Origins: A book review by Bob Morris

Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History
Lewis Dartnell
Basic Books (May 2019)

A thorough examination of the planetary processes that drove the evolution of humanity

The best works of non-fiction tend to be driven by research in order to answer questions that have unique significance. That is certainly true of this book in which Lewis Dartnell poses these questions in the first chapter: “What are the planetary causes that transformed this particular region to create an environment in which smart, adaptable animals could evolve? And as we are the only one of a number of similar intelligent, tool-using huminin species to have evolved in Africa, what were the ultimate reasons why [begin italics] Homo sapiens [end italics]  prevailed to inherit the earth as the sole survivor of our evolutionary branch?”

In or near the downtown area of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which several merchants once offered — or still offer — slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now provide a representative selection of brief excerpts from among dozens of greatest interest to me.

o “Ancient Egypt offers perhaps the clearest case of how the development of a civilisation is influenced by ther combination of constraints and opportunities presented by the the geographical setting and climate. (Page 72)

o “The use of animal muscle power greatly expanded the capabilities of human societies — long-distance trade and travel through different environments became possible with horse, mule and camel, and strong but slow animals like oxen or water buffalo provided traction for pulling wagons and ploughs.” (77)

o “It is in Eurasia that different cultures developed a wheeled transport, iron-smelting, transoceanic trade links and industrialisation. Two aspects have defined the course of history across this sprawling land mass: long-distance trading routes over the great breadth of the continent, and nomadic peoples repeatedly spilling out of the continental interior to challenge the civilisations growing around its margins. It is the fundamental planetary characteristics of climate bands, of the environment within them, that have created these themes.” (183)

o “Burning fossil fuels has been like releasing a trapped genie: it granted us our seventeenth-century wish for virtually limitless energy, but it has done so with mischievous malice for the unintended consequences down the line.

“The challenge facing us now is to reverse the trend since the Industrial Revolution And once again decarbonise our economy…But perhaps the next revolution in humanity’s enduring efforts to marshal even greater supplies of energy will be to crack nuclear fusion: to harness the power source of the stars themselves…So fusion offers not only abundant energy, but this time also cleanly. In this sense wse will have come full circle: from the earliest agrarian societies capturing the energy of sunlight with their fields of crops and felled woodland to installing sun within our fusion reactors, and so cutting out the middleman.” (280-281)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine could possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of valuable material that Lewis Dartnell provides in this volume. However, I do hope that I have indicated why I think so highly of his work so that many others will obtain a copy of Origins and read it with ever-increasing interest and appreciation. It truly is a brilliant achievement.

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