‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is a preposterous title for this book and highlights the main problem with it in my view: it is spectacularly overambitious in scope. Huge credit to Bryson for doing the research to write the book. It seems that he started from almost nothing and in five or six years educated himself to the level we observe here. However the title hints at the annoying, underlying assumption that pervades the parts of the book that are not about the history of science: that of the power of the sciences to explain everything about the universe. In titling his work thus, Bryson disregards Philosophy, Theology, Sociology, History and, of course, religious belief. The fact that he doesn’t really engage with any of it but just ignores it like some kind of uncool child in the playground is almost a bit disappointing. The one time he does sort of stray into philosophical discourse it’s like watching a drunk driver run over a pedestrian, and, although it’s hugely frustrating, at least it provokes a bit of emotion. The cold love of science at the exclusion of everything else left a foul taste for me.
To say the positive first, however, I learnt a lot about science by reading this book. I think by far the most valuable parts of this book are those that deal with historical facts concerning scientists of the past and what they thought then. When Bryson talks about contemporary science it is transparent and clear that he speaks as one who has been indoctrinated by scientism, that is the worship of science and the belief that it can explain everything. I have no doubt that much of this book will, as a consequence, be a laughing stock in fifty years time, which is a shame. The parts about the history of science and the characters within are brilliant, witty and informative, as you would expect.
The problem for Bryson is that history repeats itself, and he doesn’t seem to be aware of this. Bryson will tell multiple stories about eminent scientists who believed lots of funny things that now turn out to be false. In fact, the history of science seems to take such a shape: someone says something; everyone believes it; someone else disagrees; everyone laughs at that person; then finally everyone changes their mind and agrees with the person who disagreed with the consensus. One example from the book: Bryson at one point talks about the way that science thought that biochemisty was almost at an end in the middle of the 20th century. That means people thought we had discovered almost everything about biochemistry. We now know that we know almost nothing about it and that it is infinitely more complex than we can possibly imagine. So it’s mystifying to read a few pages later Bryson’s discussion of ‘junk’ DNA. This is DNA that doesn’t seem to do anything and apparently comprises most of the DNA we have. This is convenient for evolutionists because the readily-formed evolutionary explanation is that this ‘junk’ DNA is a vestige of the evolutionary process. We needed it once but we don’t need it now. The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that we know enough about DNA to tell when some of it is ‘junk’. The point I’m making is, however, that, as we thought biochemistry was coming to an end in the C20th, we will almost certainly find out that this so-called ‘junk’ DNA is not junk at all but carries out probably thousands or millions of functions of which we were previously unaware. Bryson doesn’t seem to be aware of this near-certainty because he is happily clinging like a koala to a branch to the apparent evidence that ‘junk’ DNA gives for his preposterous evolutionary, atheistic worldview. The only evidence here is hitorical evidence which shows us that scientists, on the whole, are too confident in what they think they know.
I can’t comment massively on the science apart from these introductory comments, but what I can comment on is Bryson’s worldview, which I find disappointing and inconsistent.
To return to my comment about his foray into the field of Philosophy, in a chapter entitled ‘Lonely Planet’, Bryson talks about the way that the planet is balanced in such a way as to suit organic life to the point that it makes sense to say that the earth is ‘miraculously accommodating’. Of course he says that ‘we evolved to suit its conditions’, and then he says that there are probably other planets where other lifeforms have evolved differently. He doesn’t mention the fact that biological life would be completely impossible anywhere in the universe if the cosmological constants where tuned an infinitesimally small amount differently to the way that they are.
This wouldn’t be a problem to me if he’s just left it at that. So it’s disappointing to read silly things like this:
‘The physicist Richard Feynman used to make a joke about a posteriori conclusions – reasoning from known facts back to possible causes. ‘You know the most amazing thing happened to me tonight,’ he would say, ‘I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!’ His point, of course, is that it is easy to make any banal situation extraordinary if you treat it as fateful.’ (pg 312)
Firstly, if this is ‘joke’, then it is a very poor joke. Presumably it would have to be an excellent knock-down argument against design so as to render it laughable in order for it to qualify as a joke. Needless to say, it doesn’t really achieve this, but it might work as a joke because it is such a spectacularly awful argument that is demonstrably false in almost infinite amount of ways. I mean that ‘reasoning from known facts back to possible causes’ is what everyone does, every single day, all of the time, including (yes, everyone guessed it…the sheer irony!) scientists themselves! What kind of foolish person would imply that we should be wary of a posteriori reasoning when writing a book about science, which relies on it? Surely almost everything in science is empirical and a posteriori. To make an argument against a posteriori reasoning is to make an argument against science.
There is no need for an explanation for Feynman seeing this license plate because it is overwhelmingly likely that he would see a license plate (it’s actually called a ‘number plate’) if he went out driving in his little car, but there is a need for an explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe, in the same way as there would be if the stars spelled out the first chapter of Genesis in Hebrew. We cannot just look at these things and dismiss them with pseudo-philosophical arguments that make no sense.
It’s not addressing exactly the same argument but atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that the anthropic principle does not work even for the fine-tuning argument (which is the strong version of the weak straw-man that Bryon sets up here), writing in ‘Mind and Cosmos’,
‘…the observation that if life hadn’t come into existence we wouldn’t be here has no significance. One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s own existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren’t, I’d be dead.’ (pg 95)
The sad fact about this book is that, by observing the beauty and wonder of nature, Bryson undermines and under-appreciates what it is to be human. ‘As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point,’ Bryson writes on pg 408, ‘…But what’s life to a lichen? Yet it’s impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours – arguably even stronger.’ But that’s not true is it Bill? Even if you view humans as merely material, we still try a lot harder than lichen to exist and we clearly care about existing more, don’t we? Lichens don’t build hospitals. Lichens don’t cry when other lichens die. Lichens don’t hope to survive death.
More than that, this scientism, this worship of science, is infuriating. Who does Bryson think he is to say that, because we’ve reached a certain point in contemporary science, we now know for a smug certainty that life has no point? I think that this deep-rooted, deeply believed part of all of us that says that existence is special and hopes that it will continue beyond death is itself evidence that there is more to life than the purely material. I am saddened by Bryson’s comparison of humans to lichen.
On pg 497, Bryson writes about sex, ‘From an evolutionary point of view, sex is really just a reward mechanism to encourage us to pass on our genetic material.’ And this is the kind of thing it comes down to, I think. If you have a worldview like Bryson’s, that says that matter is the only thing that exists and that science can explain everything, you have to believe the unbelievable. You have to believe that human beings have no purpose and that experiences that appear to be deeply meaningful and spiritually significant, like sex, are in fact just meaningless evolutionary mechanisms that have developed in order to ensure that we pass on our genetic material. I personally think that it’s madness.