- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; Later Printing edition (May 22, 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780316392006
- ISBN-13: 978-0316392006
- ASIN: 0316392006
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 127 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Origin Story: A Big History of Everything Hardcover – May 22, 2018
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"I have long been a fan of David Christian. In Origin Story, he elegantly weaves evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines into a single, accessible historical narrative."
"In Origin Story, David Christian has found a spectacular way to use history to put order in the entire set of our knowledge about the world. This is a wonderful achievement."
―Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time
"A remarkable book that puts us self-important humans in our proper place in the cosmos, yet also explains why the story of human culture and knowledge -- what Christian calls collective learning -- matters for understanding our present world and shaping its future."―Merry Wiesner-Hanks, President of the World History Association
"David Christian is not one for half measures. Origin Story is a majestic distillation of our current understanding of the birth and development of the universe, of the solar system, of the oceans, of mountains and minerals, of all life on earth and of the driving dynamics of human culture and achievement. All of this in just over 300 pages of captivating prose that weaves together innumerable insights from dozens of disciplines in the sciences, arts and humanities. With fascinating ideas on every page and the page turning energy of a good thriller, this is a landmark work that comes at a time when it has never been more important for humanity as a whole to have a clearer, more informed understanding of our place on earth and of the earth's place in the cosmos."―Sir Ken Robinson, author of The Element
"Mr. Christian tells this story very well, providing, in effect, a short course in modern science. This is a brief history of the universe, and an excellent one."―The Wall St. Journal
"The most powerful example of interdisciplinary scholarship that I know of."―- Fareed Zakaria, CNN
About the Author
David Christian is a Distinguished Professor of History at Macquarie University and director of Macquarie University's Big History Institute. He cofounded the Big History Project with Bill Gates, his Coursera MOOCs are popular around the world, and he is cocreator of the Macquarie University Big History School. He has delivered keynotes at conferences around the world, including the Davos World Economic Forum, and his TED Talk has been viewed more than seven million times. He is the author of numerous books and articles.
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As the author, a historian with extensive teaching credentials at Macquarie University in Sydney, University of Vermont, San Diego State University, to name some, has pointed out: “… in a globally connected world, there are so many local origin stories competing for people’s trust and attention that they get in one another’s way.”
This is the impetus for Christian to write a “big history” from a much broader perspective of human experience and coincidently to co-found with Bill Gates of Microsoft origin, the Big History Project, a free online syllabus about this topic.
The premise of “Origin Story” is there is a relentless struggle between basic components of the universe: evolution of more complex structures and entropy, the general tendency of matter and energy to return to a simple, disorderly state. And humans are part of this process.
Presumably our capacity for collective learning with an evolved emphasis on precise copying and communication is a unique trait distinct from other living forms. Consequently, we are more self-aware and able to accept responsibility for our impact on the biosphere, for however long we will experience big life.
The author defines the rise of complexity in terms of ”thresholds”, or events when the flow of recorded or theorized experience gained complexity: birth of the universe; first stars glow; new elements created; our sun and solar systems form; earliest life on earth; earliest form of human species; end of last ice age and earliest signs of farming; fossil fuels revolution. The last and future threshold touches on the sustainability of a world order.
An imaginative twist to putting these thresholds and timeline in perspective is dividing the estimated number of years by 1 billion: the “big bang” was 13 years, 8 months ago, while the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 24 days ago, the Roman and Han empires 1 minute ago and the fossil-fuel revolution 6 seconds ago.
The book is divided into four sections: Cosmos; Biosphere; Us; The Future. The writing is conversational and comfortable to follow while providing a level of detail and terminology without overwhelming technicality.
Christian carefully reminds that several chance occurrences, besides the much-discussed “Goldilocks zone”, created opportunities for life, as we know it, to evolve. Geo-thermal core, plate tectonics, critical balancing between carbon, oxygen and other elements, the evolution of DNA beyond RNA, the role of prokaryotes – all are presented in fascinating detail.
One area the book might have explored more was the evolution of the pre-frontal lobe or cortex in the human brain. This is a more recent development and seems to be a major, if not decisive, distinction between humans and other species and a likely basis for self-awareness and consciousness.
As a complementary material for the first two sections, you might want to check out online NOVA’s “Australia’s the First 4 Billion Years’” four-part series that helps visualize some of Christian’s observations.
