Origins, snappily written, is a fast read, unencumbered in the text by acknowledgement of sources, although the briefest possible notes supply references. Its brief discursions are fascinating too... A canny synthesis, the book is less original than it wants to appear, being in the tradition established by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel of 1997, doubtless also hoping to emulate the success of Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography of 2015 (444,500 sales in the UK).
Wonderful books have helped us understand how environment intersects with human agency in making our world. I think, for instance, of Martin Jones on the beginnings of agriculture, Roland Bechmann on the ‘roots’ of Gothic architecture, Jared Diamond on the reasons for Eurasian and North African precocity in innovation, William MacNeill on how disease helped dissolve Europe’s New World empires and Geoffrey Parker on the ‘global crisis’ of the 17th century. There is still an unfilled niche for a work on the theme of Origins that does this subject justice.
Earth is in a constant state of flux. In the late 1950s construction workers digging in Trafalgar Square found the remains of rhinos, hippos, elephants and lions. That was once the norm in the previous interglacial period. The interglacial, which provided the conditions for man’s extraordinary progress, started about 12,000 years ago. It will come to an end. That is certain. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but it’s bound to involve a lot of ice. Perhaps the most profound lesson of this superb book is that nothing is permanent, or predictable.