When I was a boy, my mother read me the myth of Icarus. I wept on my pillow when the wax attaching the wings to his slender body melted, sending him tumbling to the ground from high above. Why hadn’t he heeded his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun? It was a kind of hubris, and curiosity, wasn’t it? And I knew that I couldn’t always control mine either.
In those days I’d spend hours at the Museum of Natural History [in New York]. Looking up from my little frame at the giant dinosaurs, I felt a sense of wonder and astonishment. Was it true that these creatures walked the Earth millions of years ago, when our ancestors were frightened shrews scurrying between their shadows?
To me, the mysteries of mythology and the mysteries of science were one of a piece. Both pointed deep into the caverns of our humanity, challenging us to think about who we are and why.
And yet there was a clash: science promised to be a replacement for mythology. The Chinese believed that the world hatched from an egg and the Maori that it was born of a broken love embrace between the Father Sky and Mother Earth. We moderns knew better: it had come from a Big Bang. The ancient Greeks spoke of a jealous Hera and a tempestuous Zeus, but we use genes and natural selection to understand jealousy and desire, and we marshal physics, rather than imagined thunderbolts, to explain the workings of our universe.
There are truths in this world, after all, that even science cannot touch
Something in me told me that as much as science had replaced religion in many people’s minds, it needn’t be a death toll to mythology. There are truths in this world, after all, that even science cannot touch. It was these truths – like the meaning of love and death and freedom and sacrifice, the mysteriousness of fate and trickiness of hope – that when all is said and done, matter most.
I eventually grew up to become a professor of the history and philosophy of science and a writer, but my earlier intuitions never left me. The higher the modern world flew, just like Icarus, the more did it seem to me that its wings were also melting.
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Certainly there were longer life spans and fewer wars now, agricultural yields up a million fold, global travel, human rights, knowledge at the fingertips, the Internet of things. But there were also weapons of mass destruction, gross inequalities and economic injustices, fundamentalism, nationalism, government and corporate surveillance and continued spread of disease. There was a hubris to us moderns that was crucial to striving forward. But it also created a blind spot, making us think that we were gods.
Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain our World is my attempt as a grown man to reconcile the feelings I felt as a boy reading about Icarus and looking up at the bygone dinosaurs. In the book I retell in myth-like, short-story form, the great saga of the birth of the universe and the creation of life on Earth – from trembling molecules to evolving creatures that learned how to brave the waters and come onto land, to have sex and to fly, to see and communicate, to build societies and cooperate, until, in the form of us humans, they imaged infinity and the very origins of the Universe.
Using our latest cutting-edge scientific knowledge to describe how things developed from simple origins, the book offers a challenge to our hubris: despite our amazing iPhones and immunotherapy, notwithstanding skyscrapers and the World Wide Web, even considering democracy and rights for the disenfranchised, are we really any wiser than the ancients were about our own humanity? And can science provide solutions to all our problems?
In Evolutions we learn that String Theory and the Big Bang are just as mysterious as a world hatching out of an egg, and, considering the origin of the moon, the Earth offers us a cosmological slant on motherhood. When life began, the logic of evolution ordained that ignorance of what lay ahead become the future’s own price, bringing meaning to this world, alongside pain and solitude.
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A tiny mitochondrion teaches us that without sex, life would not have survived, but that we are destined to die for that very same reason. Diving into the waters with an octopus, we experience another form of consciousness, and considering how Homo erectus first began to use language, we discover that the lie defines us more than the truth.
We know all of this thanks to amazing advancements in astrophysics and computer science, palaeontology and genetics, psychology, brain science and linguistics. But will science uncover the deepest riddles of the very human natures that produced world mythologies in the first place? Should we want it to? Join me on a journey to find out.