Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World by Owen Harman
Evolutions by Owen Harman is one of the quirkiest popular science books I’ve read, for both good and ill (mostly good). While it’s not the book I’d offer up as the go-to for learning about the history of the universe and life, it’s a lyrical look a’slant at those things in a mythic style (somewhat akin, roughly, to Italo Calvino’s Cosmiccomics) whose different take is worth a look.
Harman begins with a straightforward introduction about myth and science — how they contrast and interact. Myths, he writes, “are humankind’s stories about what we all feel in our guts is fundamental to our humanity but know with our brains can never truly be plumbed.” Shifting to science and more modern times, he tells us that “science pretends to be a replacement for mythology, but in reality is driven by the same hunger for understanding that brought us the gods and the afterlife … and it too is shaped by tales.” The problem with science, he argues, is that it has an arrogance that it promises “the only mysteries worth revealing will succumb” to it in time, but Harman begs to disagree: there are many worthy mysteries not on the path to resolution. “Science gives us knowledge [but not] wisdom.”
The intent (or at least one intent) of Evolutions is to tell today’s scientific stories in the language and style of myth, “to reclaim an age-old task for our flamboyant mother tongue” so today’s science can “help us live more comfortably with the uncertainty of wonder.” The stories themselves, fifteen in all, include: the Big Bang, formation of the solar system, the creation of the moon and its relationship to Earth, the beginning of life and then its subsequent evolution, including rise of multicellularity, movement to land, the start of language.
The tales are told in differing styles and from differing perspectives. The opening section on the Big Bang has an old-time mythic, semi-Biblical style: “They would be named the Weak Force and the Strong Force and the force of the fields, Magnetic and Electric … After that the forces demanded to separate.” That last part is similar to so many myths of how Earth and Sky were separated — sometimes willingly, sometimes not.
The moon segment, meanwhile, is a direct address from a personified Earth to the Moon, as from mother to child: “In the beginning you were so close, just 22,400 kilometers away. What days those were!” This mother-child relationship sometimes offers up a bit of wry humor, as when the Earth notes how the Moon is slowly, inexorably drifting away: “you seem determined … to gain your independence” ― a child’s trait any one will recognize. On the other hand, being born of a collision, the description of the moon’s creation: “ramming violently into my side … like a bully taking me by surprise” has an unfortunate nearness to a rape that quickly turns to being overjoyed “despite the agony and my beaten body” — I’m not sure that’s the best metaphor here.
Sometimes the lyricism, the points-of-view (another is from a whale — a creature who ventured from the sea to land then returned millennia later), the mythic style, the figurative language clearly convey both the concrete details and the inherent sense of wonder in modern scientific theories. At other times, though, they do the opposite, muddying the science and making it less easy to follow rather than easier. The section on the Web of Life (the rise of bacteria, Eukarya, etc.) is one such segment; the one on how/why sex originated is another. Generally, I found the earlier and later sections to be a stronger balance of lucidity and lyricism, while the middle segments became clouded by style’s dominance over clear communication of information.
Finally, the last section is an extended narrative bibliography that also includes some further, more straightforward/concrete explanation of some of the topics covered in the book. It’s an excellent resource for those looking to learn more about any of the areas.
Evolutions is an ambitious book and certainly takes lots of chances. It doesn’t always hit; in fact, I confess it missed a bit more than I would have liked. And sometimes it can feel a bit strained; I wouldn’t call Harman quite the consistent poetic stylist of either Calvino or, perhaps a somewhat closer analogue, Alan Lightman. But the strong segments are quite good and even if the weaker ones muddy the science, I applaud Harman for the variety and risk in them. The good outweighs the bad by a solid if not huge amount, and the last segment makes recommending it easier.