Jo Marchant, The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars (New York: Dutton, 2020), 386pp.
The best compliment that I can pay to Jo Marchant's sweeping intellectual history is that it's hard to say which of her twelve chapters I enjoyed the most. She begins with the cave art and stone circles from 40,000 years ago, proceeds to the burial chambers in Ireland where "roof boxes" align perfectly with a shaft of light at sunrise, considers the invention of writing, then moves on to the invention of clocks, the navigation of the seas by early Polynesians, abstract art, and the search for aliens. Are we alone in the universe? Is there other life? Other intelligences? Is there such a thing as consciousness that is distinct from the material world?
The unifying theme in these otherwise disparate topics is our contemporary "disconnect between the heavens and humanity." For about twenty-thousand years, humans understood all of life in close connection with the starry heavens above. Over the last two hundred years, though, a purely scientific view of nature has objectified and separated us from these celestial connections and a broader spiritual outlook on the nature of ultimate reality.
Despite the stupendous successes of science, Marchant pushes back on scientific reductionism — the belief that natural science is the only or best method of reliable knowledge about what is worth knowing. Positivism makes the epistemological claim that science is the only way to know, while materialism makes the ontological claim that the physical world is the only thing there is to know. Scientific facts alone, argues Marchant, are insufficient to address questions of human meaning.
She urges us to recover the primacy of subjective personal experience in a world that is obsessed with a merely mathematical understanding of the objective material world. To do this, Marchant explores what she calls "twelve moments that tell us something about how people through history have seen the sky," in order to ask the big questions about the meaning of our existence, who we are, where we are, and why we're here. Our destiny is written in the stars, and in understanding what that means.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org