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.
I cannot deny that the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing this book was Leslie Nielsen’s slightly smutty beaver joke in Naked Gun. Shame on me, as environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb presents a serious, incisive book that shows just how important beavers and their dams are for biodiversity, ecosystem health, and hydrology. If humans are now said to be a geological force to be reckoned with, birthing the term Anthropocene, our persecution of beavers led to the loss of another geological force.
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.
Aaah, GMOs. Was there ever a topic comparable to genetically modified organisms that riled people on either side of the debate this much? Written by an organic farmer and plant geneticist, Tomorrow’s Table is a marvellous work that walks the middle road, asking: Why should we not combine the best that organic farming and genetic engineering have to offer? Along the way, it exposes the often illogical, contradictory and, frankly, infuriating attitudes and opinions of the anti-GMO movement, politely smothering them with facts, while also teaching the technology cheerleaders a lesson or two. I love this book.
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.
As mentioned previously in my review of Barbara King’s Evolving God, religion is a pervasive phenomenon, and many scholars have put forward explanations how, when, and why it arose. The arguments King put forth did not convince me that religion is anything more than a by-product of our evolution. Apparently, so did Darwin. Though believers often like to point out Darwin was a Christian too, he struggled to reconcile the two and ultimately lost his faith. American psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey gracefully acknowledges this intellectual heritage and here updates this idea, putting forth the convincing argument that religion arose as a by-product of brain evolution.
“Show me your teeth and I will tell you who you are” Cuvier is reported to have said. That, in short, is the brief of this book. Drawing on a range of disciplines – such as archaeology, palaeoclimatology, materials science, primatology, anthropology and evolutionary biology – this book weaves a compelling narrative of what our teeth, and those of our ancestors, can tell us about our past diets, and how we came to be the species we are today. Why teeth? Because, as Ungar contends, teeth are special.