Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World

Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World

by Oren Harman


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A brilliant lyrical exploration of how modern science illuminates what it means to be human, from the award-winning author of The Price of Altruism

We no longer think, like the ancient Chinese did, that the world was hatched from an egg, or, like the Maori, that it came from the tearing-apart of a love embrace. The Greeks told of a tempestuous Hera and a cunning Zeus, but we now use genes and natural selection to explain fear and desire, and physics to demystify the workings of the universe.

Science is an astounding achievement, but are we really any wiser than the ancients? Has science revealed the secrets of fate and immortality? Has it provided protection from jealousy or love? There are those who believe that science has replaced faith, but must it also be a death knell for mythology?

Evolutions brings to life the latest scientific thinking on the birth of the universe and the solar system, the journey from a single cell all the way to our human minds. Reawakening our sense of wonder and terror at the world around us and within us, Oren Harman uses modern science to create new and original mythologies. Here are the earth and the moon presenting a cosmological view of motherhood, a panicking mitochondrion introducing sex and death to the world, the loneliness of consciousness emerging from the memory of an octopus, and the birth of language in evolution summoning humankind’s struggle with truth. Science may not solve our existential puzzles, but like the age-old legends, its magical discoveries can help us continue the never-ending search.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538415
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 332,176
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Oren Harman’s book The Price of Altruism won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is a renowned professor of the history of science and the Chair of the Program in Science Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University.

Read an Excerpt





Pythagoras called it "the All."

When it came to be, it already contained all that was and all that will be, all the matter and all the energy, all the stars and planets and galaxies, the budding leaves and broken hearts. Every drop that would ever evaporate, or fall silently upon a rock, all were there from the beginning. The beginning of time gave birth to all future time, to philosophy and mathematics. Believing this truth, men have desperately sought to flee the consequence.

Nearly 14 billion years ago was when "the All" began; if you had blinked, you would have missed it.

We call it the Universe.


But the Universe was not always the Universe. In the beginning it was merely the World, at least according to the early humans.

The Babylonians thought that the vaults of the Earth and the Heavens were wrought from the ribs of Tiamat, torn to pieces by her son Marduk, her teary eyes becoming the Tigris and the Euphrates, her tail the Milky Way.

The Norse, to the contrary, had it all begin with a giant created when fire and ice met in the abyss of Ginnungagap. As Ymir was suckled by the cow Auðhumla, his sweat gave rise to more giants, spontaneously, and these to still more descendants, including Odin. It was Odin's two brothers, Vili and Ve, who slew their progenitor's progenitor, as told in the Song of the Hooded One: "From Ymir's flesh the earth was created / And from his blood the Sea / Mountains from bone / Trees from hair / And from his skull the sky / And from his eyebrows the blithe gods made / Migdard, home of the sons of men / And from his brains / They sculpted the grim clouds."

The Maori, too, thought there had been a beginning. The father sky and earth mother were inseparable lovers locked in an embrace, but their passion was the curse of their children, trapped in darkness between them. After a time, the sons would have no more. Rongo, the god of cultivated food, tried to push his parents apart but could not break their love clinch. Tangaroa, the god of the sea, and his brother Haumia-tiketike, god of wild food, joined in, but they too failed to make a separation. Only after many attempts, lying on his back on his mother and pushing with his powerful legs against his father, did the god of forests and birds, Tane, finally force his parents apart. For the first time, light and space came to the world and the sons were happy. But one son, the god of storms and wind, Tawhirimatea, could not bear the sound of his parents' cries and vowed to avenge their sorrow. Ever since, hurricanes and thunderstorms and rain and mist and fog and whirlwinds have troubled the earth and its seas and fields and forests and fish and lizards and humans. And the sundered father sky, Rangi, and mother earth, Papa, forever continue to yearn.

This is not all. The Chinese believed the world hatched from an egg, and Aristotle that it was eternal.


The Universe was born approximately 13.799 billion years ago. It was not from a chicken or a dismembered corpse or a broken love embrace, but from a Big Bang that the Universe came. Nor was it just our own heavens and Earth that were created: our Solar System belongs in a galaxy of billions of stars, itself a galaxy among billions of galaxies. On large scales, the galaxies are uniform: there is no edge, nor heart, to the Universe.


