BY MICHAEL GERSON
I would not normally recommend a book on the history of the universe as beach reading. But David Christian’s “Origin Story” is a welcome exception.
Christian has achieved something remarkable: an engaging guide to the physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, linguistics and sociology that constitute the story of history itself. The author practices what he calls “Big History” — gathering the Big Bang, the advent of molecules, plate tectonics, eukaryotes, dinosaurs, Homo sapiens, climate dynamics and globalization into one sweeping arc. In roughly 300 pages. With no equations.
It is wildly ambitious. And, in the end, not ambitious enough.
Nearly everyone will find that “Origin Story” fills gaps in their education. For me it was the portion on pre-organic chemistry, in which molecules can interact with chemicals and energy in cycles that reproduce themselves and pick up favorable revisions over time, producing a kind of evolution in non-living things. There were also sections — like the history of agriculture — in which I would have slipped out of Professor Christian’s class to play Frisbee golf with my girlfriend on a fall day.
But, taken as a whole, “Origin Story” is a marvelous explanation of the whole. The author has a knack for revealing analogies and memorable facts. The crustal plates on the surface of the earth move at about the speed your fingernails grow. A human being burns about 120 watts of energy per second — a little more than your average incandescent light bulb.
The relatively recent historical moment when Homo sapiens’ bulbs begin burning is a turning point in the book and its story. This big-brained, tool-making, fire-using, social, mobile, violent, artistic primate had an evolutionary superpower. It had the mental capacity and linguistic abilities to engage in collective learning, which brought progress at an explosive pace. After a brush with extinction — 70,000 years ago, the total population of humans could fill a modern sports stadium — Homo sapiens went in a historical blink from crafting stone tools to possessing nuclear weapons. They also began considering their own place in the universe that produced them.
Christian has written a book that succeeds at everything except its stated purpose. Ultimately he wants to provide a replacement for traditional origin stories that come from religion. These he finds contradictory and outdated. But human beings are wired to need explanatory stories, revealing, as Christian writes, “This is what you are; this is where you came from.” Without this rooting, people can become victim to a “sense of disorientation, division and directionlessness.”
In some ways, “Origin Story” is appropriately humble. Christian’s version of history, he admits, provides no explanation for ultimate beginnings. Why did the universe start in a high state of order (which is a low state of entropy)? Why did the newborn universe — what Georges Lemaitre called the “cosmic egg” — have operating rules that allowed for the emergence of form and structure? There is really no telling. Maybe, Christian hints, the questions themselves are meaningless. And we certainly can’t turn to the divine. “Most versions of the modern origin story,” he writes, “no longer accept the idea of a creator god because modern science can find no direct evidence for a god.”
Christian thus repeats the defining mistake of scientism — the unquestioned assumption that all rational knowledge is scientific knowledge. This is anything but humble. It is a kind of epistemological imperialism that excludes knowledge coming from moral and philosophical reasoning, from theological argumentation and from historical investigation based on reliable witnesses. Not to mention the kind of knowledge that someone loves us. Christian attempts to increase the certainty of knowledge by limiting it to less consequential things. It makes the cosmic egg more like a Faberge egg — ornate, beautiful and ultimately useless.
As to God, the claim that modern science can provide no direct evidence for a Being apart from the natural world is tautological. Does Christian expect transcendence to be like a gas that glows blue when heated?
Christian’s view of the universe has an impressive breadth. But it is shallow. Scientism always involves reductionism. “A man who has lived and loved,” said G.K. Chesterton, “falls down dead and worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like.” If loyalty is really chemistry, and truth is just the wisp of electric current in a 3-pound piece of meat, this is not enough to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. It is not even enough to divert a class of students who hear the call of a fall afternoon, and love, and a vast sky, full of meaning.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. He is cohosting a new, limited-run PBS interview program “In Principle” that runs Fridays at 7:30 p.m. CST. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.