Are there answers to the eternal questions of what we are and how we came to be that are based entirely on the scientific method? These days anyone can provide better answers than Genesis and hundreds of other origin myths, but can we construct a narrative based only on science, one that leaves no space for divine intervention? Read “A Short History of Evolution” and judge for yourself.
A few years ago I was at a meeting with Salman Rushdie and someone asked him if he wrote an outline before he started to write a novel. He looked surprised and said, “Why no, I never know how a book is going to end when I start it”. I was intrigued by this, having been brought up in the outline first school. I had written two books previously, and to the best of my recollection I had started each of them with a pretty clear idea of where I was going to end up.
I wanted this narrative to be different. I started by ignoring endings and searching only for the proper beginning. It was like composing music in the form of theme and variations. You start with a concept and if it’s a good one things fall into place and you end up with all the variety you want built on an underlying unity, the theme that you started with. Beethoven’s many exercises in the theme and variations pattern sound like they follow that organizing principle. And they make great music.
So does life itself. The trick, of course, is finding the right starting theme. I suppose that for much of my life I have been looking for the right organizing principle to serve as the platform for my evolving ideas about the big issues of what we are and how we got here. So, I suspect, have most people who bother to think about these questions. It was when I reflected on entropy and saw evolution as the opposite that I realized I might be on to something. Here was a theme that began as an organizing principle and ended up fitting the facts I already had in mind. Could it provide the starting point for a science-based narrative that explains life on our planet, from its origin to our present human condition?
Why don’t we already have such a narrative, simple enough to become conventional wisdom, like Genesis and other old origin myths, yet based on what we know rather than our fantasies? Part of the problem used to be that until fairly recently there were too many gaps in what we knew, too many missing links in our attempts to construct a logical chain of evolutionary events. How could we explain the origin of life, or the apparently divine spark that invested our own species with such a singular intelligence? As long as we had to fantasize when filling in these and other gaps, our argument was vulnerable to attack by creationists and others convinced that science would never find all the answers.
A more current problem is that we now have almost too much information. After all, the world’s population has more than doubled during my lifetime, to over seven billion. That affects just about everything, including the number of bright scientists chipping away at the frontiers of what we know. They are not only much more numerous, and much more specialized, they talk to each other, piggybacking on each other’s discoveries like never before, thanks to all the new ways we’ve devised to communicate. So we describe bits and pieces of the elephant and end up knowing an impressive amount about the beast, while still lacking a coherent picture of the whole.
What if we stand on the syntheses of others, try to put those parts together, try to see the beast as a functioning whole? This will require us to simplify even further the streamlined overviews of talented writers who have already accomplished miracles of simplification in their own fields. In that second distillation, much will necessarily be left out, but if we see new patterns it will be worth it. It will be worth it even if we see patterns we already recognize, but in fresh perspectives.
Any sensible reader should stop at this point and ask, fine, but does the author know what he’s talking about? Fair enough. Here are my qualifications, for what they are worth. I started life as the son of one of the last of the old-fashioned general anthropologists, and grew up surrounded by talk about foreign cultures and human origins. I spent three and a half decades in the Foreign Service, back in the days when you could still get out and mingle with people and figure out for yourself what made them tick. After I retired, my wife and I traveled to many remote places we hadn’t seen before, and I wrote a couple of books on cultural differences. I also started a web page, progressive humanism. Meanwhile I collected a whole bookcase of books dealing with the nature and origins of human behavior and related topics.
Here, I’d like to single out a couple of authors whose works have been particularly helpful: Ian Morris, Peter Richerson, Christopher Stringer, Peter Turchin, and the two Wilsons, Edward O. and David Sloan. Beyond books, Pete Richerson has given me invaluable direct advice and counsel.
At this point, it’s time for the usual disclaimer. None of the sources I cite should be held responsible for anything I’ve said. I have played fast and loose with other people’s ideas in my effort to construct a coherent overview of just about everything. I’m more interested in bringing together relatively unfamiliar principles and relationships, and seeing whether even less familiar patterns emerge, than in just adding another account of what has happened to an already overburdened bookshelf. I’m happy to report that I’ve had quite a few of those “aha!” moments of discovery while pulling my material together. I hope the reader will too.