolution?” Having asked a big question, Harman proceeds not to answer it. Beginning at the beginning, 14 billion years ago, the author delivers a technically accurate review of cosmology, biology, evolution, anthropology, and neuroscience in flowery, dramatic prose, often with an unconventional narrator (a bacterium, a whale). Each chapter’s title (“Hope,” “Love,” “Motherhood,” “Sacrifice,” “Truth”) promises deep insights, but the end result is a straightforward narrative with an occasional jolt. Early on, single-cell creatures were immortal; death became inevitable only with the appearance of sex. Evidence-based explanations of cosmology and evolution remain a minority view even in the United States, so readers with traditional beliefs will miss the point. Harman assumes his audience possesses a good layman’s knowledge of these topics, which may be a stretch. Ultimately, he writes, “I hope that all readers, insofar as they are still fully human, will recognize an age-old journey, an ancient and meaningful quest.” Ironically, the author’s final chapter is an outstanding discussion of the literature, popular and scholarly, that covers essentially all of science.
An overly quirky yet amusing and well-informed history of everything.