First there was nothing: no Time, no Space, no Cause. Lucretius said that nothing can come from nothing, but he was wrong, according to the Scientists. For the Big Bang came from nothing at all, heralding the arrival of the forces that would seed and carve the Universe. One day they would be named the Weak Force and the Strong Force and the force of the fields, Magnetic and Electric, and the scrawniest force of all, Gravity.

When Time began after the Big Bang, well before the Scientists, all the forces were one, none yet stronger than the other. The forces were still united, but unity would prove fleeting. It was the Planck Epoch, dense and sweltering and dark and symmetrical. Epochs are long; this one lasted 10-43 seconds. After that the forces demanded to separate.

Gravity, suddenly the weakest of all, was the first to break away. What did she have to offer? After all, the Universe was only 10-35 meters long. But then the Strong Force stripped away, too, and there came the great Cosmic Inflation. In an instant, the Universe was as large as a grapefruit. Gravity would one day have her comeuppance: in this expanding Universe, true power would be exercised at a distance.

Great wars followed. In the cauldron, Matter and Anti-Matter became adversaries. And so when the Gluons gave rise to the Quarks, the Anti-Quarks marched out to fight them. Only one in a billion Quarks survived the onslaught, a narrow escape. From this remnant all matter would form.

It was time to consolidate. The Higgs Boson had already made mass possible. Stretched to a billion kilometers in diameter, the Universe had now cooled down to a mere trillion degrees. And so as Gravity looked on from afar, powerless, the surviving Quarks summoned the Strong Force to pull them together, giving birth to the Hadrons. No sooner had the Hadrons come into being than Anti-Hadrons materialized to annihilate them. Once again, just barely, Matter survived.

From a speck of nothing, the Universe had grown 100 billion kilometers in caliber. Looking at the clock ever since the Big Bang, incredibly, Time registered one second passed.


The path was now determined, just an instant from the start. And as the Universe continued to cool, the Hadrons stayed close together, fusing to form the first stable elements: Hydrogen, Helium, and trace amounts of Lithium. After twenty minutes, abruptly, as if scorned, they shut down all nuclear fusion, too cold to be able to stay together. For 380,000 years the Universe would drift in darkness, all wavelengths of light immediately absorbed by the free Electrons, a dense, searing plasma of formlessness. Gradually, as the freed Electrons were captured by the Atoms, Photons would decouple from Matter, escaping, traveling long distances before scattering, rendering the Universe transparent for the first time. Gas clouds would condense. Over billions of years, stars would form, and galaxies. The Dark Age would end. Heavy elements would be born. Light and Life would come to the Universe. And from them, eventually, Love.

The path was determined, but there was a catch: against all odds, the Universe continued expanding. It was Hubble who saw this, in 1929. Gravity had pulled the cosmic constellations into place, but the galaxies were spinning away from one another, the aggregates of all our future joys and sorrows disbanding.

Measuring the rate at which the Universe was expanding, two generations after Hubble, the Astronomers in 1998 would discover something even more astonishing: the expansion was not slowing down but accelerating. It was as if an apple had been hurled into the sky and kept on going faster as it rose. If they could, the other forces might have chuckled at the spectacle: Gravity had chosen distance as her ally, but distance had betrayed her, laughing in her face.

From beyond the grave, Einstein came to the rescue. Gravity, his mathematics showed, can push things apart as well as pull them together. Great truths are one and the opposite, just as Bohr had thought. Einstein didn't believe it at the time because no one had seen it. But the Universe had created a mist that made expansion possible. And soon we would give it a name.


Dark Energy was beguiling.

After all, to generate the repulsive Gravity for the accelerated expansion of the Universe, Dark Energy would need to exist in precisely the density of Planck units revealed to us by the Astronomers:

0.000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000000000136

Even the smallest deviation in this cosmic number would forever change reality: subtract one zero after the decimal point, and the Universe would be so dense that the galaxies would collapse in on themselves; change the 6 on the tail to a 7, and Gravity would paradoxically be pushing out so fast against the mist that galaxies wouldn't form at all. The 300 sextillion known stars and 100 billion known galaxies are but a fraction of the Universe; with space expanding faster than light can traverse it, what lies beyond remains opaque. Still, one thing the Astronomers do know: with even the slightest tweak to the amount of Dark Energy, "the All," as well as the possibility for Love and every departure from it, would vanish like a morning mist.


