Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.
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.
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.
When I reviewed Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms, I remarked that microbes are everywhere. If you are willing to stretch the definition of life a bit further still, there is one entity that is even more numerous and omnipresent: the humble virus. We tend to think of viruses almost exclusively in the context of disease (see for example The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses). But, as virologist and pharmaceutical researcher Michael Cordingley shows here, they are so much more than mere pathogens and have a huge influence on evolutionary processes in all organisms. This book paints a remarkable portrait of these unusual life forms.
Antibiotics have been saving human lives since the drug Salvarsan was discovered in 1932. Penicillin went into mass-production in 1942. This is not a long time when you think about it, but a world without the protection offered by them already seems unimaginable. Not only have they offered protection from diseases such as tuberculosis, and stopped infections following injury or childbirth, they have also allowed us to develop surgical techniques requiring immune system suppression such as organ transplants. However, careless use of antibiotics has accelerated evolution of drug-resistant bacteria such that we are about to lose their protection.
Given that I predominantly review books on biology, you may wonder why a book on the history of economic inequality would be reviewed here. All I can say in my defence is that this biologist is nothing if not inquisitive.
Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler is a global deep history of inequality. Having taken a long, hard look at a huge range of historical evidence, Scheidel contends that only extreme violence and catastrophe have historically been able to bring more economic equality into the world.
Somewhere in chapter 2, Kyle Harper remarks how historians have become unintentional beneficiaries of ongoing climate change, as scientists turn to palaeoclimatic records such as ice cores, tree rings, and sediments to understand fluctuations in earth’s climate. This bonanza of data allows historians a new way to look at past events. And thus was born the discipline of environmental history, which emphasizes the active role the natural environment can have on human affairs. In The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper looks at one of those defining moments in human history, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, and the role of climate change and pandemics.