Saturday, November 3, 2012

Three Books Covering It All

Now and then someone writes a hugely ambitious book intended for regular guys like me.  This is what Bill Bryson did in 2003 with A Short History of Nearly Everything.  To be honest I own a copy but I've never actually read it. I listened to the audio recording a couple of times, mostly as I bike to work.  It’s Bryson himself speaking with brightness and enthusiasm matching his prose.  A few days ago I started listening a third time, and shucks, I’m hooked again.  I won't comment on what it means about my memory (hey, we listen to songs we love over and over, right?), but there goes the next six road hours.  Bryson apologizes for the title of his book right away – it's not really about everything that is known, but since he spends a good part on the origin of the universe in a sense it is about everything.  I'm a geographer after all, so my professional opinion is an endorsement. But as I found with a subsequent book, Home, Bill Bryson is much better at writing chapters than he is at titling them.  Some of these: "Muster Mark’s Quarks,” or “Goodby to all That” are just too cute and opaque to do justice to the illuminating and serious content they contain.  On the other hand, his sprinkles of jaunty humor do lighten what could otherwise be, for many of us, a heavy load of STEM disciplines: physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology. 

And that pretty much is the aggregate sum of my complaints.  Bryson takes the reader on – if you can believe this – a romp which starts at the “singularity” -- when matter has an infinite density and zero volume (!?) -- and goes all the way to the advent of homo sapiens.  He uses a long series of pivotal discoveries and a colorful cast of characters (scientists, all) as stepping stones along paths which diverge, dead end, criss-cross, backtrack but in the aggregate move science forward, and move the reader toward understanding.  The book is nicely referenced with end notes, a bibliography, and index.  A word of warning: A whole lot happens before life even begins.  “The Rise of Life” is Chapter 19, page 350.  By the time we get to humankind, Bryson is pretty much winding down. 

That was quite a lot to wrap my mind around so it was a few years before I searched for a book Bryson had referred to fairly often: Richard Fortey’s Life, and Unauthorized Bibliography (1998).  I just could not find it, but I did come across a used copy of his Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, (1997).  I’m guessing it’s the same book?  Seemed so, so I ordered it.   It arrived poorly packaged and had been rained on and the pages were swollen.  But I discovered I could all but flatten it with a couple of weeks in a bench vice  Some of the photographs were nearly ruined, but I got to it eventually, and was not disappointed.

This is a nice companion to Bryson, in a way, and another way it’s a similar run through the same terrain.  Forty’s has an index and glossary but oddly no references or bibliography.  Another big difference, and a welcome one to me, is that Fortey starts life out in Chapter 2; that means he’s basically Earth-bound and thereby skips a whole lot Bryson had gone over.  Almost everything, you could say.  There is no talk of the singularity, the Big Bang, and no hypothetical trips toward the end of a curved universe.  But it’s life onward, and with more pages to do it in.  Fortey’s writing style is clear and engaging but less effervescent than Bryson’s.  He doesn’t continually pause to delight over quirky details of the odd personalities and academic villains amongst history's most brilliant minds.

Though they  start about 10 billion years apart, Bryson and Fortey both end their stories with the rise of homo sapien; neither ventures into the complexities of the modern world except to describe the scientists and discoveries which make the story possible. 

And that is exactly where Richard Dawkins starts – at the advent of homo sapien – in his 2004 tome The Ancestor’s Tale.  But instead of moving forward from there he cleverly goes backward -- from modern humans to the origin of life.  It's brilliant.  He covers the same time period as Fortey: 3.5 billion years.  But  where Fortey started at the seed and followed life up through time,  Dawkins starts at a leaf – modern man – and travels downward from twig to larger twig to branch to larger branch, converging at last with all life forms.  There are 39 junctions, or “rendezvous,” along the way.  Each juncture lets him comment on the diverging branches and their own twigs, but he always comes right back to the human ancestry to go one branch lower.  It reminds me of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, by which I traced my paternal lineage backward (with genetic markers).  At each each generation backward I expanded my contemporary circle of kin.     My Y chromosome, used by the Genographic Project, passes only from male to male so at each generation the female line is ignored and that male ancestor contributed half again of what is now me.  Go back 2,000 generations and it's really just an interesting academic exercise; I'm  homeopathically diluted.  However, and ironically, in tracing the evolutionary tree this doesn't happen.  All of what humans were to become was embedded, long, long ago, in something like a small mouse.  It wasn’t a mouse, but its genetic offspring became a mouse, and a beaver, and a lot more, and us.  It was a common ancestor.   

As you might imagine, the journey backward is a familiar one early on.   Those we encounter are recognizably like us.  After navigating the Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, Ergaster, Habilis, and so on, we come to rendezvous #1 about 6 million years ago where we meet up with the ancestor of modern chimpanzees.    In rrendezvous #3 we merge with gorillas', #6 is New World Monkeys', and #9 tree shrews'.  You can see where this is going; farther back the company gets more general and less, we are sure to feel, like ourselves.  Rendezvous #17 is with amphibians, #22 with lampreys and hagfish, # 31 sponges, #36 plants, until the end, #39 … eubacteria.  There are replicating iota even farther back … protobacteria, DNA, RNA … but these are not yet “life” as we think of it.

As I was going through this I thought surely the farther I went the drier and drier it would become and the more difficult it would be to stay interested.  But if anyone has a knack for drawing out the true wonder of the natural world, it’s Richard Dawkins and I found the latter chapters excellent reading too.

Each of these books is truly an epic.  Adding Bryson (574 pages of text), Fortey (315 pages) and Dawkins (614 pages) one has more than 1,500 pages and that's enough to ruminate on for quite awhile.  If you're an extreme reader, add on the 192 pages of notes, references and bibliography. 

Yes, these are potentially intimidating books, to be sure.  But if you pick up a copy of one (maybe start with Dawkins) – don’t be surprised if you get sucked right in to emerge -- one way or another -- 3.5 billion years, or 14 billion, later.