Thursday 20 June 2019

How colliding continents and mega-floods shaped our lives

Popular Science: Origins: How the Earth Made Us

Lewis Dartnell

Bodley Head, paperback, 346 pages, €18.99

Desert story: Homo sapiens evolved in Africa due to continents colliding and forming a rain-blocking ridge
Desert story: Homo sapiens evolved in Africa due to continents colliding and forming a rain-blocking ridge
Origins: How the Earth Made Us by Lewis Dartnell
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

In recent years, so called 'Big History' books have created their own genre. On one level, this can probably be traced back to the globe-spanning success of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988.

In the three decades since that groundbreaking book first hit the shelves, the desire for such books has grown almost exponentially and one of the most interesting experts in the field is surely Lewis Dartnell, a researcher and professor of astrobiology at the University of Westminster.

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Anyone interested in popular science will recognise the name from his TV work on the likes of BBC's Horizon, although he is best known for The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World From Scratch.

That 2014 bestseller managed to perfectly combine two strands of the current zeitgeist - the end of civilisation and the facts you need to know to survive it (if the end does come, occupy a supermarket; the average one can feed a person for more than 50 years).

In Origins: How the Earth Made Us, Dartnell goes back to see not just how the planet made us, but how it shaped us, and how planetary and tectonic fluctuations which occurred millennia ago still influence our present day society.

If that seems as dry as the deserts he writes about, fret not.

Dartnell has a style that seems as excited about imparting information as the reader should be to receive it, and barely a page goes by without some fascinating nugget about ancient geological activity still driving modern society.

We learn, for instance, of the reason why there has always been a blue Democrat wave through traditionally Republican areas of the United States.

It turns out that this areas of the southern states of America, which remains stubbornly Democrat in a sea of GOP red, isn't called the 'black belt' because it's predominantly populated by African-Americans, but because those areas sit on the bed of an ancient Cretaceous sea whose shale deposits meant they were the best parts of the country in which to grow cotton.

The region stubbornly rejected industrialisation and led to the poverty we still see today, and voting patterns still follow the shape of that vanished sea and "the exposed band of ancient sea floor mud is imprinted on the modern political map".

Going back to our very beginnings, he explains how Homo sapiens evolved in Africa as the result of the continents colliding and "bursting like a huge zit", which formed a rain-blocking ridge across much of the continent.

That resulted in deforestation on the eastern side, which meant the trees our biological ancestors used to take shelter from predators disappeared, to be replaced by the vast savannas we know today.

This forced the inhabitants to learn how to walk upright and to adapt to their new circumstances, which meant that by the time Homo sapiens were able to walk across the land bridge between what is now Africa and Europe, they were already smarter than native Neanderthals they would replace.

We discover that Homo sapiens didn't wipe out their Neanderthal rivals in history's first genocide, as has often been claimed,

Instead, Homo sapiens were simply more adaptable and better able to communicate than their new neighbours. These superior skills meant they were able to outwit and out-compete their less advanced rivals.

A case of the nerds literally inheriting the earth, if ever there was one.

Along the way, the author places things into a context which few of us have considered.

He points out that if the history of the planet was a movie, we have only been here for the equivalent of one frame. Similarly, in an interesting nugget which reminds us of our hopelessly inadequate understanding of time, we learn that Cleopatra lived in an era which was actually closer to the invention of the iPhone than it was to the building of the pyramids of Giza.

He also explains why the Mediterranean coast of Europe produced so many more early advanced civilisations than the north African societies which existed at the same time.

The reason is simple - the north African coast is rather featureless, with few natural ports and nothing but desert behind it.

The Europeans, particularly along the Greek coast, had an endless supply of natural harbours, which fostered exploration, while the hilly countryside, which forced Greek soldiers to fight at close quarters, led to the rise of citizen armies, which in turn led to the rise of democracy.

We also learn how mega-flooding hundreds of thousands of years ago submerged the isthmus which once joined Britain and Europe, formed the English Channel and resulted in an island nation which was largely spared the invasions and bloodletting that characterised Europe.

If that hadn't been the case, he points out, Philip II wouldn't have needed an armada and Hitler wouldn't have needed the Luftwaffe.

Most readers will be grateful that he doesn't interrupt this gripping narrative by making a gratuitous mention of Brexit.

Origins is a genuinely riveting read, full of fascinating facts, while walking that fine line between being accessible without being patronising.

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