We arrive in this universe through no choice of our own, at a time and place not of our choosing. For a few moments, like cosmic fireflies, we will travel with other humans, with our parents, with our sisters and brothers, with our children, with friends and enemies. We will travel, too, with other life-forms, from bacteria to baboons, with rocks and oceans and auroras, with moons and meteors, planets and stars, with quarks and photons and supernovas and black holes, with slugs and cell phones, and with lots and lots of empty space. The cavalcade is rich, colorful, cacophonous, and mysterious, and though we humans will eventually leave it, the cavalcade will move on. In the remote future, other travelers will join and leave the cavalcade. Eventually, though, the cavalcade will thin out. Gazillions of years from today, it will fade away like a ghost at dawn, dissolving into the ocean of energy from which it first appeared.
What is this strange crowd we travel with? What is our place in the cavalcade? Where did it set out from, where is it heading, and how will it finally fade away?
Today, we humans can tell the story of the cavalcade better than ever before. We can determine with remarkable accuracy what lurks out there, billions of light-years from Earth, as well as what was going on billions of years ago. We can do this because we have so many more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of knowledge, which makes it easier to figure out what the whole picture may look like. This is an astonishing, and very recent, achievement. Many of the pieces of our origin story fell into place during my own lifetime.
We can build these vast maps of our universe and its past partly because we have large brains, and, like all brainy organisms, we use our brains to create internal maps of the world. These maps provide a sort of virtual reality that helps us find our way. We can never see the world directly in all its detail; that would require a brain as big as the universe. But we can create simple maps of a fantastically complicated reality, and we know that those maps correspond to important aspects of the real world. The conventional diagram of the London Underground ignores most of the twists and turns, but it still helps millions of travelers get around the city. This book offers a sort of London Underground map of the universe.
What makes humans different from all other brainy species is language, a communication tool that is extraordinarily powerful because it allows us to share our individual world maps and, in so doing, form maps much larger and more detailed than those created by an individual brain. Sharing also allows us to test the details of our maps against millions of other maps. In this way, each group of humans builds up an understanding of the world that combines the insights, ideas, and thoughts of many people over thousands of years and many generations. Pixel by pixel, through this process of collective learning, humans have built increasingly rich maps of the universe during the two hundred thousand years of our existence as a species. What this means is that one small part of the universe is beginning to look at itself. It’s as if the universe were slowly opening an eye after a long sleep. Today, that eye is seeing more and more, with the help of global exchanges of ideas and infor- mation; the precision and rigor of modern science; new research instruments, from atom-smashing particle colliders to space- based telescopes; and networks of computers with colossal number-crunching powers.
The story these maps tell us is the grandest story you can imagine.
As a child, I could not make sense of anything unless I could place it on some sort of map. Like many people, I struggled to link the isolated fields I studied. Literature had nothing to do with physics; I could see no connection between philosophy and biology, or religion and mathematics, or economics and ethics. I kept looking for a framework, a sort of world map of the different continents and islands of human knowledge; I wanted to be able to see how they all fitted together. Traditional religious sto- ries never quite worked for me because, having lived in Nigeria as a child, I’d learned very early that different religions offer different, and often contradictory, frameworks for understand- ing how the world came to be as it is.
Today, a new framework for understanding is emerging in our globalized world. It is being built, developed, and propa- gated collectively by thousands of people from multiple scholarly fields and in numerous countries. Linking these insights can help us see things that we cannot see from within the boundaries of a particular discipline; it lets us view the world from a mountaintop instead of from the ground. We can see the links connecting the various scholarly landscapes, so we can think more deeply about broad themes such as the nature of complexity, the nature of life, even the nature of our own species! After all, at present we study humans through many different disciplinary lenses (anthropology, biology, physiology, primatology, psychology, linguistics, history, sociology), but specialization makes it difficult for any individual to stand back far enough to see humanity as a whole.
The search for origin stories that can link different types of knowledge is as old as humanity. I like to imagine a group of people sitting around a fire as the sun was setting forty thou- sand years ago. I picture them on the southern shore of Lake Mungo, in the Willandra Lakes Region of New South Wales, where the oldest human remains in Australia have been found. Today, it is the home of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi people, but we know that their ancestors lived in this region for at least forty-five thousand years.
