Cosmosapiens by John Hands

Subtitled Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe, John Hands’ book attempts to explain the origin of the universe and our place in it; and he does so in less than 600 pages (about a quarter of a million words) including many tables and figures. Amazingly, except for a stumble towards the end of the book, he succeeds. Basically, he’s attempting to answer the big three: How did the universe start? How did life start? How did human conscious emerge? Short answer to all three, we don’t know and likely never will. But the book explains with great clarity why we don’t know. Ten years in the making Cosmosapiens is a brilliant compendium of the latest knowledge in cosmology, astrophysics, biology, and psychology. There’s even a brief discussion of the possibility that psychic energy exists.

Hands presents a lot of fairly sophisticated science in his text and and is not writing for those to whom science is a challenge. But an educated layman who can make it through a typical article in Scientific American will have no trouble with Cosmosapiens.

Hands spent 10 years researching and writing the book. And given the depth and breadth of knowledge it contains, a decade seem insufficient for what this volume presents. He critically examines the science now considered “orthodox” (a term he continuously uses to characterize the current prevailing wisdom). He also depicts in great detail the emotional attachment scientists have to their theories which often renders them blind to data which contradict theories to which they have devoted their whole professional lives and which have kept them gainfully employed. Alas, late in the book he shows the same tendency to embrace a pet belief that he holds dear, but which is not grounded in solid scientific evidence.

If you intend to tell the story of humanity from the very beginning you must explain how the universe came to be. The first part of the book critically presents all the theories that attempt to explain the origin of the universe. Hands finds them all lacking in scientific rigor. The basic and most commonly offered theory is the Big Bang. The problem the theory has with the addition to it of cosmic inflation and a quantum vacuum are well described; his objection is that the various permutations of the Big Bang theory are untestable. “Moreover, these modifications produce a logically inconsistent model if it is held that the Big Bang is the start of everything or else a model that contradicts this basic tenant if a quantum vacuum and an inflation field existed prior to the conjectured Big Bang.” Hands subjects all the other origin theories with same skepticism that he paints on the Big Bang and finds them all wanting. He sees the postulation of dark matter and dark energy as fudge factors required to make incomplete theories work. It is entirely possible that we will never satisfactorily explain the origin of the universe. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, rather we should admit that we don’t know how the whole show got started and thus be open to new ideas that are very likely to contradict prevailing wisdom.

The universe is exquisitely fine tuned to allow the emergence of matter which obviously must precede the emergence of life. No theory explains how the laws and physical constants which exist and allow for the formation of organic molecules and hence life came to be as they are. This fine tuning has led to the multiverse hypothesis which imagines an infinite number of universes which had to produce one which is favorable for the emergence of matter and life. Hands considers this conjecture as unscientific because it is not testable. Actually, if there are an infinite number of universes there must be an infinite number that will produce intelligent life. Hands has trouble, as he should, with theories that contain infinities. They all collapse to chaos.

Having left the reader informed about the formation of the universe, which is to say knowledgeable as to theory but uninformed as to fact, he moves on to the emergence and evolution of life. Here things are just as uncertain as the origin of the cosmos. After considerable discussion of the pertinent knowledge and conjectures as to how life arose, he concludes that we will never find firm evidence of the first lifeforms and when they emerged on Earth. He concedes that it probably beyond the explanatory power of science to explain the emergence of life.

Even defining life is a struggle. After discussing virtually every reasonable definition, Hands settles on this one: “The ability of an enclosed entity to respond to changes in its environment, to extract energy and matter from its environment, and to convert that energy and matter into internally directed activity that includes maintaining its own existence.” Nowhere does he discuss how an embryo or a seed fits into this definition. He thinks, but allows he cannot prove, that life emerged only once on Earth. If he’s right we are the result of a colossally improbable accident. It’s also more than possible that this accident happened only on Earth.

Reaching the same blurred view of the emergence of life as he did about the origin of the universe, Hands turns to evolution. Compared to the prior two issues evolution is a snap. Once life has started evolution is inevitable. The only question is how does it work?

