[Book filter] Seeking a decent primer on natural history - the big bang through to humans
January 15, 2011 1:03 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me find a decent primer on natural history, from the beginnings of grey matter and the start of the universe, through to the present - including the evolution of humans?

Kind of like Bill Bryson's "A short history of nearly everything", but covering topics from the start of the universe, through to the present - including the evolution of pre-humans and humans, the Jurassic period and dinosaurs, etc.

Material out there seems pretty isolated, but I'm looking for a book that draws a lot of these disparate threads together. Richard Dawkins' book on Evolution ("The greatest show on earth") is a little hard to follow and seems a bit tangential. I'm after a more generalist, basic even, book which gives a holistic explanation/overview, in chronological order.
posted by mrme to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You might find some of the texts coming out of the "big history" movement to be helpful and accessible: David Christian's Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History or Cynthia Stokes Brown's Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. Also Eric Chaisson, Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos.

I think it's difficult to really do justice to both the deeper cosmological history and the evolution of life on earth, and to a certain extent you are faced with a choice of well-done (accessible, even) texts that focus primarily on one side or the other. So, for example, you might look to a book from physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Origins (or even the granddaddy of them all, Sagan's Cosmos) as a complement to the more historical Bryson or evolutionary biologist Dawkins, rather than one single text that does it all.
posted by drlith at 6:02 AM on January 15, 2011

This might not be precisely what you're looking for but one of my favourite 'primers' on this stuff is A Short History of Progress.


ps. I approached Dawkins' book one chapter at a time - each chapter is an exquisitely written essay on each topic he addresses, and it all ties in together at the end. (With some anti-religious polemic thrown in for good measure.)
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 8:19 AM on January 15, 2011

I thought Dawkins' The Selfish Gene did a great job of explaining the evolutionary aspect of natural history, and it came before he was such an anti-religion activist. I don't remember that topic appearing in there at all, actually.

For cosmology, Stephen Hawkings's A Brief History of Time and the newer A Briefer History of Time are supposed to be very clear and engaging.

When you say "grey matter" are you perhaps referring to dark matter? Grey matter typically refers to the nerves in the central nervous system, as opposed to white matter which are the cells surrounding the nerves.
posted by vytae at 9:02 AM on January 15, 2011

I know you requested books, but if you have Netflix streaming there are a couple of great offerings that fulfill the rest of your request. They have all 13 episodes of Sagan's Cosmos, and there's a fantastic 3-part Nova series called Becoming Human on the evolution of humans.

Sadly, I think that a book that tried to cover both of these subjects would do justice to neither. The processes involved in the formation of the universe don't really have much overlap with the processes involved in human evolution.
posted by dialetheia at 1:58 PM on January 15, 2011

I used this.
It's written a little too dry but is exhaustive (and way more exhausting than Bryson).

It also provided me with enough fodder to know what I wanted to know more about...

A short History of the World by John Roberts
posted by eytanb at 1:32 PM on January 22, 2011

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