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Book Review


Genet, Cheryl, Russell Genet, [Editors], The Evolutionary Epic: Science's Story and Humanity's Response. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2009.

     In his foreword to this extraordinarily compelling book, David Christian establishes the tone and projects the goal of this work. As he suggested in his Maps of Time (1995) and This Fleeting World (2007) and as he states unequivocally here, the evolutionary epic or "Big History" is the creation story for our modern world. The present and the past are mapped by creation stories, and as Christian emphasizes in this foreword, the evolutionary epic is the "largest possible map of time." (p. 11) It is one that affirms each individual as a part of the universe from the beginning of time and helps each individual understand his/her role in the continuing story of that universe. The title of the foreword, "Celebrating the Birth of a New Creation Story" illuminates and excites. The articles that follow reflect that illumination and excitement.

     The forty-six contributors range from biologists and physicists to philosophers and psychologists, from historians and writers to anthropologists and theologians. They tackle basic questions about the evolutionary epic that include: how to understand this evolutionary epic; how to address challenges to it; how to teach it; how to promulgate it; how to think about it; feel it; imagine it; and how to use it to live—to find the "wisdom" that will help us as a global community to reach sustainability. In thirty-three separate articles divided into six parts, the evolutionary epic is defined, explored, questioned, and celebrated from a multitude of different perspectives. Additionally, there is an introductory article by Russell Genet that briefly and lucidly narrates the scientific summary of how humans came to be, and there are two strategically placed poetic tributes to the cosmos that underscore the continuum that is possible through big history.

     Teachers will appreciate the pedagogical suggestions and prescriptions that focus on the need to construct interactive classrooms that allow time and space to process complex ideas and will be encouraged by the availability of visuals to help unpack those ideas. Duncan offers wonderful insights into how students learn and World History teachers will easily see the function of mental maps as matching his suggestions.

     The possibilities for material to use with students abound. The most accessible sections of the text that enhance the first section of the world history survey course are the discussions of the "little bang" or stone tool-making by Schick and Toth, and the function of fire for socialization as well as warmth, protection, cooking, and power by Camargo. A great addition to this discussion would be the short chapter on fire and cooking from Al Crosby's The Children of the Sun (2006) which I can attest captures students' interest. An investigation by AP World History students into the challenges that inhibit acceptance of big history or the evolutionary epic as enumerated in Part III of the text could result in a stimulating exchange of ideas and bring more depth to their understanding of the significance of big history. Repeating Louis Herman's story of the San Bushmen to exemplify the traditional tension between the individual and the community or relating David Christian's explanation of the chronometric revolution to show the historicizing of science as a catalyst for the urgency of the evolutionary epic are two more rich resources provided in the text. Reciting either or both of the poems ("love letter to the milky way" and "hymn to the sacred body of the universe") and using some of the visuals (mandala, hexagrams, paintings) appeal as techniques to enhance the immensity of the ideas of the modern creation story and its environmentally responsible message.

     Included in these articles are a number of ideas that will resonate with World History teachers by offering thought provoking interludes for private internal pondering as well as for adding more thematic depth for course syllabi. A few that are immediately apparent are:

  • Abrams and Primack see this evolutionary epic as not only offering a coherent creation story but also of having the potential to be a "unifying basis for a global community." (p. 108)
  • Providing a coherent 21st century global worldview places us and our students in the trajectory of history as well as providing students with the ability to form a "more nuanced worldview" as Craig Benjamin asserts. (p. 151)
  • A number of articles contained very deliberate measures to show the connections to Eastern thinking and traditions to validate the global nature of this epic. Ritchlin quotes from Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Yao, and adds wonderful hexagrams showing humans as emerging from within the cosmos. Hubbard alludes to Daoist ideas of oneness with the universe but adds a less passive imperative to work toward bettering its future. Herman constructs a new political paradigm, a mandala, as the vehicle through which to reach the wisdom to know "how best to live" in this less rigid and more fluid universe. (p. 253)
  • The interdisciplinary nature of many of the articles imitates and supports the interdisciplinary resources used in many world history classes. A perfect example is Russell Genet's summary of the scientific story of human evolution that includes quotations from G. K. Chesterton and ends with a photo of the cosmos that carries this quotation from Van Gogh: "For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream." (p. 35)

     In addition to the above, these authors provide a rich array of reasons and ways to understand and open ourselves to the story in order to see the "whole" of creation—and to see ourselves as part of it and it a part of us is an on-going refrain. The idea of reaching out and being nourished by touch is explored then extended to encourage being "in touch" with ourselves, with others, with the universe. Myers offers an intriguing explanation of art "already living" in "pre biotic rock and emerging later in "human consciousness." His article is at once exciting and challenging as he references T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and the Transcendentalists and inserts paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and a Daoist artist to illustrate the artists' connection to "something beyond time. (pp. 312; 313) The spiritual treasury to be experienced in the wonder of the cosmos with a clear understanding of the evolutionary epic is underscored both by theologians and scientists and transcends the religion vs. science dichotomy. The pursuit of "the good life" turns up in two articles which prodded me to recall my understanding of the changes and continuities in that pursuit from the Dao to Aristotle' Doctrine of the Mean to Buddha's Middle Path to late 20th century thinkers in Robert N. Bellah, et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1996). So many articles focus on or come to the conclusion that the need to preserve and sustain the environment is the charge that connects us to the past and draws us into the future that this mandate for environmental responsibility provokes both reflection and action. Here the article by Gilbert, et al, inspires our own activism by identifying practical examples of how patterns of sustainable living are being incorporated into curricula as well as physical plants on campuses in Hawaii.

     High school teachers and college professors, scientists and scholars will find much to peruse for their own intellectual satisfaction as well as for practical classroom use in this book.

Helen Grady, a retired high school history teacher from Philadelphia, can be reached at


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