The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
“Neil Shubin is the kind of guy you’d like to meet at a cocktail party: smart, funny, a good storyteller . . . It’s unfortunate that Dr. Shubin . . . has ignored the starkly challenging era we live in.”
Paleontologist Neil Shubin is the kind of guy you’d like to meet at a cocktail party: smart, funny, a good storyteller who can drop your jaw with scientific insights on how that jaw developed thanks to obscure creatures from other eons.
Author of the bestselling Your Inner Fish, Dr. Shubin doesn’t merely explain science with clarity and humor; he unearths some of those connections in his own fieldwork.
In The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People Dr. Shubin relates how cosmic and chemical forces of the universe's 13.7 billion-year evolution shaped our bodies and the Earth we inhabit.
Although probably the best fit for readers with a basic interest in science, Dr. Shubin’s book includes both landmark and late-breaking research. Written during simpler times, it would have been enjoyably informative; however, the gap between what the author does with his extensive knowledge, and what he could have done to serve his readers, is extremely frustrating. More about that later.
The Universe Within is as much about the people who moved science forward in discovering evolution's cosmic links as it is about their ideas.
Not all of them were professional scientists: There were bored civil servants, a tea shop owner, and many women—the earliest of whom were denied a scientific education. For example, astronomy research accelerated thanks to the late 19th century’s “Harvard Computers”—women (including the housekeeper of the Harvard College Observatory’s director)—who caught pivotal astronomical changes while laboriously cataloguing photographic plates of stars and nebulae in that pre-computer age.
Dr. Shubin credits these innovators while offerering a colorful backstage tour of the mental and physical rigors of scientific discovery. The “aha!” moments come at a price—years of hard, grinding work, wrong turns, frozen feet, and, often, dismissal by one’s peers.
Also compelling is Dr. Shubin’s detailed yet conversational style as he unrolls the story of the Big Bang and its evolutionary course. While it’s familiar territory to many, modern humans need to hear this story until our intimate connections with other species sink in.
Unfortunately, throughout his book, Dr. Shubin misses opportunities to make those connections.
Literally, the book delivers what it promises—a common history—but is this enough when the species reading this book is threatening any common future? For example, Dr. Shubin cursorily mentions previous major extinctions that have rocked the Earth’s life systems in the wake of asteroids, climate change, and plate tectonics. “There are five intervals where the numbers of species just crash,” he says.
But he neglects to mention that Earth is now suffering the sixth major extinction, the only one caused by a species (guess who?), in which other species are being snuffed out at 1,000 times the usual rate.
Dr. Shubin devotes about 50 pages to catastrophe theory and to the mechanics of Earth’s earlier climate fluctuations. He describes possible causes for these shifts: tilts in planetary orbit, ocean current changes, or the rising of the Tibetan Plateau and subsequent increased rock weathering. Toward the section’s conclusion, he notes:
“The emerging picture is that Earth’s climate depends on the heat balance on the planet—the amount of heat coming in from the sun minus the heat escaping into space—and the ways that this heat is transferred among the oceans, land, air, and ice.”
Wouldn’t this be the author’s cue to discuss the human disruption of that balance? Unfortunately, it goes unmentioned—even though the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bomb explosions add more heat to that imbalance every day.
Dr. Shubin’s “amount of heat coming in from the sun” doesn’t explain the whole picture, since this gain has occurred during an extreme solar minimum. That same information has driven NASA climate scientist James Hansen (whose figures these are) to protest and get arrested in front of the White House. Instead, Dr. Shubin follows with: “Music is an analogy for what drives climate . . .” with its “long-term rhythm and short-term riffs.”
That discussion ends with his introduction to how some humans survived the abrupt climatic shift 12,500 years ago, sounding more like the CEO of Exxon Mobil responding to climate critics with “we’ll adapt” than a leading scientist. The author ignores Earth's current challenges often enough to be utterly maddening.
What accounts for this blind eye? Although slim, The Universe Within includes detailed descriptions of colleagues’ messy offices, academic politics, and the small towns where big scientists grew up. Is Dr. Shubin reluctant to step from the data to the larger picture—to meaning?
Scientists have traditionally shied from making meaning out of their work, likely a remnant from historic efforts to emancipate science from Church interference. However, that barricade has long been breached, by no less than Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, biologists E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, and fellow paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
The Universe Within concludes with an upbeat “With virtually every technology and idea, our species has found new ways to insulate ourselves from the planet . . . it has been eleven thousand years since the dawn of our civilization. With the ever-increasing pace of change around us, imagine what humans will be capable of in another eleven thousand.”
Recent newspaper headlines show how well people in the Great Plains and the East Coast of the U.S. have been able to insulate themselves from the planet—if in fact that’s a desirable response.
Dr. Shubin’s avatar for the techno-fix is equally problematic: plant biologist Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize for his role in the late 20th century Green Revolution, which Dr. Shubin credits as “bettering or saving the lives of millions of people around the world.”
What he doesn’t mention is the dark side of Borlaug’s legacy: aquifers depleted by the irrigation demands of his hybrid grains; negative health and environmental impacts of the Green Revolution's chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and the crippling dependency of third world farmers on Monsanto, Cargill, and other industrial agriculture giants for seeds, chemical inputs, and crop prices.
The Universe Within contains many valuable facts, histories, and theories; however, it reads as if it were written in a vacuum.
It’s unfortunate that Dr. Shubin, with his great knowledge of geologic time and his skills in relating evolutionary events to a general audience, has ignored the starkly challenging era we live in.