Book Review: Cosmosapiens by John Hands

John Hands Lifts the Skirt of Modern Science, Revealing Cellulite, Varicose Veins, Scars and Blemishes

I once complained to an eminent professor at a prestigious university: “Everybody here is miles deep in some incredibly specialized topic. Nobody seems to be about the big picture.”

“Exactly,” he said. Cosmo Sapiens is one of those rare books that is about the big picture, yet also reports the state of the field accurately and not triumphantly.

I received a review copy from the publisher. I might not have

bought it on my own, and am thankful I took the time to go through it.

Were this book by Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking or Sean Carroll, it would exhibit a particular spin and reassuring false confidence. But John Hands is instead iconoclastic and ruthlessly honest in his appraisal of the entire origins field, from cosmology to string theory to origin of life to paleontology.

Hands spans literally 40 different scientific specialties, consistently unearthing useful insights, embarrassing dilemmas, fascinating anecdotes and footnotes, showing a keen gift for finding the bleeding edge of every discipline.

The one kind of person who will hate this book is the dogmatist who believes that the science is “settled.” In every case, the author shows that it is not.

However he is no anarchist. This is not a book of conspiracy theories or anything of the sort. This is a book by a guy who has a tremendous gift for research, and who has applied it for the purpose of showing the reader exactly where the sharpest minds in science disagree, why they disagree, and in many cases things they are in denial about.

Many times he shows where the consensus of the present time defies observable facts.

This must’ve taken eons to write. It is an encyclopedic tour of a wide range of scientific disciplines. Even though this book is large and expensive, it’s better than the 10 best representative books you might gather from all the different bookstore shelves that its subject material encompasses.

The bibliography represents a superb jump off point for all kinds of investigations that the reader might carry out. Over and over again he draws an insight or gem that even most specialists have overlooked. There’s an example of this in almost every chapter – which is exemplary.

One of the virtues is that he, unlike many in the field, is open to the observations of credible outsiders. So in addition to quoting the obvious leading lights and authorities, he cites iconoclasts and original thinkers – Johnjoe McFadden, Lynn Margulis, James Shapiro, Eva Jablonka, Rupert Sheldrake and Fred Hoyle come to mind.

I have deep knowledge of some of this material, because I wrote an evolution book myself (Evolution 2.0). I can’t name a single place where he made an obvious or glaring error. His research is consistently superb. His coverage of the field of evolution is outstanding, and he uncovers things that are unknown to most outsiders.

His battles with the traditional neo-Darwinists are fascinating to read about. He did not come with an agenda, he only sought to uncover facts. And some did not like the facts he dug up. Those sections alone are worth the price of admission.

He walks a very fine line here, and I suspect much effort was expended with his editors to get the tone right. Because he shines a flashlight into the cracks of almost everything. Yet at the same time, he is not cynical, dismissive, or insulting.

There is no chip on the shoulder. If the old guard ends up being right, John Hands gets no egg on his face. He doesn’t have a dog in the fight. He is just telling you what is going on.

He is properly respectful and acknowledging of philosophical and religious questions, yet has no time for people who think science “should not go there.”

As you read, you will feel a growing sense that 100 years from now, things that are considered settled and absolute in science today will be considered absurd. Just like the dogmas of 100 years ago seem quaint in 2016.

Yes, this book is long and more costly than average. Most people will not read the whole thing. But even if you only skim, you will discover much. Cosmosapiens deserves to be on the bookshelf of every serious student of science and the philosophy of science.

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5 Responses

  1. John Hands says:

    Thank you so much for your extremely thoughtful review of COSMOSAPIENS on Amazon. In it you mention that you were sent a review copy by the publisher. May I ask who sent you a copy and when? I do so because there have been very few reviews of the book in the USA.

    Your Evolution 2.0 looks fascinating. I’ve found it rare for people in the USA to take a balanced view: either creationists interpreting empirical evidence to conform with their literalist biblical beliefs or else scientists interpreting data to conform to their current paradigm and accusing any questioner of being a closet creationist (as, sadly, happened to me many times). The brightest minds, however, like Paul Steinhardt and Edward O Wilson, are able to engage in new evidence and new thinking.

    I do hope your website will spearhead a new openness in thinking.

    • John,

      I don’t recall a specific person, though the sheet of paper attached to the book may have had one. It just arrived in the mail one day.

      Yes, currently the origins conversation in the USA is highly polarized, it’s either/or with almost no tolerance for the shades in the middle. And you are right, the brightest scientists go beyond the surface and find the nuance.

      Thanks for pouring yourself into such a great book.

  2. Gordon Rostoker says:

    The idea that cooperation is replacing competition as a key driver of a more peaceful and socially responsible global population of humans is very persuasive. However, since the book was written the world has featured more populist leaders preaching more intolerance and more emphasis on the individual at the expense of the (global) society. This is occurring in the same time frame as the global population is reaching 7.4 billion, stretching the resources required to maintain that number of humans. We are seeing a response – mass migrations and displacements of humans seeking a better life. Will the breakdown of the cooperative ethic lead to a massive decline in human population bringing them to levels which can be sustained by the available resources? Are we in for the appearence of the “four horsemen”?

    • John Hands says:

      Many thanks for your comment, Gordon.

      It is certainly the case that in the last 3 years we have seen the rise of populist leaders exploiting dissatisfaction with distant bureaucracies by fostering our inherited instincts of competition, aggression, hierarchism, and divergence.

      I urge you to read Chapter 31. Cooperation, altruism, complexification, and convergence began to develop some 25,000 years ago with the emergence of humans characterized by self-reflective consciousness, but had to contend with powerful instincts inherited from over 2 million years of pre-human evolution. It was only 3,000 years ago that self-reflective consciousness began to impact on human societies.

      Figure 31.2 (page 557) illustrates the pattern in the evolution of humans and shows that, as of now, although the consequences of reflective consciousness are rapidly increasing, they have not yet overtaken the declining consequences of instinct. Moreover, this increase is not an steady one, but one I describe as a groping progression of “two steps forward, one step back.”

      The last 3 years, and probably the next 3 years at least, will be one of those steps back. This is not a breakdown of the cooperative ethic. I’m sure we will next see a two steps forward consistent with the evidence over the last 3,000 years.

      As for your questions about the rise in populations and availability of resources, etc. I address these and many other issues in the sequel to COSMOSAPIENS, provisionally entitled THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND, which I am about half way through.

  3. Osama Zaghloul says:

    It’s a good book but I’ve found several errors and I’m only 200 pages in.

    Right off the bat he claims that the Quran contradicts itself regarding how many days the earth was created. He makes the common mistake that when each stage is described by the amount of time that it must be consecutive days so the sum is greater than the total mentioned in another passage. However, stages don’t have to be consecutive. God can walk and chew gum at the same time, and stages can overlap.

    Another obvious error I just found is on pg. 204 where he claims that only single celled organisms can reproduce themselves. Besides hermaphrodites, some species can produce without fertilizing their eggs. Also many species reproduce by budding without even using gametes. This was an embarrassing error to be honest.

    I enjoyed the cosmology part but his dismissal of fractal biology set the tone early on the books shortcomings regarding biological evolution. I’ll finish the book but I’m disappointed that James Shapiro would endorse this with such glaring errors.

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