Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

by BILL BRYSON (Black Swan, 2004). Reviewed by Islwyn Rees, March 2007.

There are a lot of books worth reading to understand the controversy between Creationism and I.D versus Evolutionary science that stormed the public through books, newspapers and Television in 2006. But there are two I found very informative. The first is Logans’ Responding to the Challenge of Evolution, reviewed on this website, and the other is Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. With this book Bryson held number one in the Top Ten of the Best Sellers chart and in the Top Ten for 70 weeks and sold over a million copies (Sunday Times Culture Magazine, 09.01.05). On the back cover we read that it is Bryson’s "quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation – how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us. The ultimate eye-opening journey through time and space, revealing the world in a way most of us have never seen it before.” Oxford’s Peter Atkins writes of it being “A travelogue of science, with a witty, engaging, and well informed guide who loves his patch and is desperate to share its delights with us.” Writing on the front cover, John Waller of the Guardian would represent most readers' view that it is “Truly impressive . . . it’s hard to imagine a better rough guide to science.”

A Short History of Nearly Everything is worth reading to catch the overall picture of the development of science but also to get the popular views of scientists on pre-history. It is in his prehistory that we become informed about a side of evolutionary thinking in science that is refreshing to read.

On the beginnings of the universe Bryson introduces us to the idea of ‘singularity,’ an infinitesimal speck of proton invisible to the naked eye. Describing the Big Bang origins of the universe he says on page 28, “In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception . . .. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. In three minutes . . . we have a universe . . .. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.” Says Bryson on page 31, “It seems impossible that you can get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.” That is how Bryson presents the thinking of evolutionary scientists about how the universe began – our universe came from nothing in about the time it takes to make a sandwich!

Darwinian evolution is a belief that says the organised universe came from nothing. Bryson tells us it all happened around 15 billion years ago – and now we have our wonderful ordered universe. And then – 4.6 billion years ago the earth got formed. And then – there was life.

That is what Bryson’s book is about, “how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how little of that something turned into us, and also some of what happened in between and since” (p. 19-20).

There is much in the book that could have been written by Intelligent Design theorists. For instance: “Proteins can’t exist without DNA and DNA has no purpose without proteins. Are we to assume, then, that they arose simultaneously with the purpose of supporting each other? If so: wow.” “As Davies puts it, ‘If everything needs everything else, how did the community of molecules ever arise in the first place?’ It is rather as if all the ingredients in your kitchen somehow got together and baked themselves into a cake – but a cake that could moreover divide when necessary to produce more cakes. It is little wonder that we call it the miracle of life,” says Bryson (p.352-3).

But Bryson’s wonder is saved for time and chance and even ‘luck’. There is no Intelligent Designer behind it all; it is as if inanimate material possesses some creative force, to be able to think about the creation of life, survival and development. He has amino acids conglomerating and discovering improvements. There is no shortage of self-assembly.

So powerful is this material impulse to assemble that some scientists believe that life may be more inevitable than we think, (p.363). Conditions (for life) would be encountered perhaps a million times in every galaxy. On p. 356, he says, “Life emerged so swiftly, in fact, that some authorities think it must have had help – perhaps a good deal of help (this is the nearest Bryson gets to acknowledging the Intelligent Design Theorists!). Although not sharing the same conclusions with the ‘how,’ creationist scientists would agree with Bryson when he says, “Whatever prompted life to begin, it happened just once. That is the most extraordinary fact in biology, perhaps the most extraordinary fact we know” (p.357).

Reflecting evolutionary belief, Bryson says, “everything that has ever lived, plant or animal, dates its beginnings from the same primordial twitch. At some point in an unimaginably distant past some little bag of chemicals fidgeted to life. It absorbed some nutrients, gently pulsed, had a brief existence. This much may have happened before many times. But this ancestral packet did something additional and extraordinary: it cleaved itself and produced an heir. A tiny bundle of genetic material passed from one living entity to another, and has never stopped moving since. It was the moment of creation for us all. Biologists sometimes call it the Big Birth” (p.357-8).

