Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World by Oren Harman – Book Review

Title: Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World (review copy)

Author: Oren Harman

Genre/Themes: Non-Fiction, Science, Philosophy

Blurb from Goodreads

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.

My Review

The blurb describes this as a ‘lyrical exploration of how modern science illuminates what it means to be human’ and honestly, there is no better way to describe this reading experience.

It is a book that somehow marries all that is intangibly human with scientific roots.

Both the origin and scale of our universe have really only begun to be understood in recent human history. For the longest time, the degree of unknowing about life in its widest scope gave rise to many of our most enchanting and ancient of myths as a manner of understanding the mysteries of our existence.

It’s only now, in these relatively recent times, that truly conceptual changes and actual discoveries in the areas of physics, chemistry and biology have begun to unveil the grandeur and the expansiveness of our universe.

Yet this book challenges us to ask ourselves are we indeed truly more forward thinking or knowledgable than our ancestors? Are there similarities with how mythologies were used to teach us lessons about the human condition to how we use scientific discoveries to explain them now. Can the ways of past not explain both the present and the future.

This book is simply breathtaking. I have never read anything like it as it is both a piece of scientific writing AND a heartfelt and emotional story. In many ways I felt like a child discovering something entirely new to me for the first time such was my emotional connection to the writing.

This book’s philosophical ideas are truly thought provoking and it is a book I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in science fact and mythological hyperbole…

That seems like a complete contradiction I know. And I don’t mean to imply that this book is in any sense exaggerated but what Oren Harman does is create myths for the reader to help them understand the evolutionary process.

There is a story about how the earth views the moon as her child almost in the description of how the moon came to be (an impact approx. 4.5 billion years ago) and how the moon slowly but surely ever increases its orbit away from its Mother Earth.

Ribozyme appears as the biological catalyst in the chicken or the egg question in the primordial soup.

The mighty mitochondrion, known to second level students the world over as the power house of the cell, is shown as a panicky sort and its fear in the face of the threat of survival is used to explore the introduction of sex and death.

In all there are fifteen titled sections that use old and original myths to explore how evolution brought us to now (Fate, Hubris, Motherhood, Immortality, Love, Freedom, Death, Pride, Jealousy, Curiosity, Solitude, Sacrifice, Memory, Truth, Hope).

My favourite was the chapter called Sacrifice: Return to the Sea that focused its story on the concepts of choice using Cotylocara, an extinct type of toothed whale capable of echolocation akin to a modern dolphin.

However, the best part of this book is after the main work is finished in the Illuminations essay section. Or perhaps the reason that I am going to rate this book highly is because of this section as it provides scientific analysis of the main body of the book by giving an extensive bibliography and references both for and against the scientific arguments that Oren Harman used to create his book. An excellent example is in the case of Ribozyme which has papers questioning its veracity in the chicken or the egg paradox in the primordial soup. This to me is real science.

  • Continually questioning.
  • Continually asking.
  • Continually evolving.

Unique and thought provoking, recommended.

My Socials

8 thoughts on “Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World by Oren Harman – Book Review

  1. Oooh this sounds like something I’d love! I searched your blog and didn’t see that you had read this, but I loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer for what sounds like similar reasons. I actually read the audiobook (which the author narrated!), and gave me that same kid feeling you described – it’s history, nature, language, generations behind/ahead of us, the connectedness of things, relationships, conservation, science. The other thing was, it wasn’t a book I just “had to get through” – it was more like one I felt okay savoring, taking my time and coming back whenever I wanted that sense of wonder, if that makes sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the recommendation Elizabeth. I’ll definitely check it out because if it’s anything like Evolutions then it’s truly a worthwhile book 💚💚💚 And interesting that you recommend the audiobook; I’m not great with audiobooks as I tend to lose focus easily or fall asleep but I might try this one to see if it suits me. Thank you again 💜💜💜✨✨✨

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As someone with a sleep disorder, I totally understand that certain things can have that effect! Someone I’ve been in a book club with likes to have both versions: the audio and physical book, and I know others who have to play the audio at 1.25x, 1.5x, or even 2x speed. I share those tidbits in case they are new or useful for any book in the future, but feel free to leave them if not! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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