‘Origins: Cosmos, Earth and Mankind’ is a classic work in the Big History movement. Discover how it outlines the evolution of the Universe and its meaning for our lives together.
I went to an enormous high school. We had over 1,800 students. It was a small town then, but kids were bused into our central school from all over the county for their secondary education.
The teachers didn’t know one another, let alone the students. In that atmosphere, I could sense a Chinese Wall between departments and, therefore, between subjects.
For example, one day, our biology teacher, Mr. Pollard, talked about the category of plants known as gymnosperms. He explained that the term meant “naked seed” in Latin.
Chinese Wall Between Departments and Subjects
He went on to say that “gymnos” means “naked” in Greek. He said that we call an athletic centre a gymnasium because the Greeks used to exercise in the nude.
When his class showed some teenage skepticism, he asked me to check with Mr. Bothwell, my history teacher, to back up his claim. It made me wonder why they couldn’t simply speak to each other.
This was an example of the way academic disciplines worked when I was young. Sciences and humanities were roped off from one another, making it was hard for both experts and laypeople to grasp the big picture.
Rise of the Big History Movement
That started to change in the 1990s with the rise of the Big History movement. Historian David Christian of McQuarrie University in Australia pioneered this new approach to teaching his subject.
Big History studies our past by placing humanity in the context of cosmology and natural history. Proponents of Big History also prefer to take a multidisciplinary approach, blurring the lines between academic subjects.
In France, journalist Dominique Simmonnet embraced this movement. For his classic book Origins: Cosmos, Earth, and Mankind, he interviewed three noted scientists, an astrophysicist, an organic chemist, and an anthropologist. Their names are Hubert Reeves, Joel de Rosnay and Yves Coppens, respectively. Simonnet shared his writing credit with his three interviewees.
Jargon-Free Zone, Familiar and Casual
Concerned that too many books about science are inaccessible, Simmonet’s book lays out the story in plain language. This is a jargon-free zone, and the tone is very familiar and casual.
Adding to the familiarity, Origins is structured like a play in three acts-Act One: Universe, Act Two: Life, and Act Three: Mankind. Each “act” contains three chapters called “scenes.” The author seems determined to present this information comfortably.
As Simonnet explains, “What this book intends is to describe, in easily understandable terms, is the new history of the Universe and the world (by which we mean the Earth), relying on the latest scientific knowledge.”
“New History of the Universe and the World”
In Act One, Hubert Reeves sets the stage by explaining the Big Bang. He addresses a fundamental question about why many people find the Big Bang counterintuitive.
“If there is an origin of the Universe, then that is also where time began. Therefore there is no “before.”
This idea troubles many people. How can time have a beginning? What was going on before the start of time? With humility, Reeves admits that we don’t know and probably can’t know. It’s not for small minds to ponder.
“Story of Matter Becoming More and More Organized”
So, the Universe begins with the Big Bang, and a remarkable process emerges. The physical world evolves, becoming more and more orderly. Reeves says, “The story of the Universe is the story of matter becoming more and more organized.”
Particles consolidated as the Universe cooled and nature’s four forces began to influence them. The strong nuclear force joined the protons and neutrons into nuclei.
Electromagnetism caused the atoms to bind together. Gravity organized matter at the larger scales to form galaxies and stars. Finally, the weak nuclear force induced radioactive decay.
Essential Theme in Big History Is Evolution
The essential theme in Big History is evolution. However, Big History defines that term differently. In the past, scientists and historians viewed inanimate matter and living things as entirely separate and unrelated.
Recent discoveries have changed that worldview. As Joel de Rosnay explains in Act Two of Origins, “Life resulted from a long evolution of matter that has been taking place on Earth ever since the first agglomerations of the Big Bang.”
From this point of view, there’s only one evolutionary process going on all over the Universe. The evolution of particles, atoms, stars and planets is the same progression as that of cells, plants, animals and humans.
Same Evolution As Cells, Plants, Animals and Humans
Molecules became more complex and began to replicate themselves. This included RNA and eventually DNA.
Cells arose from this recombinant matter, and almost from the beginning, they developed cultures that supported one another. These cellular structures grew into multicellular organisms. Then, species flourished in the oceans and then on land.
Act Three of Origins begins with Yves Coppens introducing Humanity to our stage. He reminds us of the initial resistance to Darwin’s claims that humans and other primates share a common ancestor.
Human Ancestors Introduced Consciousness and Culture
Our human ancestors introduced two new traits to the Earth — consciousness and culture. As Coppens explains, “To realize that each of us is unique and irreplaceable, that the disappearance of a single human is an irretrievable drama, for me is the definition of reflective consciousness.”
As the curtain falls on Act Three, Coppens goes on to say, “It took the full course of evolution, of the Universe, of Earth, of Humanity, to acquire this fragile freedom with which we’re blessed, the freedom that gives us our dignity and responsibility.”
Origins closes with a group epilogue in which de Rosnay says, “We might say we’re in the process of inventing a new form of life: a planetary macro-organism that encompasses the living world and all human production.”
Sphere of Human Consciousness that We’re All Creating
Others have called this idea the noosphere. The term refers to a kind of sphere of human consciousness that we’re all creating. For example, the pandemic has reminded us of our ability to communicate with others around the world in real-time. It’s as if we’re the cells that make up a larger, global organism.
Origins is a remarkable book. It covers a lot of ground, and it exposes the reader to some very profound thoughts. I consider it a must-read for Dare to Know readers because it encapsulates the connection between the Universe, Nature and Humanity and outlines what that means for our lives together.
The ideas presented are profound, but some readers may find that Simonnet doesn’t delve into the science as deeply as they might like. Sometimes when we only consider the big picture, we gloss over vital details.
Definitive Work on Big History Will Appeal to Everyone
I’d also suggest that Simonnet might be too keen to draw connections between these three branches of science. In the same way, his plan seems to include drawing parallels between science, philosophy and religion that facts and evidence might not fully support.
Still, Origins is a definitive work on Big History will appeal to everyone. Its accessible style makes it a pleasure to read. I’ll give Simonnet the last word.
“Our story, of course, is far from finished. One might even say it is just beginning. For it seems clear that the inexorable movement from the simple toward the complex is still going on, as is evolution itself.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Origins: Cosmos, Earth, and Mankind (Hard copy)
Origins: Cosmos, Earth, and Mankind (eBook)
The 5 Big Questions We Need Cosmology to Answer
The View from the Center of the Universe
Originally published at http://daretoknow.ca on March 28, 2021.