history

Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

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Book review – Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature

7-minute read

Whenever war breaks out, our concern is understandably first and foremost with the human casualties. The tremendous environmental toll tends to take a backseat. However, environmental destruction can and has long been an effective military strategy. In Scorched Earth, historian Emmanuel Kreike surveys four centuries of environmental warfare around the globe to show it is neither uniquely Western nor the unwanted love child of modern science and technology.

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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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Year list – The Inquisitive Biologist’s top 5 reads of 2021

3-minute read

Despite, or perhaps because of, the ongoing pandemic, 2021 was a phenomenal year for publishing. Though I did not get to nearly as many books as I would have liked, I read and reviewed 67 books this year. 

What follows is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking books I read during 2021.

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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 Wood Age: How One Material Shaped the Whole of Human History

7-minute read

Throughout human history, wood has been our constant, if somewhat overlooked companion. With The Wood Age, professor of biological sciences Roland Ennos delivers an eye-opening piece of environmental history. Reaching beyond the boundaries of this discipline, it gives the reader a comprehensive picture of how we have shaped wood and how, in turn, wood has shaped us.

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Book review – The Science of Middle-Earth: A New Understanding of Tolkien and His World

7-minute read

I will make no secret of my love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Equally, I am always entertained by books looking at the science behind fictional worlds depicted in books, movies, and TV series. The Science of Middle Earth is a remarkable undertaking, with three editors bringing together contributions on a wide range of topics, from humanities such as sociology and philosophy, to natural sciences such as geomorphology, chemistry, and evolutionary biology. Tying it together are Arnaud Rafaelian’s beautiful drawings that immediately draw your attention. Both a serious appreciation of Tolkien’s world and an entertaining work of popular science, this book hit the sweet spot.

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Book review – The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies

7-minute read

Normally the sight of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines fills me with hope, but I have my doubts after reading this book. Many politicians, business leaders, and environmental organisations argue that we need to invest in renewables to transition away from fossil fuels and the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. What is rarely mentioned is that these technologies require the mining of rare metals: chemical elements such as rhenium, lithium, antimony, neodymium, tantalum, and many others that most people have barely heard of. In The Rare Metals War, French investigative journalist Guillaume Pitron sounds the alarm, showing both the environmental impact and China’s chokehold on the market.

I read this book in tandem with David S. Abraham’s slightly older The Elements of Power which I had been meaning to read for ages. Thus, this is the second of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.

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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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