Felipe Fernández-Armesto

False Starts

Origins: How the Earth Made Us


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Environmental determinism is a falsehood easily disproved. In identical or nearly identical environments, human communities have contrasting politics, conflicting religions, divergent technologies, incompatible tastes in food and mutually unintelligible languages; even chimpanzees, whose range of cultural diversity is minuscule by human standards, crack nuts on one bank of the N’zo-Sassandra River but not on the other. Although occasional lurches – seismic events, freak weather, sudden microbial mutations, ecological disasters that extinguish a food source – interrupt environmental stability, cultural change is incommensurably swift. Without acknowledging that humans make our own ways of life, you cannot begin to understand history.

Yet pop science inflicts determinist books on us. Lewis Dartnell’s is the latest. In some ways, his project is admirable and his equipment impressive. Dartnell has a gift for simple – sometimes oversimplified – exposition. He can rehash scientific literature digestibly for uninstructed readers. He can write prose that is never vivid or creative but always clear. He has the characteristics, in short, of a commercially viable scientific vulgarisateur. He wants to inform readers about some of the building blocks of history: the resources the planet provides; the spells of global cold and warmth; our naturally occurring foods; the stone and timber we appropriate to construct new environments of our own design; the minerals that supplied, for instance, the chief raw materials of the Bronze and Iron Ages; the rain and soils that make agriculture possible; the fossils that fuel industrial societies; the winds, currents and land corridors that have cleft or connected human societies. He seeks to outline, in other words, features of the planet that constitute the framework within which history happens, just as the materiality of a book limits its contents or the dimensions of a stage help shape a play. It is proper to acknowledge environment as a thread in the story of humankind as long as one does not confuse limiting conditions with determinant forces. Four flaws, however, make Origins virtually valueless. 

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