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Academic & Professional Books  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

Evolutions Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World

Popular Science
By: Oren Solomon Harman(Author)
242 pages, 50 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Head of Zeus
A poetic ode to evolution's greatest hits, Evolutions is unusual and bold, turning the concept of the pop-science book on its head.
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  • Evolutions ISBN: 9781788547581 Paperback Nov 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Evolutions ISBN: 9781788547574 Hardback Nov 2018 Out of Print #241947
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A poetic ode to evolution's greatest hits
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 4 Mar 2019 Written for Hardback

    Communicating the complexities and abstractions of scientific findings is not easy. Anyone who has ever slogged through yet another dense paper or muddled presentation will acknowledge this. Our universe, it seems, cares not for the human quest of understanding it. One of the things, then, that makes popular science books such a treat is that they infuse scientific findings and speculation with a certain lyricism and good storytelling. This is why we flock to authors such as Nick Lane, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, and many others besides. This is why Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan remain household names decades after their death. The latter’s Pale Blue Dot segment still gives me goosebumps. With Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, science historian Oren Harman boldly turns the concept on its head: rather than bringing poetic flair to a pop-science book, he brings scientific flair to an epic poem.

    Before I heap praise on this book, allow me a short whinge, for I was not quite sure what to make of the book’s brief. "For all its astounding achievements, has science provided protection from jealousy or love?" asks the dust jacket. This smacks of a caricature – what kind of a question is that? In his introduction, Harman mentions how we worship atheist horsemen, i.e. the likes of Dawkins (see The Four Horsemen). But they are a vocal minority – plenty of moderate voices warn of the dangers of scientism (see my review of Science Unlimited?). Others will affirm that whole fields of enquiry such as morality simply fall outside of the remit of scientific endeavour. To ask the above question and expect science to provide a sensible answer is, in my opinion, to misunderstand its limitations. I think you will find very few scientists, not even these horsemen, willing to argue that science negates more subjective experiences such as storytelling, music, art, or the human craving for these.

    But enough already. Harman quoting Hubble as saying that: "the scientist explains the world by successive approximations", and describing science as "the most honest attempt of our age to explain our greatest mysteries" makes it clear we are on the same page. Driven by a childhood fascination with Greek myths, Harman here uses the narrative structure of the epic poem to tell of our current scientific understanding of the history of life. A sort of "evolution’s greatest hits", if you will, not unlike Nick Lane’s Life Ascending or Matt Wilkinson’s Restless Creatures.

    Thus, the opening chapter Fate, chronicling the birth of the universe, dark energy, string theory, and the idea of the multiverse, ponders and concludes that our universe is "just one of infinite possibilities, necessary to no one but us".

    The hypothesis that Earth’s moon formed following a huge impact becomes a parable for motherhood and the inexorable loss that comes as children grow up. The moon’s slow drift away from our planet "not a child’s rebellion. But then again maybe it is your dark side, opaque to me. I am too young to know, and too old to find out."

    The chapter on love portrays our thinking on the origin of life, the idea of an RNA world and ribozymes where "lovers were those who exchanged genetic materials [...] there were no scorned lovers, only lovers who had never met". Similarly, the rise of DNA changed the world order: "With permission from Chemistry, the zippered potentate seized control of heredity."

    The rise of multicellularity and sex gave new meaning to Death, introducing "a two-tier economy: like the flesh surrounding the seeds of fruit, bodies became shells, protecting the gametes. And when the seeds are planted the fruits can rot."

    An embittered trilobite speaks to us of the evolution of the eye and the Cambrian Explosion, and curses his vision, for it introduced the concepts of jealousy and unrequited love.

    Endosymbiosis, the first animals to appear on land, the evolution of whales, the otherworldly intelligence of the octopus, and, of course, the evolution of man (Wrangham’s argument in Catching Fire is beautifully paraphrased: "as the unruly flames were turned into a hissing, purring pet, so was the brute himself domesticated, in a feedback loop of momentous occasion."). These and other important chapters in evolutionary history are retold through the lens of mythology. At the end of the book, in a section called "Illuminations", Harman provides context and explanation, as well as plenty of recommended reading, both popular accounts and classic papers.

    The idea to write an epic poem on evolution’s milestones could have easily ended up a forced, cringe-worthy exercise. Instead, as I hope my liberal quoting above has convinced you, this book is anything but that. Evolutions stands out on account of its unusual take on the subject matter. I do slightly worry that, because of this, it runs the risk of being overlooked amidst the maelstrom of other good pop-science books that are being published. For anyone who enjoys the intersection of art and science, this unique and imaginative book is one to treasure.
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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.

Popular Science
By: Oren Solomon Harman(Author)
242 pages, 50 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Head of Zeus
A poetic ode to evolution's greatest hits, Evolutions is unusual and bold, turning the concept of the pop-science book on its head.
Media reviews

"In this daring, learned, and humane book, Oren Harman attempts to create for a modern scientific understanding of the universe the myths in which, for as long as we can remember, human beings have always encoded their deepest perceptions of the truth. What emerges is a revelatory restoration of wonder."
– Stephen Greenblatt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

"Evolutions is a dazzling voyage of the imagination, the story of our origins from the Big Bang to planets to life, told in the language and style of an epic poem. Intelligent, provocative, playful, and beautifully written."
Alan Lightman, Professor of the Practice of the Humanities, MIT, and author of Einstein's Dreams

"Brilliantly conceived stories of the evolution of our universe and ourselves. With impressive erudition, Oren Harman shows the impossibility of a science free from myths and metaphors."
Denis Noble, Fellow of the Royal Society and author of The Music of Life

"Evolutions is brilliant. It is a wholly original contribution to the way science ought to become part of the way we think about the universe and talk about the meaning of life. Harman weaves in astonishing erudition lightly. In elegant language, he gives the reader an accessible model of how science ought to contribute to our sense of values and the way we think about ourselves. Harman bypasses all the clichés that pit science against religion and juxtapose fact and myth. A moving and provocative achievement."
– Leon Botstein, President of Bard College

"Oren Harman is a scientist with a literary soul, a dreamer with a scientist's rigor, and a historian consumed above all by our present. In Evolutions he explores the mysteries and miracles of science in majestically human terms, showing what science so often leaves out – the love, passion, and discovery in life as we actually know it."
– Samantha Power, Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

"Oren Harman brilliantly adapts the story-telling form of myth to present the evolutions that have shaped our physical world and its living inhabitants – from the origins of the universe through the advent of sex and on to vision and consciousness. He affectionately personalizes Nature – his Sun and Moon speak to each other – making it accessible without distorting it. He matches scientific erudition with a humanist's sensibilities and a poet's flair for language. A remarkably original and eloquent book."
– Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University

"In Evolutions, Oren Harman captures the poetic and emotional depths of processes uncovered by modern science such as the big bang, sex and death, multicellularity, consciousness, language. More bizarre, more incredible than the ancient myths, the myths of science told by Harman are based on exacting and arduous research yet go to the roots of human perceptions and emotions making explicit the sense of beauty and awe that drives scientific activity. It is a book that will bring the poet to science, and the scientist to poetry."
– Eva Jablonka, author of Evolution in Four Dimensions

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