When a history book leaves you reeling, you know that it has done its job properly. Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a grand synthesis of environmental history, charting the fate of civilizations and the links between climatic changes and the health of people. It is also a book that almost wasn’t.
After I read and reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, I thought I knew about the changes to the story of human evolution based on studies of DNA. And given that Ancestors in Our Genome was published a few years before that book, I was curious what it could add to what I had been reading so far. As it turns out, a lot. As with my previous review, I should preface this one with the same warning that things are about to get complicated…
Mammoths and sabertooth cats are but two icons of an assemblage of large animals, or megafauna, that disappeared between roughly 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. As with all mass extinctions, several explanations have been put forward, but one man and his idea take centre stage in these discussions: Paul S. Martin’s overkill hypothesis. In End of the Megafauna, palaeomammalogist Ross D.E. MacPhee carefully scrutinises this idea, weighs up the arguments for and against, and explains its enduring allure. To quote Huxley, is this another example of “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”?
When it comes to big volcanic eruptions, names such as Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and Krakatau will ring a bell. But all of these are dwarfed by a far larger eruption that few outside of the science community will have heard of. Noted geologist, palaeontologist and author Donald R. Prothero here tells the story of the eruption of Mount Toba in what is nowadays Sumatra, Indonesia, some 74,000 years ago. An eruption so gargantuan that it almost wiped out the human race.
Historically, humans have long considered themselves special compared to the natural world around them. It shows, for example, in old depictions where humans are at or near the top of a chain of lifeforms, with only angels and gods above us. Darwin caused a tremendous ruckus by saying we were descended from primates, and evolutionary biology has since had a long history of diminishing our anthropocentric worldview. With The Book of Humans, self-professed science geek Adam Rutherford has written an entertaining exploration of human evolution, showing that, amidst the teeming multitudes of lifeforms surrounding us, we are really not that special. And yet we are.
Who could refuse such an invitation to dinner? In fourteen short chapters, Dinner with Darwin provides a smörgåsbord of topics on the role of food in human evolution and vice versa, many of which have been covered here in recent reviews. This is Jonathan Silvertown’s fourth book with the University of Chicago Press, and based on this, I would love to read his other books as well. Care to join me at the table?
If Charles Darwin were to walk into my office today and ask me: “So, what did I miss?” I think I would sit the good man down with a copy of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, telling him: “Here, this should get you up to speed”. Darwin struggled to explain how traits were being inherited from generation to generation. As New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer shows in this wide-ranging book, the story of heredity has turned out to be both diverse and wonderful, but has also been misappropriated to prop up some horrible ideologies.
History books tend to portray the transition of humans as hunter-gatherers to farmers – and with it the rise of cities, states and what we think of as civilization at large – as one of progress and improvement. But with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott challenges this narrative. That our switch to an existence as sedentary farmers impacted our health is something I was familiar with from palaeopathological findings, see for example Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins or Hassett’s Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. But Scott tackles this subject from many angles, summarising accumulating archaeological and historical evidence to provide a fine counter-narrative.
Fire is a force of nature that both fascinates and frightens. Large wildfires around the world seem to be on the rise and are a cause of concern due to the risk to lives and property. But fire also is an essential part of the workings of our planet that pre-dates humans by a long time. How long? For the last 40 years, geologist and palaeobotanist Andrew C. Scott has researched plant remains in the fossil record that have been preserved by fire in the form of fossil charcoal. In Burning Planet, he takes you on a 400-million-year deep-history tour of fire and how it has shaped our planet.
The evolution of domestic dogs from wolves is something that has been written about a great deal. Seeing dogs are one of our oldest domesticates and very close to our hearts, there has been an intense interest in this subject. The First Domestication provides a new perspective by turning to a rich vein of knowledge that is often ignored by contemporary Western scientists: traditional stories from tribal and indigenous peoples. If the sound of that makes you roll your eyes – something I am normally much inclined to do – you would be missing out on an incredibly well-written book that deserves your full attention.