Bryson tries to get as near as anyone can to tell us how life began, except, just as no one else can, neither is Bryson able to say how inanimate material ‘fidgeted to life.’ Andrew Billen, in his review of The Ancestor’s Tale in The Times, quotes Richard Dawkins, “the time is now right for speculating on the origin of life. It is still speculation, but it’s far more informed speculation and it's got to the point where you can have serious scientific theories about how life might have originated.” In A Short History of Everything, Bryson is reflecting what he understands are the conclusions of evolutionary science such as Professor Richard Dawkins presents, but as Dawkins admits, it is still speculation.

Quoting, Bryson says, “wherever you go in the world, whatever animal, plant, bug or blob you look at, if it is alive, it will use the same dictionary and know the same code (creationists use that as an argument for Intelligent Design, the same building blocks being used for all life – it really is about interpretation). Quoting another scientist on the oldest marine organism, he reports on p. 359, “It was as basic as life can get – but it was life nevertheless. It propagated. And it eventually led to us.”

(Could it be that what surprised the British science community in the outcome of the MORI Poll that followed the Horizon programme presented on BBC2 on 26 January 2006, and the survey printed in The Guardian on 15 August 2006 titled How Did we Get Here, was due to such revelations that evolution is no more and no less a belief system as any other?).

What is also interesting from the point of the creation/evolution debate is Bryson highlighting the paltriness in the fossil record. Speaking on the shortage of human evidence from several billion humans who have lived since the dawn of time, he is told by the Curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, “You could fit it all into the back of a pickup truck if you didn’t mind how much you jumbled everything up” (p. 529). Bryson affirms what Professor Robert Winston admitted in the Radio Times 22-28 March, 2003 speaking on his elaborate BBC programme, Walking with Cavemen: “the fossil evidence on which the evolutionary assumptions are based could easily be fitted into the back of his car” (p.106). On page 15 Winston said, “Inferring the psychology of creatures from a small number of fossilised remains is a matter of considerable conjecture” (p.15).

It all affirms Bryson’s honest reflections on pre-history evolutionary beliefs.

Bryson says, “Museums give the impression that we have a global abundance of dinosaur fossils. In fact, overwhelmingly, museum displays are artificial.” The exhibit dominating the entrance hall of the natural History Museum of London “is made entirely of plaster” (p. 422). "The entrance hall of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, is dominated by an even grandeur tableau: . . . a wonderfully impressive display – the barosaurus rises perhaps 9 metres towards the high ceiling - but also entirely fake . . . . Visit almost any large natural history museum in the world . . . and what will greet you are antique models, not ancient bones. The fact is, we really don’t know a great deal about the dinosaurs” (p. 423).

Commenting on Mary Leakey’s find of a pair of footprints, Bryson says on page 534: “The American museum of Natural history in New York . . . depicts life-sized recreations of a male and a female walking side by side across the ancient African plain.” Although having chimp-like features, their bearing suggests such humanness to be convincing – except he says, “that virtually everything above the footprints is imaginary.” Almost everything about it in shape, size and colour – “is necessarily suppositional.”

Bryson has a way of telling it like it is? After reading Bryson what might the reader think of Professor Dawkins’ imaginations depicted in the ‘500 heavily illustrated pages’ of The Ancestor’s Tale? There is an awful credibility gap between evolutionary fantasy and what we know is reality.

In Bryson we see evolutionists wanting us to fantasise about a time – just one time – far enough in the dim and distant past, when an accident of nature happened – and how we don’t know, but life began just as Bryson has described for us, a reversal of the laws of the universe as we know of them today, the two first laws of thermodynamics as well as the information theory, which says life can only come from life. Despite evidence to the contrary, Bryson relays to us the evolutionary conviction that somehow in the dim and distant past, matter was responsible for creating intelligence, you and me.

Bryson is fascinating and provides an enormous amount of history and science made simple ‘for a rough guide’ in an entertaining way, and when it comes to prehistory and origins, it is worth the reading for his honesty about evolution, even if it appears he believes it. It is nearly 600 pages of very readable, informative and entertaining stuff. As John Waller says, it is ‘truly impressive . . . it’s hard to imagine a better rough guide to science.’

Revised 28/03/07