From Piketty’s Capital to Hawking’s The Theory of Everything: can one book explain it all?

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

Nobody swooned at London’s Peacock theatre when Piketty gave a lecture there one summer’s evening nine years ago, but there were queues around the block. Piketty had a message people wanted to hear: economics should be used for good rather than evil, to effectively redistribute wealth.

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

It seems clear, as we live through a new cost of living crisis presided over by a millionaire prime minister, that Piketty’s message didn’t get through. But one thing that did take hold in the wake of Capital’s unexpected success was the phenomenon of the “theory of everything” book.

“One of my favourite literary genres is what I like to refer to as The One Thing That Explains Everything or Tottee” says economist Michael Muthukrishna. Examples of the genre, which has mushroomed since Capital was published in 2013 (and translated into English in 2014), include the 704-page The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021), Peter Frankopan’s 636-page The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) and the Oxford professor of global history’s latest The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (published this year, at 736 pages), Sarah Bakewell’s 464-page Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist, Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope, and every book Yuval Noah Harari has ever written, but especially his 512-page Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, which was published in English in 2015.

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

For the fish it is water; for us, Muthukrishna argues, it is energy. We flip a switch and on comes a light. We power up the microwave, not thinking about where the juice comes from to fire up our leftovers, or the foodstuffs themselves, originated. His theory connects energy with evolution: “It’s about the way in which energy breakthroughs across the grand timescale of our species have led to periods of abundance that have in turn led to increases in the number of people, which in turn have led to scarcity and conflict.”

The dream is to marry the depth of Stephen Hawking with the readability of Donna Tartt

Such books often have grand ambitions to turn our complacent worldviews upside down. In The Silk Roads, Frankopan attempts nothing less than a major reassessment of world history, in which the usual occidental characters are not centre stage. So too do Graeber and Wingrow in The Dawn of Everything, in which they effectively mobilise Gandhi’s remark about western civilisation (“It would be a good idea”) in a takedown of the purportedly rational Enlightenment west.

The synoptic book is not a new invention, of course. George Eliot skewered its pretensions in her 1871 novel Middlemarch, describing the dry Rev Casaubon’s unending research for a tome called A Key to All Mythologies. His less deluded wife Dorothea comprehended what he did not: that recent German scholarship made his life’s work a waste of time. More recent examples have had different problems. One of the bestselling nonfiction volumes of the last millennium, Stephen Hawking’s 1988 A Brief History of Time, was once dubbed the most unread book of all time. In 2014, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg even devised the “Hawking Index”, to measure how far people will, on average, read through a book before giving up. Brief History averaged 6.6%, while Donna Tartt’s epic novel The Goldfinch averaged 98.5%.

The publishers’ dream then is to marry the profundity of Hawking with the readability of Tartt, to create the book that everybody 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 don’t otherwise get in our post-truth era of self serving, inegalitarian mendacious politicians. “After decades of our main narratives being defined by traditional economics and neoliberalism, people feel the need for alternatives. There’s something very encouraging about this interest in experts after years of politicians saying we don’t need them.”

But Ionita would say that: she’s the editor responsible for some of the best recent nonfiction by academics supplying big ideas to mass audiences – Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, Albanian political scientist Lea Ypi, Russian-American complexity scientist Peter Turchin and Canadian sociologist Michèle Lamont. “I think there is significant reader appetite for books that offer a new lens to understand the upheaval of the last few 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 of 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 disgruntled wannabes, often educated and highly capable, who feel shut out. Essentially the western world seethes with humanities graduates with low status, working in the kind of professions the late anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”.

Surely these frustrated elites are the perfect target for books that purport to explain how the world works? But, as Muthukrishna argues, these books rest on an imposture. “You and I know – and so too do the authors of these books – that the world is complicated. Arrows of causality point in multiple directions, and even feed back on each other. No one thing explains everything.”

This is a truth that Hawking, who literally wrote a book called The Theory of Everything, realised after appreciating the full ramifications of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, whereby in any reasonable mathematical system there will always be true statements that cannot be proved. And yet we carry on regardless. Finding a theory of everything – explaining all the forces and particles in the universe – remains the holy grail for some physicists. Though you’d think the fact that so many professors have their own theories of everything suggests that there isn’t just one, but many contenders, 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 the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.