For the third section covering the rise and impact of complex human interactions beyond farming and hunting, the author references Samuel Noah Kramer’s 1963 work, “The Sumerians” (if it helps, here's the link to my Amazon review of Kramer’s work: https://www.amazon.com/review/R37UB92YMPN1U3/ref=cm_cr_othr_d_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8).
In the same section he makes several important references to Thomas Picketty’s 2014 seminal work, “Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century”, to underscore the human and social impact of the rapid industrial development (again, if it helps, here's the link to my Amazon review of Piketty’s work: https://www.amazon.com/review/R3QGVI29BM4HI/ref=cm_cr_othr_d_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8 ) .
The last section about the future seems more focused as a response to today’s political and social events while leaving aside some of the potentially more impactful long-range human developments: artificial intelligence, mixed reality and quantum computing.
All told, “Origin Story” offers a refreshing way to see our human experience. It may also make you wonder whether, one way or another, as TS Eliot wrote in his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men”, it will all come to end “not with a bang but a whimper.”
Now comes an amazing new book that weaves this knowledge into a surprisingly readable 300-page narrative story of the universe for the last 13 billion years. Up till now to attain this updated knowledge you would have to read separate books or take separate courses in each of the above specialties. Christian takes us on an epochal journey from the first milliseconds of the big bang, the formation of atoms and elements to the structural formation of the universe. From there we are taken to the formation of chemical elements to the formation of the earth and the beginning of life in the form of single celled prokaryotes 3 billion years ago. Photosynthesis, Cyanobacteria, plate tectonics all play a role in making our planet unique in our solar system as the only place hospitable for life. Then evolve the Eukaryotes through a combining of more primitive cells to form a new type of oxygen breathing cell, which make all multicellular animals and us possible. With the evolution of large bodied animals comes the evolution of large brains and consciousness. With the appearance of humans comes sharing and generational transmission of information and technologies. This ability proves crucial to the development of globe changing events such as agriculture and the scientific revolution. Along the way to us there were all sorts of blind alleys, near miss encounters and apocalyptic disaster scenarios that didn’t completely play out just by good luck and serendipity. One such occurrence caused by volcanism, happened 70,000 years ago and brought the number of our species to just 10,000 individuals and almost to the brink of extinction. This makes our life and all life on earth as we see it now a miraculous and beautiful occurrence.
In a sense this book while conveying the history of the universe and human societies always emphasizes throughout the fact that energy flows, the laws of thermodynamics are the fundamental factors operating in the physical universe, biological systems and human civilizations. We learn “wealth never really consists of things; it consists of control over energy flows that make, move, mine and transform things”. Agrarian societies and empires could never bring wealth to a majority of the population because they could never produce enough surplus energy. They could only concentrate wealth in an elite ruling class of perhaps 10%-15% of the population. The discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels in the last 200 years, which are nothing more than reservoirs of ancient sunlight, has engendered a huge explosion in the energy, wealth available to human societies and made possible the almost sevenfold explosion of human population, middle classes and advanced western civilization. However, we learn here that the earth has undergone numerous mass extinctions caused by CO2 induced global warming, the last catastrophic one, over 50 million years ago called the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum that wiped out over 50% of all genera on earth. That event was caused by a huge explosion of volcanism emitted CO2. By burning fossil fuels and emitting huge quantities of CO2 in the same manner, are we at the beginning of just such an event? Christian emphasizes that we have reached a critical point in the evolution of life on earth where one species, us, now control the fate of our entire ecosystem. We can put into play our knowledge of how the universe works that we have assiduously garnered over the last several hundred years or we can ignore what we know, instead let greed and tribalism reign and plunge our planet into an unknown future of chaos and destruction where our very survival will be at risk. This must be one of the great turning points in history like the invention of agriculture or the discovery of fossil fuels where mankind has no choice but to utilize his innovative abilities and technologies to harness the sun’s energies directly. I don’t think I have ever encountered a book with more knowledge condensed into one place in such a readable form. You want wisdom and perspective? Read this! JACK
But this is a history book as well. A big-history book. It kept my attention for the majority of the time and I learned a lot, but I confess to skimming through a bit of the pre-farming history. I may revisit that later.
The last part of the book discusses possible human species futures - the good and bad anthropocene. Two promising documents are referenced - one from the United Nations. The other being the Paris Agreement. Of course, every reputable scientist today recognizes the tragedies of Trump. That’s my obvious comment as this author rightfully keeps his political and religious views out of the book.
I highly recommend this book to those who appreciate the scale of the cosmos and our very small part in its grand scheme.