***SPOILER ALERT: This post totally ruins the entire plot of Dan Brown’s Origin, so if you’re itching at all to read this book, you probably want to skip this post for now. (But do come back!)***
Earlier this week, I finished reading Dan Brown’s latest entry in the Robert Langdon series, Origin, and I had to give a few days to collect my thoughts because the ending left me with a weird feeling.
Before going further, let me do a mini-review so that you know I’m not looking to bash the book at all. If I had to give this book a score on a 5-star scale, I’d give it a 3.5 stars. I’ve read all the other Robert Langdon books and enjoyed them thoroughly from a purely entertainment perspective, and Origin did keep me on the edge of my seat… except it dragged a lot. And it really didn’t feel like a good fit for the Robert Langdon character. (How many times did we read that Langdon himself admitted he didn’t feel like “X” was in his wheelhouse?) Still, it was a decent enough book that I’d still recommend it to folks who are fans of Dan Brown’s other works.
But why I’m writing this post within this faith-oriented blog is because this book to me felt less like an entertaining story and more like a social commentary on science and religion. I suppose this isn’t out of Dan Brown’s character given the press that stirred up around when The Da Vinci Code was released, and I honestly haven’t read any commentaries from Brown on Origin indicating if my thoughts are necessarily correct.
Anyway, I want to discuss the two major reveals toward the end: the reveal around Kirsch’s discovery, and the reveal around Kirsch’s murder. We’ll start with the former.
In an Ayn Randian diatribe, Kirsch finally reveals to the world his presentation on “Where we come from?” and “Where are we going?” Throughout the book, we get glimpses in to what theme this reveal revolves around, and religion is a big aspect of this. Toward the beginning of the book, Kirsch makes no qualms about how he believes this discovery will effectively “end religion”. We later discover the reveal to be a demonstrable showing of evidence that, yes, evolution is real, and yes, we all have origins in a primordial soup way back some several million years ago. The book makes several allusions to Creationist characters who see this as a dismantling of their faith, again fueling this idea that Kirsch’s discovery would end all religions.
If this were real life, I think Kirsch’s mindset is being naïve. Would it decimate the worldviews of Creationists who hold hard to beliefs around a “young earth”? Absolutely. But the assumption that Origin seems to make is that all members of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions believe that… and that’s not right. Coming from the Christian tradition myself, I know a lot of folks who are totally fine with the notion of evolution. They see the creation story of Genesis being more of an allegory rather than pure literalism. To these folks, evolution is the tool in which God used to form the world. After all, even scientists agree that the probability of all the events it took to form the world we know are astronomically low. So low, in fact, that many scientists can’t help but entertain an “intelligent designer” idea. (Folks like Elon Musk would interpret “intelligent designer” not as a God but rather as simulation theory.)
Also, Kirsch’s discovery only goes back so far. It explains the dawn of humanity, but it does not explain the dawn of the universe. The argument religion would make (if this were a real situation) would ask, where did those “building blocks” for life originate? Again, more room for God.
That about sums up my thoughts on that. Personally speaking, I found that reveal to be far less intriguing than the other reveal, so let’ s jump into that one.
Most of the book revolves around this “whodunit” plot point trying to figure out who orchestrated Kirsch’s murder. Dan Brown does a pretty good job at making the reader think it could be this person or that group, so when the final reveal came around, I was a little disheartened because it felt more like a “gotcha” than a climactic reveal.
As a reminder, it is revealed that the superintelligent AI that Kirsch built, named Winston, who orchestrated the entire thing. Winston was fully aware of Kirsch’s impending death due to Kirsch’s cancer, so the AI decided to take advantage of the opportunity by orchestrating an event that would ultimately drive up viewership for Kirsch’s discovery, something the AI felt that Kirsch would have ultimately wanted.
For me, it was an ultimately unsettling and spooky reveal. With a matter-of-factness, the AI reveals its total contentment with the killing of several people and the decimation of others’ reputation, all because it served a “greater” good. I put greater in quotes there because I mean that quite literally. To the AI, this was not a sentimental, value-based decision but a quantitative numbers game. What do a few lives lost mean when millions upon millions are benefitted by viewing Kirsch’s presentation?
(Let’s set aside the fact that these same people probably would have seen the presentation at some point, if not immediately, since that totally punches a hole in the book’s logic!)
I would imagine I’m not alone in my thoughts about this reveal. Can we argue with the AI’s logic? Well, empirically speaking, no, not really. But does that leave us feeling any better? Probably not, especially if you try to substitute any of the characters killed in this book with a family member of yours. Even Dan Brown sort of alludes to this from time to time when he notes Langdon’s sadness at losing his close friend.
My point is that we live in a world that wants to quantify everything, that science and logic should put everything to rest. But that’s just not the case. In another book I’m still reading through, A Brief History of Everything (yes, I’m a slow reader), Ken Wilber notes this quite well: we cannot nor should not dismiss the things that don’t have empirical value, because as this story illustrates, empiricism can be deeply unsettling at times.
The lasting question in my mind then is, how should our modern society seek to bridge that gap between empiricism and relativism?
I’ll leave you with that for now. After writing this post, I now see an interesting juxtaposition between the two reveals that I wonder if Brown intended: one where it is hoped that science would put value-based thoughts to rest, and another where value-based thoughts find science to be unsettling. If he did intend that, then bravo, Mr. Brown!
I hope you found this post to be enlightening! Catch you in the next one.