It seemed rather capricious if not altogether irresponsible. Why should such weight be placed on Dark Energy's narrow shoulders? Many Philosophers and Theologians claimed they had an answer.

It was then that the Universe revealed its precious secret to one group of believers, or so these people thought. These men and women believed in Strings so small even pygmy fleas couldn't hear their vibration. Neither depth nor height nor width could suffice to carry their intricate melodies, but the music they played was the most perfect of symphonies, uniting all the forces.

For despite appearances, tucked away undetected in extra dimensions, it was the Strings who had pulled away Gravity and the Strong Force to ignite the Cosmic Inflation. It was they who summoned the Quarks and the Anti-Quarks, and after them the Hadrons and Anti-Hadrons. And when the Electrons were captured, and the elements were wrought, and the gas clouds condensed and the stars and galaxies were created, it was the Strings who invited Dark Energy, just so, no more or less, to reveal the Janus face of Gravity. No one had ever seen them, it is true, but the mathematicsdemanded them, and the implications were dramatic. For from thence all the loves and all laughter, all songs and all sorrows, all grudges and all grievances would come flowing.


But here was the lie, of cosmic proportions: The Universe was not alone.

If the Dark Energy was to exist, at least 10500 other universes were necessary, each with Strings tucked in hidden dimensions plucking a distinctive Dark Energy melody of their own. There would be the universe with

0.000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000 0000000136

density of Dark Energy, and the one with

0.000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000 000000000000000000136

and another with

0.111111111111111111111111111111 111111111111111

and a fourth


and a fifth


ad infinitum. Each would have different dimensions and different music, different elements and forces, some say a different mathematics or even philosophy. Our Universe, by pen-and-pencil fiat, was just one in a vast crowd. It had not come from a chicken or a dismembered corpse or a broken love embrace, but from a Big Bang burped by nothingness. Thus every drop that had ever evaporated, every future heart that would be broken or healed — even logic and all departures from it — had been tricked into believing in their uniqueness.

Nor was this the end of it. For the nothingness that had produced the Big Bang was insatiable, a fuel that could not be extinguished. This is the gospel the String Theorists proclaimed: the Big Bang had birthed our Universe, floating on a Bubble, but there had been many Big Bangs, and many Bubbles, all birthed by nothingness. Nor could the Bubbles touch or ever know each other, some said — all 10500 of them with their 10500 universes.

The Dark Energy had let out an even darker truth. Without all its zeros after the decimal point, without its precise tail and our incredulity over its narrow shoulders, we would have never known about the Strings or Bubbles or Universes in the first place, nor could we imagine limits to our supposed boundless imaginations. But the dimensions of our own Universe that would bring about all future yearnings, the unseen vibrations that would mend and break again all hearts, the masses of the particles, the strength of the Strong Forces, the restored pride of Gravity — none, in the end, could ever have been intended.

Instead they were just one of infinite possibilities, necessary to no one but us.





I am worshipped across the lands. The Egyptians call me Re and believe that my tears made the humans. To the Greeks I am Apollo, born on the island of Delos and professing all futures from Delphi. At their temples in Tenochtitlán, on the other side of the world, the Aztecs make human sacrifices to me, Tonatiuh, so that I have the strength to keep holding up the Universe. In Rome I heal, and in Sumeria I am Utu-Shamash, sitting on a throne, beholding the land, the merciful God of Justice.

In different cultures I take on different guises: Once I am a falcon with a serpent wrapped around my neck, once a blue hummingbird. I am a dung beetle, a lion, a ram-head in the Underworld.

My brother misbehaved and so I hid from him in a cave, closing the entrance behind me with a giant rock. Then the evil spirits came out, and the world went dark. Unhappy, the gods decided to lure me back, throwing a party outside the cave and placing a mirror in front of it — this is what the Shintoists say. Accompanied by music, the goddess of laughter began to dance, and hearing the music outside, I grew curious. When I peeped through a crevasse in the giant rock, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and fell in love. That is when I, Amaterasu, came out of the cave and light returned to the world.

This is what others believe. But here is what I know: I am the center of the Universe. Around me the planets dance. Those who come too close burn at my fire; those too far suffer cold for their distance. But even there, none escapes me. Even in the cold far reaches, all are under my spell.

The planets circle me, in step, counterclockwise. Yearning for my warmth, they follow my every turn. The planets circle me, but I burn only for myself.

