The full title is The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body. Neil Shubin explores the connections between us and the history of not only the planet but the cosmos as well.
The molecules that compose our bodies arose in stellar events in the distant origin of the solar system. Changes to Earth’s atmosphere sculpted our cells and entire metabolic machinery. Pulses of mountain building, changes in orbits of the planet, and revolutions within Earth itself have had an impact on our bodies, minds, and the way we perceive the world around us. (Kindle location 197)
The linkages are fascinating. For example, huge Jupiter, formed before earth, attracted debris swirling around our early sun and influenced how the other planets formed and what they were like. “The formation of Jupiter defined the size of Earth and, in so doing, the pull of gravity on all things on its surface” (737). Had Earth been larger, its gravity would be stronger and we would be shorter and stockier. Smaller, we would be taller and thinner. A different Jupiter and we would “move, feed, and interact with our planet” differently.
Different readers will be impressed by different connections. I found the most significance in events that impacted the course of evolution. One example is the shift from single-celled creatures exclusively during the first two billion years of life on earth to the beginning of bodies—plant and then animal. Early life was small. The forces of molecules affected it before gravity did. Single cells transport oxygen, food and waste by dispersing through the cell. But bodies require organs and systems. Why did life become bigger? Oxygen, a chemical energizer, became more available. Some bacteria were producing oxygen, but it didn’t accumulate in the atmosphere until there was a decline in the number of undersea volcanoes spewing gases that had consumed the oxygen. “Life changes Earth, Earth changes life, and those of us walking the planet today carry the consequences within”(1344). How many other planets held unicellular life that never evolved because the planet and its atmosphere failed to change in the right way at the right time?
Shubin clearly explains such links between humans, the cosmos and the planet. But whether his readers will share his vision and passion will depend on the reader. It’s not easy for a writer/teacher to convince others to feel the way he does about his version of the big picture. Perhaps such conversion is a little easier if that big picture includes deities that an audience can readily have feelings about. But if the sacred vision include the likes of the stellar formation of heavy atoms, the impact of Jupiter, and the consequences of continental drift, that’s asking people to stretch.
For my part I got more goose bumps when Shubin described the cooling of earth 40 million years ago that favored the mutation in mammals for seeing colors and enabled them to find more nutritious fruit, than when he explained the impact of the moon’s birth on the length of days, seasons, and circadian rhythms. But for others the goose bumps may come the other way around. I know that when I’ve talked to friends about the value I attach to the history of life and I tell them that believe it or not parts of their DNA have been handed down for nearly four billion years, they don’t exactly fall off their chairs. The gods of any sort that we attach ourselves to (if our options aren’t too constrained by family or community) arise from emotions and imagination. Our choices depend on how we think and feel, by what questions we ask about life, what we feel driven to know more clearly, and what scares us.
Shubin refers to religion only once. He cites William James’ observation that religious experience emanates from our
‘feeling at home in the universe.’ With bodies composed of particles derived from the birth of stellar bodies and containing organs shaped by the workings of planets, eroding rock, and the action of the seas, it is hard not to see home everywhere. (2529)
Most people, I think, still find it difficult to see home everywhere in the way that Shubin does. But separate descriptions of biology or the planet or the cosmos will now seem less adequate as grand accounts of how we got here. Home is to be found in the synthesis of all three.