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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 – Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis

7-minute read

Writing a book about climate change is challenging due to the scale and many facets of the problem. With Our Biggest Experiment, climate campaigner, writer, and lecturer in science communication Alice Bell delivers a large book that tightly focuses on the history of both climate change research and our current fossil-fuel-dominated energy system. Driven largely by her curiosity about the people behind the data on climate change, this well-structured and easily readable book is full of remarkable stories. Bell excels in drawing your attention to the individual strands that make up the complex texture and weave of this huge history. As such, this is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the backstory of how we arrived at our current predicament.

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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 – 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 – Science in Black and White: How Biology and Environment Shape Our Racial Divide

6-minute read

Some time after I reviewed Angela Saini’s book Superior, I was contacted by medical anthropologist and science writer Alondra Oubré, offering me the opportunity to review her new book. The overall aim of Science in Black and White might be the same – the debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist thinking – but Oubré shows there is more than one approach to get there.

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Book review – In Defence of Democracy

9-minute read

This review is one half of a two-parter. Not long after posting my review of Can Democracy Work? I received an email from Dr Roslyn Fuller: since I had mentioned her book In Defence of Democracy, would I be interested in reviewing it? This seemed like a great opportunity to also finally read Against Democracy, which has been sitting on my shelves for a while now. Two books, two opposing viewpoints, two reviews, back-to-back.

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Book review – The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator

6-minute read

Ours is the latest generation to be engaged in a blood-soaked conflict that has lasted millennia. The quote “we have met the enemy, and he is us” might come to mind, but no. Rather, as E.O. Wilson once wrote: “It is the little things that run the world“. Historian Timothy C. Winegard here offers a sweeping history of major turning points in human history observed through the compound lens of the mosquito. With an estimated compound death toll of 52 billion an insect that is truly worthy of the title “destroyer of worlds”.

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Book review – The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier

7-minute read

I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.

I was wrong.

New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.

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Book review – The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past

6-minute read

One look at the title and you might be forgiven for quoting John Cleese. But rather than asking what the Romans can do for us, this book asks what we can do for the Romans. Walter Scheidel, who is a professor of humanities as well as classics and history, and a fellow in human biology, brings together a diverse cast of scientists. Their aim? To discuss what relatively young bioscientific disciplines can add to our picture of life in Ancient Rome as revealed so far by the more mature disciplines of history and archaeology. Which disciplines might these be? Prepare yourself for several mouthfuls as this book covers palaeoclimatology, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, palaeopathology, population genetics, and the study of ancient DNA.

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