“One of the human species’ greatest strengths is its ability to theorize. Evolutionary pressure rewarded brains that saw patterns, even in randomness. When we heard a rustle in the grass, we could imagine it was a random breeze and ignore it, or we could hypothesize that it hid a waiting predator and try to escape it. For the many times it was a breeze, the wrong answer made us unnecessarily anxious, but it did not interfere with our survival. For the rare time that it was a predator, the anxious survived, and those who believed it to be random made a fatal error.” — Lucy Jones, The Big Ones
Rejoice fellow anxious humans—we’re just evolved! I smiled to myself when I read “the anxious survived” on the subway earlier this week. Just the message I needed! But of course Lucy Jones—aka “the Beyoncé of earthquakes” (you can’t make this stuff up)—is really making the point that we evolved, anxious humans seek to find meaning in the madness which doesn’t mesh so well with the often randomness of natural disasters. The rest of the book details ways throughout history in which we have sought to understand, justify, and survive in the wake of such disasters ranging from tsunamis to hurricanes to volcano eruptions.
This is my favorite type of nonfiction in that it combines a little bit of everything. Sure, there’s plenty of science here. But it’s sneaky science, the only kind I can truly stomach, cloaked in stories of mythology, history, and culture. The retelling of the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo, for instance, touches on Japan’s historical isolation up to that time and the local response which was in part shaped by enduring belief in yin-yang ideology. It also doesn’t hurt that Jones is so adept that she can break down seismology—a type of science which its experts can’t exactly create their own experiments for—for someone as science obtuse as me.
It’s clear none of this matters to Roxie who really just wants some egg and avocado.