Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian
In Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (2018), David Christian ably does what I would have guessed was nigh on impossible — cover 13+ billion years of history from the Big Bang to current times (and actually further since he takes a quick look in the future as well). It’s a smoothly told, incredibly efficient history that mostly lives up to its subtitle.
At the core of Christian’s “Big History” is an ever-increasing complexity: “in special and unusual environments such as our planet … in these Goldilocks environments, increasing complex things have appeared over many billions” (he is quick to note that “more complex” is not synonymous with “better”). Often, he says, complexity took big leaps forward at various transition points, which he labels “thresholds” and around which he structures the book: “major turning points when already existing things were rearranged or otherwise altered to create something with new, ‘emergent’ properties.”
In all, he offers up eight such thresholds. One through four cover cosmology and the creation of our solar system/planet. The Fifth threshold is the creation/evolution of non-human life on the planet, while the last three occur in human history/culture. Specific examples include formation of planetary bodies or the invention of farming. These thresholds provide a helpful means of organizing what is, after all, a literally incomprehensible amount of time. Another useful aide is how Christian often keeps coming back to the idea of usage of energy as a measuring stick, so that this thread runs through the entire work, whether in discussing the Big Bang, a nova, bacteria, photosynthesis, social cohesion, or the Industrial Revolution. It gives the reader something to hang his/her hat on, so to speak, so that they always have a sort of grounding baseline.
It’s an excellent technique, as is his use of the threshold points, and certainly both are helpful. But to be honest, and this is compliment not complaint, I’m not sure either is necessary because Christian is just so smooth, concise, clear, and efficient in his conveyance of information in Origin Story. He has a knack for giving us just enough information but not too much, enough detail so that we comprehend but not so much that we are overwhelmed. I’d love to be able to say all non-fiction writers have this talent, as one would think it a pre-requisite, but I’d be lying. And even among those that do, I’d say Christian stands in his ability to filter complex concepts to their essential cores.
Granted, I’ve read a lot in these areas, but I feel confident that anyone who has not would feel perfectly at ease here, happily going along for the ride and learning a great deal without ever feeling lost or condescended to. For those like me who have read a lot, say, of cosmology or planetary creation or human evolution, the pleasure here is not in great new insights (it’s definitely not intended to teach new material to those knowledgeable in cosmology and evolution) but in having it all laid out before you as one single, seamless, incredibly concise and lucid story. I can’t say I learned a lot in terms of new information, but usually I’ve picked up this material in scattershot fashion — here’s my cosmology in this book, here’s my information on early life in this book, here’s a lot on human societal evolution in this book. Multiple books adding up to thousands of pages. Obviously, I get a lot more detail that way, but having it all in one place and stripped down allows me to better able hold it all in my head, allows me to place it in context far more easily. And that is just as necessary as learning the tiny details.
The only Origin Story segment I found a little weak was the section picking up human history around the time of the great empires and moving forward. Here is the only place I felt Christian was truly skimming, the only segment that felt a bit perfunctory. And part of that is just because there’s so much more detail that we’re all aware of (say, in comparison to what we know of Neanderthals) that it’s impossible not to know all that’s being glossed over. I’d honestly have preferred ending maybe with the earliest empires — the Mongols maybe, or the great Indian, Chinese, Roman ones, and then not bothering bringing us forward into nation-states, imperialism, capitalism, etc. Of course, that wouldn’t be the entire story, so I can see why he felt the need. And really, this is a niggling complaint — the information as presented is no less lucid or interesting; it just feels its absences a bit more than what came before.
And if he didn’t bring us so far forward, then he wouldn’t be able to point in clear-headed fashion to just how dangerous these times are thanks to us, whether it be in how he details the mass extinction we’ve created to make the world our own or our impact on climate and what that may bring about. It’s a vivid call for responsible action, given that “we are now managing an entire biosphere, and we can do it well or badly.” What he calls the “Good Anthropocene” and the “Bad Anthropocene.”
If you’re looking for an engaging refresher course or in learning for the first time in how the universe and our planet formed, how life came on stage and evolved, how humans rose from a tiny band of primates not all that distinguishable from others at the time to become the dominant force (unfortunately, Christian notes, a destructive one) on the planet, it’s hard to imagine a better resource than Origin Story. Highly recommended.