culture

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 – Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene

7-minute read

The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because – bonus detail – the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Neanderthal Language: Demystifying the Linguistic Powers of our Extinct Cousins

7-minute read

Neanderthals have enjoyed quite the renaissance in the last decade or so, with research attributing skills and capacities to them once considered uniquely human. One of the most contested claims in this arena is language. Since (spoken) language does not fossilise, nor leave material traces in the archaeological record, the case for Neanderthal language relies on indirect evidence. In this book, linguist Rudolf Botha takes a hard-nosed look at why this matter is so controversial and offers a framework to properly tackle it.

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Book review – Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

7-minute read

Whatever mental image you have of our close evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, it is bound to be incomplete. Kindred is an ambitious book that takes in the full sweep of 150 years of scientific discovery and covers virtually every facet of their biology and culture. Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has drawn on her extensive experience communicating science outside of the narrow confines of academia to write a book that is as accessible as it is informative, and that stands out for its nuance and progressive outlook. Is this a new popular science benchmark?

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Book review – Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals

7-minute read

In his previous book, Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina convinced his readers of the rich inner lives of animals. Just like we do, they have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the similarities do not stop there. Becoming Wild focuses on animal culture, the social knowledge that is transmitted between individuals and generations through sharing and learning. The more we look, the more animals seem less different from us – or we from them. On top of that, Safina puts forward several eye-opening and previously-overlooked implications of animal culture.

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Book review – Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

6-minute read

Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.

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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 – Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore

5-minute read

Fungi have been eaten, worshipped, reviled, and studied for centuries. Neither animal nor plant (though originally classified as such), they occur pretty much everywhere, from the frigid icy wastes of Antarctica to between your toes. And yet I, like many others, know surprisingly little about them. With part of their life happening underground and on a microscopic scale, they easily evade our attention. With Fungipedia, mycologist Lawrence Millman provides a delightful little introduction to the world of fungi.

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Book review – The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching & the Cognitive Revolution

6-minute read

Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.

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