The Origin of Species and the End of Religion
A Review of Origin by Dan Brown
Science and Faith square off in the pages of a rousing novel.
Imagine an evening in an art gallery in Madrid, Spain. The characters include the royal family, the Catholic Church, a scientist with a secret, and an unintended Harvard professor with an invitation to see that secret. Three questions govern the mystery: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (p.302) The answer to these questions is about to be unfolded, live to the internet world, and yield the greatest intellectual scandal that organized religion has even encountered.
Author Dan Brown has figured out how to take an intriguing historical concept, formulate it as a conspiracy theory, and place it in an adventure of Harvard symbologist Professor Robert Langdon. This main character should be profiled on travel agency posters as a coat-and-tie version of Indiana Jones, experiencing some of the most powerful one-week adventures ever imagined on the European continent. The book Origin adds another adventure to journeys this reader-friendly professor.
In the latest drama in the style of The Da Vinci Code, Brown centers this stand-alone episode on the controversy around the origins of life. Popular culture has already framed this conflict as science vs. faith, the fossil record vs. Genesis, and Darwin vs. God. In this case, a former student of Langdon has a scientific discovery to unveil that will shake the foundations of all great religions. Yet, the villainous religious establishment will compromise its own values to prevent the sequestering of its values. Meanwhile, science marches on, innocently and objectively for Dan Brown. Once again, the “Fact” preface page states how “all art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organizations in this novel are real,” as if the fictional story line that houses this science is as true as the science itself. And once again, the church takes a beating while science illumines the human psyche.
Yet, the novel is interesting for those who enjoy the tension between science and faith. For the rest of this paragraph alone, a semi-spoiler is contained. An old, forgotten test tube now offers a model of time necessary to assess the evolution of a primordial soup. Add the extrapolation of e-waves and a new theory of energy dissipation in the entropy process, and this one scientist can demonstrate primal evolution. When he does, the assumption is that a creator God will be disproven and humanity stands atop the advancement of species. It feels like the Enlightenment has won its longest and last battle. However, a twist emerges every time the experimental analysis is run: another species overtakes the human race to extinguish it as it is currently known.
This work reads just like The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and Inferno, all novels with main character Langdon. This character should be exhausted: in each novel he flees police and the corrupt religious establishment, while he mentally unlocks both secret symbols and character plots by unpredictable conspiracists. In this case, the reader has to get to p.493 to encounter the crux of the controversy. While the science is intriguing and the novel enhances the intrigue, Brown seems to weary Langdon as the plot is on hold for hundreds of pages. In his prior works, the adventure and the conspiracy discovery operate in a tension/release; here, it drags as slowly as the first million years of evolutionary life.
As the novel asks, Where are we going?, I know this month, I’m going to Madrid, Spain, the setting of Origin. Unwittingly, I grabbed this book from an airport bookstore, and by coincidence the Dan Brown principle that “locations are real” will make my trip to the royal palace and Catholic sites more meaningful. Like Robert Langdon and the Apostle Paul (on another blog), I will go to Spain.
While I hope my adventure doesn’t involve Interpol or bullets, these environs of Origin will make me think more on the connection between fact and theory, truth and myth, and creation and evolution. Yes, I’ll have to filter the animosity towards the Christian church that characterizes Dan Brown novels. Yet, we cannot expect anything better from a fictional novel than to wonder anew at the great question, Who are we? and to ponder such thoughts more deeply. This summer reading can provide this in a thrilling conspiracy novel probing life’s deepest questions.