Book Review: Origin Story by David Christian

“Origin Story: a big history of everything” has some overlap with Sapiens, which I reviewed here: both talk a great deal about human history, and seemed to agree on the major points. This book starts a lot further left on the timeline, Sapiens focuses a lot more on the sociology of religion and other common narratives that have tied humans together over time.

Origin Story starts right back at the beginning of the universe; the first few chapters, out of necessity, are a lesson in physics, charting the journey of energy, via gravity, to simple matter. At some point physics becomes chemistry, chemistry becomes biology, biology becomes evolution, which eventually gives rise to sociology and so on.

What I really enjoyed was that at each stage the author, David Christian, brought the progress back to entropy, and thermodynamics – flows of energy – and how certain changes, maybe in the atmosphere, or in evolutionary biology, gave rise or access to new densities of energy which then enabled even more rapid changes. Organisms which evolved respiration had access to much more energy than those which photosynthesized. Hominids who used fire could eat many more things and so they had access to much more energy, making them able to move further and spend time doing things other than foraging. Farming made certain kinds of food abundant, and paved the way for artisans and knowledge workers. Coal and steam engines, oil and internal combustion engines, modern efficient nuclear and renewable energy sources, fusion. Each step bringing a greater rate of change to how we experience life.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for me is this: we are the only species (on this planet, at least) ever to have the ability to consciously, deliberately influence our universe. The microbial life that made the atmosphere oxygen rich, enabling respiratory organisms to take over and thrive had no choice. The dinosaurs that were wiped out by asteroid impacts, leaving room for smaller creatures like mammals to thrive had no choice. Humanity is currently witnessing something a bit like a mass extinction event (biodiversity on Earth is dropping very rapidly), and we may even be to blame, but we actually have the ability to do something about it.

I think this book is a must-read, and I can see why Bill Gates put it on his summer list last year. Read this book, and then get inspired about the idea that if we can pull together as a species, we have the ability to steer our destiny, an ability which no other species on Earth has ever had.

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