Everything revolves around me.

Nothing eludes me.

Light comes from me to the world.


That is what the Sun would say if it could talk, but the Sun, like its worshippers, does not know itself.

Here is the truth:

The Sun is a middle-aged, G-type main-sequence star. It was born 4.6 billion years ago, and will die 5 billion years hence.


Self-delusion is a drug.

In the beginning there was just a giant lazy cloud of gas and dust. This was 9 billion years after the birth of the Universe. But then shock waves arrived, perhaps from a nearby supernova, and the cloud collapsed into itself and began to spin in obedience to Gravity. And the more the cloud spun, the hotter and denser its core became. And as matter fell toward the growing core, following once more the dictates of Gravity, a blazing ball began to form, trapping all radiation, like a wild animal dragging food into its den. After 50 million years, a blink in the life of the Universe, as the matter condensed, the temperature in the core had risen to 10 million degrees Kelvin. Squeezed together as if in a vise, the Hydrogen in the ball began to fuse into Helium. Then came a giant explosion. This is how the Sun was born.

And so it was all Gravity's work, Gravity and its sidekick, Angular Momentum. And as the explosion rippled through Space, the planets formed in the Solar Nebula. First they were just refuse dust grains, blown-out ejecta orbiting the central proto-Sun. Gradually they gathered into clusters, then collided to form larger bodies, all spinning around the Sun like drunken sentries. In the beginning there were hundreds, even thousands of them, but only eight abided, with an asteroid belt running between them. The origin was unremarkable: as beer is made from barley, hops, yeast, and water, so the Solar System was made from gas and dust and Gravity and Angular Momentum. All the planets revolve around the Sun, but the Sun itself was never a design, just a consequence.


Arrogance is blinding, and yet this much is undeniable: the Sun is the center of the Solar System. Even beyond Neptune, past the farthest reaches of the Kuiper Belt, 7.5 billion kilometers, or 50 AU, distant — even there the pull of the Sun is felt. Perhaps it should not surprise us: the Sun's mass is nearly 99 percent of the Solar System's, and Earth would fit into it a million times. But that is not the end of it. For one light-year is more than a thousand times that distance. And objects two light-years away are pulled by Gravity to the Sun.

Yes, the Solar System revolves around the Central One — even that elliptical eccentric, Halley's Comet. Blazing between Mercury and Venus or out near Pluto on its journey, it too, like everyone else, is on the leash of the Sun.

Such facts have led to a fantasy of solar proportions: after all, Halley's Comet, like everyone else, is nothing but a jailbird. The Sun's pride is based on an unfortunate misunderstanding: It is not for love that the planets circle it. It is because they are hopelessly trapped.


Excerpted from "Evolutions"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Oren Harman.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 3

Fate: The Birth of the Universe 23

Hubris: The Creation of the Solar System 37

Motherhood: The Earth and the Moon 47

Immortality: Life Comes to the Planet 57

Love: The Web of Life 67

Freedom: Symbiosis 77

Death: Sex 87

Pride: The Origins of Multicellularity 99

Jealousy: The Invention of the Eye 109

Curiosity: Onto Land 121

Solitude: Into the Air 135

Sacrifice: Return to the Sea 147

Memory: The Beginnings of Consciousness 157

Truth: Language Is Born 169

Hope: Tricks of the Mind 179

Illuminations 193

Acknowledgments 241

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Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is exactly what it states on the cover - 15 myths that explain our world - but it is not a comparative mythology text or a book that refutes misconceptions of evolution. In this book, Oren Harman takes some of the current scientific knowledge (about the formation of the universe, Earth, and evolution of various organisms) and formulates it into 15 mythological "stories", usually from someone's perspective (e.g. Mother Earth, a trilobite). The writing style is fanciful and lyrical, occassionally overly verbose. I'm really not sure who the target audience of this book is supposed to be. If you have knowledge of the topics the author covers, you might find this book amusing, though you won't find any new information. If your scientific knowledge is limited, then most of these 15 myths will probably be confusing to you. Personally I found the Chapter "Illuminations", which provides references and explains where the author got his information, more interesting than all the fuzzy mythological stories. In my opinion, this book is either very clever or very silly, depending on the readers mood and inclination for expecting something more substantial than wierd stories touted as myths. I really was hoping for more meat and less fluffiness. NOTE: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my honest opinion of the book.