In 1992, the remains of an ancestor (referred to as Mungo1) discovered by archaeologists in 1968 were finally returned to the local Aboriginal community. This person was a young woman who had been partially cremated.1 Half a kilometer away, remains were found of another person (Mungo 3), probably a man, who died at about age fifty. He had suffered from arthritis and severe dental erosion, probably caused by drawing fibers through his teeth to make nets or cords. His body had been buried with care and reverence and sprinkled with powdered red ocher brought from two hundred kilometers away. Mungo Man was returned to Lake Mungo in November 2017.
Both people died about forty thousand years ago, when the Willandra lakes, which are now dry, were full of water, fish, and shellfish and attracted multitudes of birds and animals that could be hunted or trapped. Life was pretty good around Lake Mungo when they were alive.
In my imagined twilight conversations around the fire, there are girls and boys, older men and women, and parents and grandparents, some wrapped in animal furs and cradling babies. Children are chasing one another at the edge of the lake while adults are finishing a meal of mussels, freshly caught fish and yabbies, and wallaby steak. Slowly, the conversation becomes serious and is taken over by one of the older people. As on many long summer days and cold winter nights, the older people are retelling what they have learned from their ancestors and teachers. They are asking the sort of questions that have always fascinated me: How did the landscape, with its hills and lakes, its valleys and ravines, take shape? Where do the stars come from? When did the first humans live, and where did they come from? Or have we always been here? Are we related to goannas and wallabies and emus? (The answer of both the Lake Mungo people and modern science to that last question is a decisive “Yes!”) The storytellers are teaching history. They are telling stories about how our world was created by powerful forces and beings in the distant past.
Told over many nights and days, their stories describe the big paradigm ideas of the Lake Mungo people. These are the ideas with long legs, the ideas that can stay the course. They fit together to form a vast mosaic of information about the world. Some of the children may find parts of the stories too complex and subtle to take in at first hearing. But they hear the stories many times in different tellings, and they get used to them and to the deep ideas inside the stories. As the children get older, the stories get under their skin. They come to know them intimately and better appreciate their beauty and their subtler details and meanings.
As they talk about the stars, the landscape, the wombats and the wallabies, and the world of their ancestors, the teachers build a shared map of understanding that shows members of the community their place in a rich, beautiful, and sometimes terrifying universe: This is what you are; this is where you came from; this is who existed before you were born; this is the whole thing of which you are a small part; these are the responsibilities and challenges of living in a community of others like yourself. The stories have great power because they are trusted. They feel true because they are based on the best knowledge passed down by ancestors over many generations. They have been checked and rechecked for accuracy, plausibility, and coherence using the rich knowledge of people, of stars, of landscapes, of plants and animals available to the Mungo community and to their ancestors and neighbors.
We can all benefit from the maps our ancestors created. The great French sociologist Émile Durkheim insisted that the maps lurking within origin stories and religions were fundamental to our sense of self. Without them, he argued, people could fall into a sense of despair and meaninglessness so profound, it might drive them to suicide. No wonder almost all societies we know of have put origin stories at the heart of education. In Paleolithic societies, students learned origin stories from their elders, just as later scholars learned the core stories of Christian- ity, Islam, and Buddhism in the universities of Paris, Oxford, Baghdad, and Nalanda.
Yet, curiously, modern secular education lacks a confident origin story that links all domains of understanding. And that may help explain why the sense of disorientation, division, and directionlessness that Durkheim described is palpable everywhere in today’s world, in Delhi or Lima as much as in Lagos or London. The problem is that in a globally connected world, there are so many local origin stories competing for people’s trust and attention that they get in one another’s way. So most modern educators focus on parts of the story, and students learn about their world discipline by discipline. People today learn about things our Lake Mungo ancestors had never heard of, from calculus to modern history to how to write computer code. But, unlike the Lake Mungo people, we are rarely encouraged to assemble that knowledge into a single, coherent story in the way that globes in old-fashioned classrooms linked thousands of local maps into a single map of the world. And that leaves us with a fragmented understanding of both reality and the human community to which we all belong.
A Modern Origin Story
And yet . . . in bits and pieces, a modern origin story is emerging. Like the stories told at Lake Mungo, our modern origin story has been assembled by ancestors and tested and checked over many generations and millennia.
It is different, of course, from most traditional origin stories. This is partly because it has been built not by a particular region or culture but by a global community of more than seven billion people, so it pools knowledge from all parts of the world. This is an origin story for all modern humans, and it builds on the global traditions of modern science.
