Book Review: Origin Story – The Big History of Everything, by David Christian

What a terrific book! This "Big History" is relatively new, published in May 2018. and a wonderful selection of my men's book club. At 287 pages, it is not too long, and has another fifty-plus pages of a very complete Appendix and Glossary. David Christian is brilliant and thorough: the book's story scope includes everything from the Big Bang to the formation of our solar system, then life on Earth from the very earliest on through ice ages, dinosaurs and homo-sapiens, and on to modernity including fossil fuels, moon landings and explosive numerical expansion of humanity around the globe. He ends with a "what happens next" section, which pales a bit compared to the brilliance of the "what has happened already."

I read with such interest that my notes included twenty (whew!) handwritten pages so it's hard to summarize any specifics...yet here are a few highlights:

*Calculation of energy required to power development of plant and human life and industry, a brilliant approach.

*DNA and RNA discoveries - all since 1953! DNA is described as "stirred around," and not simply copied.

*The Biblical creation story including all life, animals and Adam and Eve is quaintly nice and neat but clearly not correct. However, one can awe at the greatness of the "Origin Story" as laid out here and easily accept a universal albeit somewhat Divine guiding hand, if one is so inclined. The book has a very good description of the evolution of apes from primitive forms to the great apes to hominoids and then to present forms including orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and finally humans. Science shows that chimps and humans diverged genetically only about 250,000 years ago. There are only 4% different genomes between chimps and humans! Now, only 100,ooo chimps survive but seven million humans exist. Emotions and basic memory are described.

*Even though the human population shrank in the harsh conditions of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, early humans evolved and lived in Africa only 100,000 years ago, and a tiny group spread to the current Middle East. People were mobile and moved southward into Australia only 60,000 years ago and to the more distant Americas only 15,000 years ago. One sobering note near the end of the book notes the growth of human population from the year 1800 (900 million) to the present (over seven billion) - a sevenfold expansion/explosion in a relative blink in time.

*Climate change has occurred over and over naturally. At one point in time, glaciers spread from pole to pole, across the equator, with the oceans iced over!  Plate tectonics are described - the land continents do move! Mass extinctions have occurred with over 80% of genres vanished at times! These changes were large trends over and above random disasters such as volcano eruptions and asteroid impacts.  Much more recently, the book outlines mankind-caused stimuli and paints a dire picture unless significant changes are made in terms of fossil fuel consumption.

*The word "oxidation" is described brilliantly, and the little atom, Oxygen, becomes an amazing do-all electron thief that will combine readily (it steals electrons) with other atoms to form many compounds.

*Cultural change happens much faster than genetic change. Early humans were foragers first then farmers second. Farming transformed human ways of life within only a few generations once it was developed and spread rapidly around the world in less than 10,000 years. Domestication of large animals followed.

*Traditional rulers and ruling classes had many options to increase and maintain their wealth, including taxation (and bondage). Distribution of wealth has been uneven, and in 1900, one percent of the population owned *half* of all wealth. At present, the top ten percent of the population owns about 42% of wealth, the forty percent or so in the middle class owns 35%, and the bottom half owns only 23%.

*The book does a good job of summarizing "energy," from natural solar photosynthesis to fossil fuel extraction, the use of steam power, development and application of electricity, and other new technologies. In recent timeframes, the development of European political and military alliances, World Wars I and II, as well as the current Superpower competition between the US and Russia are covered ending with the statement "There are no victors in a nuclear war." All in all, this book is a brilliant summary of the past and "tees up" a good discussion of the future. The late Yogi Berra, of baseball fame, said "Wow! The future. It is hard to predict!" True words indeed.




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