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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

Origins How The Earth Made Us

Popular Science
By: Lewis Dartnell(Author)
346 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Publisher: Vintage
A history lesson with a deep time perspective, Origins is an accessible and fascinating look at how geology and geography have influenced human history.
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  • Origins ISBN: 9781784705435 Paperback Feb 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Origins ISBN: 9781847924353 Hardback Jan 2019 Out of Print #238111
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About this book

Why is the world the way it is? What forces have forged our planet and how have they in turn governed our evolution, influenced the rise and fall of civilisations through history, and ultimately shaped the story of humanity?

Lying imperceptibly beneath everything we encounter in the modern world is a vast architecture of causal links, chains of consequences that explain why things are the way they are. Origins is the story of this connectivity; it's not about what we've done to our environment, but about what our environment has done to us.

We'll range from the deep roots behind everyday realities, like why do most of us eat cereal for breakfast, to the profound factors that enabled life to make transitions in evolution. These questions and their answers will take us via the make-up of our anatomy and the geography of the Mediterranean coastline, to the production of cocaine and the importance of volcanoes. With unquenchable curiosity, Lewis Dartnell shows us history that goes back far before the existence of historical records, relying instead on scientific clues like the tell-tale signs preserved in ancient rocks, revealed in our genes, or observed through a telescope.

Origins unravels the story of humanity by exposing this vast web of connections that stretch deep into the past, that explain our present and that will inform how we face the challenges of the future.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A history lesson with a deep time perspective
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 29 May 2019 Written for Hardback

    Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.

    Dartnell takes as his starting point the evolution of Homo sapiens in East Africa. He subscribes to Maslin’s ideas for where and when we evolved, outlined in The Cradle of Humanity. The gist of his argument was that it was a combination of plate tectonics and climate. The geography of the African rift valley and pulses of climate variability interrupting longer periods of stability led to regional lakes rapidly appearing and disappearing. This unstable environment favoured adaptability and intelligence. Dartnell similarly gives a revealing geological explanation reaching back 55 million years for how the most recent ice age came about and how it has impacted human dispersal around the world.

    Now, it is easy to accuse a popular science book like this of glossing over subtleties for the sake of a good story. I therefore appreciated that Dartnell clearly signposts there are frequent disagreements on the details of the story of human evolution, and that not all evidence points in the same direction: his narrative represents the consensus view. He is nuanced enough to point out what that may seem rapid and purposeful – humanity's global migration starting 60,000 years ago – was, in fact, a matter of trial and error. I liked his suggestion that there may have been earlier attempts at migrating out of Africa, or developing agricultural civilizations, that simply fizzled out before taking off. Similarly, when he brings up the effects of the Toba eruption on early humans (see my review of When Humans Nearly Vanished), he immediately flags this up as controversial. All this gave me a good feeling about the balance Dartnell is trying to strike between presenting a captivating narrative while sticking to the facts and how best to interpret them.

    From this point forward, the remainder of the book deals with the last 10,000 years of human civilization, making excursions into deep time explanations where needed. For readers of Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel this is perhaps more familiar territory as he discusses the rise of agriculture (see also my review of Against the Grain for some nuanced counterpoints to the standard narrative) and livestock husbandry. Here he reaches back into deep time to explain why Eurasia ended up with so many more domesticable species compared to the Americas, and why the orientation of the continents made the spread of agriculture easy in Eurasia (which is oriented East-West), but hard in the Americas (which is oriented North-South).

    With agriculture came trade and Dartnell chronicles the establishment of the first maritime and overland trade routes, leaning heavily on overview works such as The Sea and Civilization and The Silk Roads. His interest is in how these were shaped by the geography of the seas (the shape of coastlines, the existence of naval bottlenecks) and the land (the ruggedness of the terrain, microclimates). And he explores how our subsequent maritime Age of Exploration, when Western nations started colonising countries around the globe, depended on, and was shaped by, the planetary patterns of ocean and air currents, in turn shaped by where plate tectonics has parked the continents currently.

    In the same vein, he spends two chapters exploring the deep origin of the materials we use to build and construct with (whether architecture or objects and tools), how they are formed, how they have ended up distributed over the world the way they have, and how that has played into the fortunes of civilizations and nations. He talks of rocks and metals and does an excellent job explaining our current dependence on rare earth elements and platinum group metals (see also The Elements of Power), expressing concern about our continued appetite for these resources.

    Finally, he gives a quick tour of energy (see also Energy and Civilization) and how we transitioned from muscle power to wind and water power and then fossil fuels, taking the reader through the age of coal, the steam engine and then oil. Here, too, he is specifically interested in how these resources were formed and why they are found where they are found. From reviewing Energy: A Human History and Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction I was already familiar with the fact that 90% of the coal we have used since the Industrial Revolution was formed during the Carboniferous, some 360-300 million years ago (leading Dartnell to ask the same question as Rhodes in the former book: what if that had not happened, would the Industrial Revolution still have taken off?) But Dartnell provides a lucid geological explanation to the question why so much coal was formed then. And it turns out there was a similar period in which the vast majority of the world’s oil reserves were formed, again for a good geological reason.

    In his book The Equations of Life, Charles Cockell wrote that physics is life’s silent commander, setting hard limits on what evolution can and cannot do. I would argue that Dartnell here similarly convinces that geology is history’s silent commander. Very accessible and full of interesting ideas, Origins is a worthy contender in the saturated market of big history and environmental history books. Depending on how much you have read on this topic, not everything here will be novel, but I do think that with its deep time and geology perspectives, Dartnell goes a few steps beyond most books.
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Lewis Dartnell is a UK Space Agency research fellow at the University of Leicester, in the field of astrobiology and the search for signs of life on Mars. He has won several awards for his science writing, and contributes to the Guardian, The Times and New Scientist. He has also written for television and appeared on BBC Horizon, Sky News, Wonders of the Universe, Stargazing Live, and The Sky at Night. A tireless populariser of science, his theory on how the heisters could have saved the gold bullion in the cliff-hanging ending of The Italian Job was mocked on Have I Got News For You. His previous books include The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World After an Apocalypse, Life in the Universe: A Beginner's Guide and the illustrated children's book My Tourist's Guide to the Solar System and Beyond.

Popular Science
By: Lewis Dartnell(Author)
346 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Publisher: Vintage
A history lesson with a deep time perspective, Origins is an accessible and fascinating look at how geology and geography have influenced human history.
Media reviews

"Origins by Lewis Dartnell stands comparison with Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens [...] A thrilling piece of Big History"
– James McConnachie, Sunday Times

"A sweeping, brilliant overview of the history of not only of our species but of the world. Whether discussing the formation of continents or the role that climate (and climate change) has had on human migration, Lewis Dartnell has a rare talent in being able to see the big picture – and explaining why it matters."
Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

"'Extraordinary [...] Origins is one of those rare books that dissolves mystery through the steady application of sublime lucidity. While reading it, I kept thinking: "Oh, that makes sense [...] " [...] Dartnell understands geology, geography, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and history. That's quite an achievement, but what makes him special is the way he communicates the interconnectedness of these disciplines in a clear, logical and entertaining way [...] Superb."
Gerard DeGroot, The Times

"Dartnell has found the perfect blend of science and history. This is a book that will not only challenge our preconceptions about the past, but should make us think very carefully about humanity's future"
Simon Griffith, Mail on Sunday

"Dartnell's story is beautifully written and organized. His infectious curiosity and enthusiasm tug the reader from page to page, synthesizing geology, oceanography, meteorology, geography, palaeontology, archaeology and political history in a manner that recalls Jared Diamond's classic 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel"

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