Unlike many traditional origin stories, the modern origin story lacks a creator god, though it has energies and particles as exotic as the pantheons of many traditional origin stories. Like the origin stories of Confucianism or early Buddhism, the modern story is about a universe that just is. Any sense of meaning comes not from the universe, but from us humans. “What’s the meaning of the universe?” asked Joseph Campbell, a scholar of myth and religion. “What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there, that’s it, and your own meaning is that you’re there.”
The world of the modern origin story is less stable, more turbulent, and much larger than the worlds of many traditional origin stories. And those qualities point to the limitations of the modern origin story. Though global in its reach, it is very recent and it has the rawness and some of the blind spots of youth. It emerged at a very specific time in human history and is shaped by the dynamic and potentially destabilizing traditions of modern capitalism. That explains why in many forms it has lacked the deep sensitivity to the biosphere that is present in the origin stories of indigenous peoples around the world.
The universe of the modern origin story is restless, dynamic, evolving, and huge. The geologist Walter Alvarez reminds us how big it is by asking how many stars it contains. Most galaxies have something like 100 billion stars, and there are at least that many galaxies in the universe. That means that there are (deep breath) 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1022) stars in the universe.4 New observations in late 2016 hinted that there may be many more galaxies in the universe, so feel free to add a few more zeros to this number. Our sun is a pretty ordinary member of that huge gang.
The modern origin story is still under construction. New sections are being added, existing parts still have to be tested or tidied up, and scaffolding and clutter need to be removed. And there are still holes in the story, so, like all origin stories, it will never lose a sense of mystery and awe. But in the past few decades, our understanding of the universe we live in has become much richer, and that may even enhance our sense of its mystery because, as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “Knowledge is like a sphere; the greater its volume, the larger its contact with the unknown.” With all its imperfections and uncertainties, this is a story we need to know, just as the Lake Mungo people needed to know their origin stories. The modern origin story tells of the heritage all humans share, and so it can prepare us for the huge challenges and opportunities that all of us face at this pivotal moment in the history of planet Earth.
At the heart of the modern origin story is the idea of increasing complexity. How did our universe appear, and how did it generate the rich cavalcade of things, forces, and beings of which we are a part? We don’t really know what it came out of or if anything existed before the universe. But we do know that when our universe emerged from a vast foam of energy, it was extremely simple. And simplicity is still its default condition. After all, most of our universe is cold, dark, empty space. Never- theless, in special and unusual environments such as on our planet, there existed perfect Goldilocks conditions, environments, like Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, that were not too hot and not too cold, not too thick and not too thin, but just right for the evolution of complexity. In these Goldilocks environments, increasingly complex things have appeared over many billions of years, things with more moving parts and more intricate internal relations. We should not make the mistake of assuming that complex things are necessarily better than simple things. But complexity does matter to us humans, because we are very complex, and the dynamic global society we live in today is one of the most extraordinarily complex things we know. So understanding how complex things emerged and what Goldilocks conditions allowed them to emerge is a great way of understanding ourselves and the world we live in today.
More complex things appeared at key transition points, and I will refer to the most important of these as thresholds. The thresholds give shape to the complicated narrative of the modern origin story. They highlight major turning points, when already existing things were rearranged or otherwise altered to create something with new, “emergent” properties, qualities that had never existed before. The early universe had no stars, no planets, and no living organisms. Then, step by step, entirely new things began to appear. Stars were forged from atoms of hydrogen and helium, new chemical elements were created inside dying stars, planets and moons formed from blobs of ice and dust using these new chemical elements, and the first living cells evolved in the rich chemical environments of rocky planets. We humans are very much part of this story, because we are products of the evolution and diversification of life on planet Earth, but in the course of our brief but remarkable history, we have created so many entirely new forms of complexity that, today, we seem to dominate change on our world. The appearance of something new and more complex than what preceded it, something with new emergent properties, always seems as miraculous as the birth of a baby, because the general tendency of the universe is to get less complex and more disor- derly. Eventually, that tendency toward increasing disorder (what scientists term entropy) will win out, and the universe will turn into a sort of random mess without pattern or structure. But that’s a long, long way in the future.
Meanwhile, we seem to live in a vigorous young universe that is full of creativity. The birth of the universe — our first threshold — is as miraculous as any of the other thresholds in our modern origin story.