Tyler Volk


On his book Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be

Cover Interview of July 12, 2017

A close-up

I recently gave a book talk at a salon held on the first Sunday of every month at the Cornelia Street Café, in New York. (Great jazz there, by the way.) The salon is called “Entertaining Science,” convened by Nobelist in chemistry and all-round amazing man, Roald Hoffmann. Time was very limited because at these Sundays there is also entertainment. I knew I could not go through all the levels to the detail that they really deserve. After all, these levels, I feel, should be—they are—fundamental friends we should all know, in the cosmic sense.

I decided to experiment by flashing through 12 crucial diagrams in the book at about five seconds each. I warned the audience beforehand. I said it’s okay to even laugh. What is Volk doing?

The message I hoped to get across was the same message that a casual reader paging through my book in a bookstore might notice. “Wow, there are a lot of diagrams that look very much the same.” They differ in words, but if placed on top of each other the essential structures look very much identical. And they are.

These diagrams show for each fundamental level how the things of that particular level were made from the merger of prior existing things from the previous level. This is the recurrent pattern or process I noted above, which I have found can take us on a journey of innovation from the simplest things of particle physics to the complexities of culture. I failed to earlier note something I wish now to say. I needed a word for this recurrent process. I am calling it combogenesis. Combogenesis is the genesis of new things from the combination and integration of prior existing things.

So, if you were browsing the book, despite its obvious traverse across a vast landscape of different kinds of scholarship and discoveries, you would visually see there is an integrating—architectural, to use that word again—theme in the work. I note here for the skeptical that for this work I reached out to disciplinary experts who voluntarily, skillfully, and kindly, reviewed chapters that involved their specialties.