Could you put yourself inside the mind of a trilobite? Oren Harman has...

Angela Kiverstein looks at the new book by Oren Harman, the professor who marries myth and science


You cannot truly understand jealousy unless you put yourself inside the mind of a trilobite, the first creature on earth to develop an eye. But it’s OK. Oren Harman, professor of the history of science at Bar Ilan University, has done it for us, in Evolutions, Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, published this week by Head of Zeus.

It is written in a lyrical style. “The idea was to write science in a different register and by doing so explore more deeply the relationship between science and myth,” he says.

For instance, when the trilobite achieves sight and falls in love, its emotional descriptions are epic “Perhaps this is how Hades felt when he looked upon Persephone in the Sicilian meadow, spellbound by the violets. Perhaps he, too, could not help it, needing to have her to himself, exclusively. But he was a god, and while I dwelled in the ocean’s underworld, I was just an arthropod.” Poor trilobite.

Other myths in Evolutions tackle themes such as motherhood, hubris, solitude, sacrifice, immortality, death and hope. “Science doesn’t touch these questions for instance, what is love,” asks Harman. “Science says it is oxytocin rushing through our veins but that doesn’t capture it for us entirely. We’re left wanting. There is great hope in science we can synthesise drugs to treat disease; build telescopes… We should celebrate that, but it won’t necessarily lead to happiness.

“There’s a whole happiness movement, trying to understand the science of happiness and crack the mystery so we can all be happy all the time. It seems misguided. This is a pro-science book but it is also important to hold on to a bit of modesty about what we can’t know.”

Harman’s interest in myth was sparked in part by early exposure to Genesis, but far more by a favourite book called The World of Myth and Legend. At first Harman was not a great reader, preferring to play football and chase butterflies. “I loved writing stories but my real dream was to be a musician.” He never became a professional pianist, although he does sing in the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir, but “being a writer was a tangential way to be a musician, with the music of the words. I’m often listening to the music of the words and in a way meaning comes second.”

This, for instance, is the earth, after giving birth to the moon: “As the oceans grew, lapping against my forming continents, slowly they began to find a rhythm and I began to see that the rhythm was due to you… But when you rose and when you set, the waters shrank away, like a spider ducking into its carapace, so emotional at your comings and goings that they needed to hide.”

Harman grew up against the backdrop of “the palimpsest that is Jerusalem and all its history if you are interested in myth, it’s a wonderful place to grow up”, surrounded by the “gigantic brains” whose books were published by his mother at the Jewish Publication Society.

His own children, Shaizee and Abie, at four and two, are too young for Evolutions but he looks forward to reading the myths to them one day. “Children are so clever and so imaginative,” he says, admiring their ability to make original connections.

His myth of Sacrifice is in part a reflection on childhood. “It’s about a dog turning into a whale, morphing to adapt to its new environs and yet retaining a sense of its beginnings,” he says.

Scientists do not know why whales breach (break the water’s surface). “What I was trying to suggest is that, once they morphed from dog-like creatures, they were no longer beholden to gravity. They grew, but now they breach to return to their origins. It’s a very personal myth to me. The child in me looms large; there’s a sense in which you’re trying to… return to almost your original garden of Eden before things got complicated.”

Harman has kindly folded his long body into a very low chair, to equalise our heights and perhaps his lyrical style is getting to me, because his position almost seems a metaphor for this yearning. It is a wistful moment. But soon he is enthusing again about the power of myth to explore the unanswerable. There is no doubt about it Oren Harman is having a whale of a time.



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