We all have an origin story. In some societies, they manifest as creation myths. In others, they look more like history textbooks. For example, as a kid in the United States, I grew up learning about the group of rebels who stood up to their British overlords and founded our country. It’s human nature to be curious about where we come from, and origin stories unite people through a common history and shared sense of purpose.
But what if all of humanity shared an origin story? What would that story look like? Historian David Christian tries to answer those questions in his new book Origin Story.
As the creator of Big History—my favorite course of all time—David is well-suited to write about how we came to be. Big History tells the story of the universe from the big bang to the first signs of life to today’s complex societies. It shows how everything is connected to everything else, weaving together insights and evidence from across disciplines into a single, understandable narrative.
Origin Story is essentially the Big History course condensed into a short book. It divides 13.8 billion years of existence into what David calls “thresholds”—moments in history that mark key transition points, like the formation of our solar system and the first appearance of early humans. The chapters about the early thresholds are heavy on physics and chemistry, but it skews more towards biology and anthropology as single cell life evolves into more complex beings.
If you haven’t taken Big History, Origin Story introduces you to its concepts in a straightforward, understandable way. David is a very good writer, and he has a way of making complicated subjects fun. If you’re already a Big Historian, Origin Story is a great refresher. It does a fantastic job distilling the latest thinking about the origins of the universe. I learned some things that are simply too new to be included in the course.
The book ends with a chapter on where humanity—and the universe—is headed. David is more pessimistic about the future than I am. He gets a little stuck on the current economic and political malaise happening in the West, and I wish he talked more about the role innovation will play in preventing the worst effects of climate change. But he nails the importance of this moment in history: “Things are happening so fast that, like the slow-motion time of a near accident, the details of what we do in the next few decades will have huge consequences for us and for the biosphere on scales of thousands of years. Like it or not, we are now managing an entire biosphere, and we can do it well or badly.”
Understanding where humanity comes from is crucial to shaping where we go next. Origin Story is an up-to-date history of everything that will leave you with a greater appreciation of our place in the universe.