World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. ix + 175. Acknowledgments, Appendix: Timeline, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. $25.00 (hardcover).

Roger R. Briggs, Journey to Civilization: The Science of How We Got Here. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 265. Preface, Introduction, Appendices, Annotated References by Chapter, and Index. $34.95 (paper).


     This is a joint review of two very different works that cover similar territory: Journey to Civilization (JC) and Journey of the Universe (JU). They differ in numerous ways. For example size – JU measures 5 x 3 inches and is only 175 pages which includes an appendix, notes, bibliography, and index; while JC is 10 x 4 and is 264 pages all inclusive. The books also differ as to their respective audiences. JC is clearly a textbook and direct to high school and possibly first year college students. JU on the other hand targets the general public. Although the website for JU suggests undergraduate and high school students as target audiences its valve is diminished without the accompanying DVD. JC is a "science" book about our cosmos, and JU is more a poetic story of the universe's unfolding.

     These texts seem to fall lightly into "Big History" as defined by David Christian. In his path breaking book, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, Christian introduced many of us to a new historical approach – combining natural history with human history. As Christian notes, throughout our time on earth we humans have been asking the same questions: "Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?" Individuals and societies have attempted to provide answers to these and other like questions through creation myths. According to Christian, "creation myths provide universal coordinates within which people can imagine their own existence and find a role in the larger scheme of things."1

     But let's take a closer look at each of the books. As noted, JU is part of a larger project by Swimme and Tucker that includes an award winning film first shown on PBS (now available as a DVD) and a companion website.2 From my reading of the book (I have not seen the DVD) it needs the support of both. The book is extremely brief in what it has to say while attempting to cover an enormous time frame as well as deep and important scientific and historic subject matter. The website fills in some of the blanks in the text with chapter summaries and discussion questions for the classroom. This is a book review however, and this book just does not make it as a stand - alone project and I am not sure it was intended to do so.

     As noted above JU is brief with eleven chapters, appendix, notes, bibliography, and index all in a total of 175 pages. The text itself is only 118 pages. As one might imagine other than the first chapter (sixteen pages) none of the chapters exceeds eleven pages and most are only eight or nine pages in length. However, the book covers 13.7 billion years.

     JU follows the format of other books in the "Big History" field by beginning with the start of the universe – the big bang - and working its way through the formation of the stars, solar systems, our earth, the emergence of life, homo sapiens and the human construction of civilizations. None of these chapters is overly scientific in nature but rather tells the "story" of each event. In chapter nine, "Becoming a Planetary Presence," Swimme and Tucker discuss the power of human innovation that has allowed, "humans [to] adapt to new environments much more quickly than would be the case if they had to rely solely upon genetic changes" (93). Moreover, they argue that cultural selection is now the tool of change on the earth and not natural (biological) selection. We humans determine which species live or die. For Swimme and Tucker this power demands great responsibility, something at which humans have not always excelled. The book closes with the authors posing the age old questions which humans have struggle with since our ancestors first looked up into the night sky. With the special qualities humans possess of intelligence and conscious self-awareness, where do we and the earth go next? How do we humans fit in the larger scheme of things? Do we have a purpose? If so, what is that purpose? The book has a fairly extensive timeline and a substantial bibliography.

     Journey to Civilization (JC) on the other hand has all the appearances of a text book: a certain heft to the text, slick, glossy pages, maps, charts, graphs, photos, highlighted text boxes that go deeper into the subject matter. It is also relatively short for what it purports to cover: Big Bang to the emergence of human civilization. This is an enormous amount to cover in just over 200 pages.

     The text is divided into five parts – "The Age of the Cosmos," The Age of Bacteria," "The Age of Complexity," "The Age of the Brain," and "The Age of Humanity." The chapters do have much in them for young minds to absorb. Each Part of the text has an introduction, two to three chapters, and a summary. Chapter one covers the big bang and the first 380,000 years of the universe. Chapter two describes the development of large structures like the galaxies. Chapter three turns closer to home with the formation of our solar system. Part two, chapters four and five, is a discussion of the origin of life and prokarya, a single cell bacterium. Chapters six looks at cooperation in living things. Chapter seven explores first life on land. Becoming human is the subject of chapters eight and nine. The book closes with the emergence of humans as the dominating creature on the earth.

     Let's take a closer look at Chapter Eleven as representative of the text. This chapter, "Sapiens: Inheriting the Earth," is in Part Five – The Age of Humanity. "Sapiens" tells the story of our ancestors' departure from Africa some 60,000 years ago and the resulting migration that populated the world. Briggs provides a two page map of the world showing this migration of modern humans. Likewise the chapter contains several photographs cave paintings and a map of the fertile crest area in the Middle-East. Topics discussed are: Out of Africa, The First Americans, and the Neolithic Revolution. The First Americans section discusses the Clovis people in North America as well as the slow but continuous movement of people down the Pacific coast taking some 1000 years until humans arrived at Patagonia. I am sure Briggs would be the first to acknowledge his weakness in the area of early human history. His use of Jared Diamond here is a reflection of that. A reference to Bruce Trigger3 and Jerry Bentley4 would strengthen the last few chapters.

     Most of the chapters in JC contain one or the other of highlighted text boxes: "Exploring Deeper" and "Science and Discovery." Chapter eleven has an "Exploring Deeper" section that discusses the Y chromosome. The discussion explains the differences in the Y chromosome, found in males, and the mitochondrial DNA found in females. The "Exploring Deeper" section in this chapter refers back to chapter 10 in which a discussion of mitochondrial DNA is included in a "Science and Discovery" text box. Together these two sections provide students with a clear picture of the importance and uses of DNA studies.

     None of the chapters is particularly long preventing much in depth presentation of material (a weakness the author acknowledges in the introduction). However, there is good clear information here. A strong area of this book is the appendices which cover some fifty pages. The appendices add depth to the book chapters in several areas. There are five appendices and they cover dating of the universe, tools of astronomy and astrophysics, dating the Earth's history, and a look at hominid fossils. The audience for this text would seem to be fitted to high-school students.

     As noted both books have some areas of strength. Yet neither has adequate depth or breath for classroom use. JU tells a story of the universe in almost poetic language. As noted it is not substantial enough to work in the classroom as it is, however it is part of a larger project that might fill a need. JC's strengths as noted are its substantial appendices but like JU it is thin for high school or first year college students.

Terry D. Goddard is recently retired from Northwest Vista College, San Antonio, Texas, where he taught World History and World Religions. He can be reached at



1 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. (Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 2.


3 Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

4 Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets Salter, Traditions and Encounters. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013).


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use