Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
Humans. How is it that you can herd 200 of them into an aeroplane without a riot erupting, while they also commit unspeakable atrocities such as torture, genocide, and war? Anthropologist Richard Wrangham calls it the goodness paradox. In this well-reasoned book, he surveys research from a range of disciplines to try and answer why humans show this odd combination of intense calm in normal social interactions and a ready willingness to kill under certain other circumstances.
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.
In an earlier review, I said that botany was never my greatest love. With The Revolutionary Genius of Plants, Italian plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso does a very good job of changing my mind. In the preface, he implores readers to imagine what it is like to be a plant, unable to escape predators. How can you survive this onslaught? The answer: by becoming virtually indestructible. And the way plants do this is by having a body plan that is almost the inverse of animals. There was something so powerful about Mancuso’s writing here that he instantly drew me in.
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?
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.
Six years ago (is it already that long?) Katrina van Grouw blew me away with her gorgeously illustrated book The Unfeathered Bird, which gave a unique insight into bird anatomy. Her new book, Unnatural Selection, again features her unique combination of accessibly written text and lavish illustrations. The book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In this and in On the Origin of Species, Darwin frequently referred to the rapid changes that breeders could bring about in plants and animals to make evolution understandable. And yet, biologists and naturalists don’t generally hold breeders and their breeds in high regard. In that sense, Unnatural Selection also celebrates their work and knowledge.
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.