history

Book review – Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness

9-minute read

In Being a Human, Charles Foster attempts to inhabit three past eras to find out first-hand how humans came to be who they are. He lives like an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer, an early farmer in the Neolithic, and he briefly visits the Enlightenment – or so we are promised. When I received this book, I was, admittedly, slightly unsure. Any attempt to live like past humans, especially hunter-gatherers, is fraught with difficulties as so many things have irrevocably changed: the flora and fauna, the landscape, the knowledge most of us have gained (you cannot really unsee germ theory) but also lost (who here can kill and prepare an animal or make a fire without modern tools?), or the fact that we lived in large communal groups. When the flap text also mentions shamanic journeys I was fearing the worst: am I about to witness yet another affluent man’s mid-life crisis?

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis

8-minute read

This review is a case of one book leading to another. When I read Carl Benedikt Frey’s The Technology Trap, one argument he raised as to why the Industrial Revolution arrived as late as it did, was the resistance to innovation by guilds. But beyond certain vague and probably romantic notions, what do I really know about medieval guilds? And thus I found myself sitting down with The European Guilds, a hefty 645-page book by economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie, published in The Princeton Economic History of the Western World series. This meticulously argued book crushes the idea that guilds served the common good. Instead, argues Ogilvie, through their profiteering they held Europe in an economic stranglehold that lasted for centuries.

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Book review – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

7-minute read

I will happily shoehorn a Monty Python reference into any conversation, but in this case historian Walter Scheidel beat me to it. What did the Roman Empire ever do for us? It fell and never returned – and with it, it paved the way for modernity. That, in one sentence, is the bold idea Scheidel puts forth here. And rather than ask why Rome fell, he has far more interesting questions for you. Why did nothing like it arise ever again in Europe? Why did it arise in the first place? And how did this influence the way Europe came to dominate the world much later? Escape from Rome is a brilliantly subversive book that offers a refreshingly novel look at how Europe got to where it is now.

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Book review – Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

6-minute read

Despite its purposefully provocative title, Limits is not a pro-growth book that panders to the illusion of endless economic growth. Starting with a thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus, ecological economist and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis examines how his ideas have influenced economics and have been misinterpreted by environmentalists, before ending with a call to collective self-limitation. Along the way, there is a healthy dollop of reflection and pre-emptive defence of his arguments. Though I have some points of criticism, Limits by and large concisely formulates ideas that I have found myself gravitating towards more and more lately.

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Book review – The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

8-minute read

The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.

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Book review – How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

8-minute read

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right?
– That sounds reasonable.
Wrong“, says author and professor of philosophy Alex Rosenberg.
Feeling especially well informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list?
– Well, since you are asking…
Don’t. Narrative history is always, always wrong.
– Oh…

That is the rather provocative premise that Rosenberg pushes with How History Gets Things Wrong. Given that I review both pop-science books and books charting the history of certain academic disciplines, will this be the book that brings on a bout of existentialist doubt, and cause me to abandon reviewing books? Is this book the proverbial blog killer??

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Book review – Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

6-minute read

Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.

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Book review – The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel

This is a travelogue the likes of which you do not find often. It tells of historian David Gange’s audacious journey, kayaking the length of the Atlantic coast of the British Isles over the course of a year. His motivation was to challenge established historical narratives that tend to be land-centric and focused on big cities. Wishing to become a more rounded and responsible historian, he literally immersed himself in a different perspective. The Frayed Atlantic Edge seeks to salvage the histories of coastal and island communities and show they have played a far larger role in British history than they are normally given credit for.

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Book review – Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

The word “robot” will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary, as it was coined in 1920 by Czech writer Karel Čapek. But humanity’s fascination with self-moving devices, or automata, is far older. Classicist and science historian Adrienne Mayor here surveys the many living statues, robotic warriors, and artificial devices that populated Greek mythology to show the deep roots of our fascination with beings “made, not born”.

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