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.
“Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of social organisation?” Sounds familiar? I indeed opened my review of E.O. Wilson’s recent book Genesis: On the Deep Origin of Societies with almost these exact words. Where that book (quite literally) fell a bit short of the intended mark, biologist Mark W. Moffett here delivers a sprawling big history book that considers almost the same question. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, for Wilson has been Moffett’s mentor.
“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.
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.
In the minds of most people, the words “Ice Age” will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase “Little Ice Age” to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature’s Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today’s world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.
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.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
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.
With his new book, The Creative Spark, Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and anthropologist currently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, boldly puts forth the idea that what makes humans special is creativity. The ability of humans to switch back and forth between considering what is, and dreaming of what might be, and to then put these thoughts into actions (often collaboratively), has brought us a very long way from our primate origins to the tool-wielding, world-shaping force of nature of today. Along the way, Fuentes wants to do away with some of the dominant narratives regarding human evolution today, or rather, he thinks most of them oversimplify things and lead to distortions in our thinking. Instead, he presents a new synthesis that places creativity front and centre stage as being the most important mechanism that helped us overcome challenges.