the Enlightenment

Book review – The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

10-minute read

Every few years, it seems, there is a new bestselling Big History book. And not infrequently, they have rather grandiose titles. Who does not remember Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years or Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind? But equally often, these books rapidly show their age and are criticized for oversimplifying matters. And so I found myself with The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a 692-page brick with an equally grandiose title. In what follows, I hope to convince you why I think this book will stand the test of time better.

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Book review – The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next

8-minute read

Fire can be considered one of our oldest tools, long used to shape whole landscapes. But our burning of fossil fuels presents a clear break from what has come before. Riffing on the concept of the Anthropocene, environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne calls ours the Pyrocene: an age of fire. Drawing on a long career writing about and working with fire, The Pyrocene is a short book that overflows with interesting ideas.

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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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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 – What Is Health? Allostasis and the Evolution of Human Design

10-minute read

Advances in medical research mean we have come to grips with numerous diseases and health conditions over the decades. But, like a game of whack-a-mole, you solve one set of problems to only have other, often more complex problems take their place. There is valid criticism to be had of medicine and its reductionist approach and What Is Health? sees neurobiologist Peter Sterling offer a critique grounded in physiology.

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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 – Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment

9-minute read

The best way to introduce this book is to quote the first sentence of the blurb: “Techno-Fix challenges the pervasive belief that technological innovation will save us from the dire consequences of the 300-year fossil-fuelled binge known as modern industrial civilization“. Stinging, provocative, and radical, Techno-Fix puts its fingers on many a sore spot with its searing critique.

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Book review – Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

6-minute read

2020. A time of Trump. Written during a period of pandemic, it is a chronicle of conspiracies embellished with the flowers of falsehoods. In other words, it is tempting to think of the current moment as one of irrationality run rampant. If you have been entertaining similar thoughts, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason provides a poignant note and a fascinating reflection. Because, when you take some distance, you might ask if it has ever been different. How many people past have wondered the same from their unique vantage point? Have we really made any progress towards enlightenment, or is our history merely the back-and-forth sloshing of the tides of reason and unreason?

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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 – Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present

In the minds of most people, the words “Ice Age” will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase “Little Ice Age” to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature’s Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today’s world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.

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