From Piketty’s Capital to Hawking’s Theory of Everything: can one book explain everything? | Books

TA few years ago, French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a book attempting to explain the fundamental economic forces that shape the world. Capital in the Twenty-First Century became an unlikely bestseller, introducing the book-buying masses to such topics as the capital-income ratio, shifts in the Kuznets curve, and the elasticity of substitution of labor. For a time, this unassuming Frenchman became a rock star akin to Jean-Paul Sartre (whose 1945 lecture Time magazine’s caption captured thus: “Philosopher Sartre. Women Faint”) .

No one fainted at London’s Peacock Theater when Piketty lectured there one summer evening nine years ago, but there were queues around the block. Piketty had a message that people wanted to hear: the economy should be used for good rather than evil, in order to redistribute wealth effectively.

Piketty sought to convince his readers that the 20th century had been unusual: unique rapid population growth that helped accelerate growth, combined with shocks (two world wars, the Great Depression) that reduced the value of capital and thus kept inequalities at a low level. These are exceptions in human history rather than rules. The 21st century, he asserts, will not be like the 20th. If we do not act, the accumulation of capital in the hands of a very few will resemble the norms of the early 19th or 18th centuries.

It seems clear, as we experience yet another cost of living crisis presided over by a millionaire Prime Minister, that Piketty’s message is not getting through. But one thing that emerged as a result of the unexpected success of Capital was the phenomenon of the “theory of everything” book.

“One of my favorite literary genres is what I like to call The One Thing That Explains Everything or Tottee,” says economist Michael Muthukrishna. Examples of the genre, which have proliferated since the publication of Capital in 2013 (and translated into English in 2014), include the 704-page book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021 ), that of Peter Frankopan. of 636 pages The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) and the latest work of the Oxford professor of world history, The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (published this year, on 736 pages), by Sarah Bakewell , Humanly Possible: Seven of 464 pages. One Hundred Years of Humanism, Free Thought, Inquiry, and Hope, and every book Yuval Noah Harari has ever written, but especially his 512-page Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, published in English in 2015.

Now add to that A Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going by Muthukrishna, published in September. His book begins with a story told by the late American novelist David Foster Wallace, about two fish swimming happily when they encounter an older fish. “Hello, boys,” said the latter. “How is the water?” The two young fish continue to swim then one asks the other: “What is water?” This is one of Tottee’s goals for Muthukrishna: to show us something that is so fundamental to our lives that we don’t see it.

For fish, it is water; for us, Muthukrishna argues, it is energy. We flip a switch and a light comes on. We turn on the microwave, without thinking about where the juice came from to light our leftovers, or where the food itself came from. His theory links energy to evolution: “It is about how energy breakthroughs across the grand time scale of our species have led to periods of abundance which have in turn led to increased of the number of people, which in turn led to a shortage and an increase in the number of people. conflict.”

These books often have great ambitions: to disrupt our complacent worldviews. In The Silk Roads, Frankopan attempts nothing less than a major reassessment of world history, in which the usual Western characters are not center stage. The same goes for Graeber and Wingrow in The Dawn of Everything, in which they effectively mobilize Gandhi’s remark about Western civilization (“that would be a good idea”) to destroy the supposedly rational Enlightenment West.

The synoptic book is of course not a new invention. George Eliot skewered his claims in his 1871 novel Middlemarch, describing Reverend Casaubon’s relentless search for a tome titled A Key to All Mythologies. His wife, Dorothea, less deceived, understood what he had not: this recent German scholarship made his life’s work a waste of time. More recent examples have had different problems. One of the best-selling volumes of nonfiction of the last millennium, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988), was once dubbed the most unread book of all time. In 2014, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg even designed the “Hawking Index,” to measure how far people will read a book on average before giving up. Brief History scored an average of 6.6%, while Donna Tartt’s epic novel The Goldfinch scored an average of 98.5%.

The publishers’ dream is then to marry the depth of Hawking with the readability of Tartt, to create the book that everyone with two brain cells to rub together wants to find in their Christmas stocking.

For Casiana Ionita, publishing director at Penguin, the appeal of these books is that academic experts can give us something we won’t otherwise get in our post-truth era of selfish, unequal lying politicians. “After decades of our main narratives being defined by mainstream economics and neoliberalism, people are feeling the need for alternatives. There is something very encouraging about this interest among experts, after years of politicians saying we don’t need it.”

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But Ionita would say this: she is the editor responsible for some of the best recent nonfiction works by academics providing big ideas to the general public – the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, the Albanian political scientist Lea Ypi, the Russian-American scholar complexity Peter Turchin and Canadian sociologist Michèle Lamont. “I think there is a huge appetite among readers for books that offer a new perspective for understanding the upheavals of recent years – Brexit and Trump, the pandemic, climate change, war,” she says.

So who reads these books? Turchin’s End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path to Political Disintegration might give us a clue. One of his key ideas is that of the surplus elites produced by neoliberal capitalism. Turchin argues that there is a large class of disaffected, often educated and highly competent, aspirants who feel excluded. Essentially, the Western world is full of low-status humanities graduates working the kinds of professions that the late anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.”

Aren’t these frustrated elites the ideal target for books supposed to explain how the world works? But, as Muthukrishna argues, these books are based on a sham. “You and I know – as do the authors of these books – that the world is complicated. The causal arrows point in multiple directions and even refer back to each other. Nothing explains everything.

This is a truth that Hawking, who literally wrote a book called The Theory of Everything, understood after appreciating the full ramifications of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which states that in any reasonable mathematical system there will always be true statements that cannot be proven. And yet, we continue despite everything. Finding a theory of everything – explaining all the forces and particles in the universe – remains the holy grail for some physicists. One might think, however, that the fact that so many professors have their own theories about everything suggests that there is not just one, but many competitors, all jostling in the marketplace of ideas.

A Theory of Everyone by Michael Muthukrishna is published by John Murray (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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