Rossdavidh's Reviews > Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

Origins by Lewis Dartnell
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really liked it
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Lewis Dartnell is a "professor of science communication", it says on the dust jacket to this book. I didn't know that was a thing, but goodness knows we could use all of that we can get. Dartnell is using his (rather good) science communication skills, here, to tell "Big History" on the scale of the Earth's lifespan. This is the sort of book where you get an explanation of 21st century voting trends in the U.S.A. or the U.K., from an analysis of plate tectonics and the biology of the Cretaceous Period or the mid-to-late Palaeozoic. Believe it or not, he makes a reasonable case both times, and backs it up with maps that show the relationship. Hint: plantations were made where the soil chemistry favored growing cotton, and coal was deposited more in some places than others.

Whether you think this kind of thing enlightens or obscures the issues of, say, colonialism or slavery or the Resource Curse of oil-rich nations, is probably a question of personal preference. It is undeniably effective at giving you perspective. The ways in which European colonial empires depended on the arrangement of our continental plates (and the oceans in between them), is a great example. Do you think it is an interesting question as to why it was that Europe colonized Africa, Asia, and the Americas, rather than the other way around? Or do you think that is just taking our attention off the human question of whether or not it was an ethical thing to do? I personally think the former, but I don't doubt that there are many intelligent people who are of the latter opinion.

Dartnell makes excellent use of graphics in his book, and not only the maps (although they are good as well). I think I have never seen as good an explanation of how and why the Earth's wind and water currents circulate around the globe, and how sailing ships utilized this to knit the separate continents together, as we see here. The discussion of how our geology leads to our economy, from fossil fuels to metal ores to every other element of economic consequence, is both readable and entertaining.

If I have any quibble (and I don't particularly) with this treatment, it is the absence of any discussion of disease. The consequences of climate and biology on our history are many, but disease has an outsized role, arguably bigger even than geology. But, you can't cover every topic in one book, and perhaps he will pick up that topic in a future work?

Our current news environment is essentially the exact opposite of Dartnell's approach here: hyper-now, fresh news, much of which will not even be remembered a few weeks from now, much less actually matter. Dartnell's book is a good way to take the exact opposite approach, and as an antidote to the 24-hour news cycle, the 240 million year news perspective is an excellent remedy.
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Finished Reading
December 1, 2019 – Shelved
December 1, 2019 – Shelved as: blue

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message 1: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov Was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel a divergence from Dartnell's approach or an enhancement of it?


message 2: by Rossdavidh (last edited Dec 02, 2019 02:43PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rossdavidh I would say Dartnell's approach builds on Jared Diamond's. The importance of north-south vs. east-west continental alignment definitely gets brought up, and I believe Dartnell even credited Diamond on that point.

Of course, Diamond _did_ talk about disease more (the "Germs" part of the title). But Dartnell talks a lot more about the impact of geology on humanity, in a lot more detail. Both good books, and if you like one I would say you have a good chance of liking the other.


message 3: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov Rossdavidh wrote: "I would say Dartnell's approach builds on Jared Diamond's. The importance of north-south vs. east-west continental alignment definitely gets brought up, and I believe Dartnell even credited Diamond..."

Thanks, very helpful


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