Hands devotes a lot of words to the evolution of evolution. Of course, Darwin is prominent here, though a large number of other thinkers who contributed to evolutionary theory are mentioned – especially Alfred Wallace. He debunks a popular myth about Darwin and evolution – the finches of the Galapagos. Darwin did not think the bird specimens he had collected on those islands were finches and he made no use of their different characteristics in formulating his theory of evolution. Darwin never mentioned them in any edition of The Origin of Species. Hands explains in detail how the myth of Darwin and the finches was promulgated. In fact the beak size so famously associated with evolution can change rapidly among the various finches on the Galapagos Islands in response to changes in food supply.

There were many problems with Darwin’s original theory. Over time it was modified into what Hands calls NeoDarwinism and which he considers the orthodox view. Among the postulates of this prevailing view is that species evolve through gradual genetic transfer which takes tens or hundreds of thousands of generations. This view is one of the greatest problems with NeoDarwinism. The fossil record doesn’t show gradual changes in species, but rather the sudden emergence of new species. This observation has been used by creationists to discredit the entire theory of evolution. Hands thinks that theory needs to be adjusted so that much more rapid rates of speciation occur. He lists other problems with the current model of evolution. He devotes an entire chapter to complementary and competing evolutionary hypotheses.

Before turning to humans Hands offer four laws of biological evolution:
1) Competition and rapid environmental change cause the extinction of species.
2) Collaboration causes the evolution of species.
3) Living things evolve by progressive complexification and centration along fusing and diverging lineages that lead to stasis in all but one lineage.
4) A rise in consciousness correlates with increasing collaboration, complexification, and centration.

The third big question is how did human consciousness emerge? First we have to get humans. What is a human? Hands presents an number of definitions which he rejects. He settles on reflective consciousness: The property of an organism by which it is conscious of its own consciousness, that is, not only does it know but also it knows it knows. “Homo sapiens is the only species known to possess reflective consciousness.” Exactly when humans emerged is impossible to know as is why and how humans emerged. Nevertheless, here we are. The time we appeared is somewhere around 250,000 years ago. Humans consciousness, according to Hands, emerged between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. He doesn’t even speculate as to how this happened unlike his detailed examination as to how the universe and life started. He seems to fall into the school that postulates human consciousness to be a spontaneously emergent property of sufficient computing power by the brain. But since he does not discuss the topic, I am guessing. Having rendered humans fully conscious, he turns to the emergence of philosophical and scientific thinking. But while discussing at length the organization of human society he never mention economics. The word doesn’t appear in the text or the index. Given the task he set himself to, this is an inexplicable omission.

And then he goes completely off the rails and commits many of the sins into which he has clearly demonstrated scientists descend. He allows his personal biases to show. They have been kept completely out of sight (except for a gratuitous slap at Israel) until he discusses aggression. Fortunately he stays in this hole for only 12 pages. He believes that aggression and its sibling violence are decreasing. He cites Stephen Pinker as a prominent source for this belief. Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined argues that despite the horrors of the 20th century violent death is at an all time low. For an alternate view see 20th Century Democide. But the argument about the decline in violence is irrelevant as the potential for violence has never been greater and is increasing exponentially as nations who are bad actors get more access to weapons of more than mass destruction. I believe it was Nicholas Taleb who first made this point.

Hands sees the UN, UNESCO, Greenpeace, and Doctors Without Borders as sufficient evidence supporting his Panglossian view of the march of human progress towards a better and less violent world. Fortunately, this detour to surrealism is brief and he returns to critical thinking when he considers the limitations of science. There are important questions that science cannot answer. Included in this section is the ever needed reminder of the ossification of science into dogma.

Hands concludes his book with 32 points. They concisely summarize all that has gone before. Interestingly, his wandering into romantic non-violence is not mentioned in these conclusions. His last sentence is worth quoting: “The short answer to the question what are we? Is that, uniquely as far as we know, we are the unfinished product of an accelerating cosmic evolutionary process characterized by collaboration, complexification and convergence, and the self-reflective agents of our future evolution.”

This is a book filled with critical and useful information about the universe and how we came to be as we are. Its figures and tables alone are more than worth its price. It is a magnum opus whose faults are trivial compared to its virtues and utility. No one with even a passing interest in science and the study of mankind should be without it.