I love listening to books when cycling, paddleboarding, etc but I press pause when I need to concentrate. Its safer & I don't lose the plot!
This book kept reminding me of other books I’ve read (or, more often, listened to): Andrew Marr’s History of the World; A History of the World in 6 glasses (Tom Standage); The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager); The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs and Steel; Collapse (Jared Diamond); The Language Instinct and The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker); Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and even Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, all of which are really good books and well worth reading, if recommendations are what you’re looking for. If not, it’s probably quite irritating reading this name-drop of books that I’ve read, and you might prefer me to get on with describing this particular book.
OK then. Well, just like it says on the cover, this book is the story of humanity and, like most of these kinds of book, it starts with us as apes and goes on to describe how we got bigger brains, stood on two feet, got clever with our hands, started talking to each other and wiped out the Neanderthals (although we did mate with a few of those before we killed or out-competed the remainder).
It discusses the fact that we generally functioned best in tribes of no more than about 150 people, and then goes on to explain how we transformed from being an animal that likes to be with 149 other kinfolk to being one that functions well in nations or empires of many millions.
This is where it gets really interesting, and where the author shares ideas I hadn’t encountered before. Apparently, the trick to functioning effectively in bigger groups is to have a shared ideology. These aren’t just religions (although religions certainly qualify), they are money, credit, political ideology, nations, the law etc.,etc. He describes how these things are all imaginary constructs which depend for their success on us all buying into them and believing in them, and how they are the glue that binds societies together.
He analyses a lot of ancient and modern phenomena in very interesting and thought-provoking ways, and he doesn’t pull any punches when he discusses our less savoury behaviours (such as the cruel way we treat vast numbers of chickens, pigs and cows). Some of his ideas are possibly controversial, but to me they seem very reasonable and they advanced my understanding of the history of the human race. For me, the book gets two thumbs up.
Jared Diamond is one of my favourite writers, and in 'Guns Germs and Steel' and then 'Collapse' he transformed my views of the history and future of civilisation, respectively.
This is an earlier book (1991), containing themes to be expanded in both of his later books, in addition to the main topic; how modern man emerged from being just another animal.
Because the book is 20 years old, you always worry that some more recent evidence may have arisen to strengthen or weaken his arguments, but if you can ignore this relatively minor qualm, and you enjoy popular science, then this is an absolutely fantastic listen.
I really enjoyed this book. It is packed with interesting popular science tit-bits, presented in an engaging style, interwoven with the author’s personal experiences and the lives of various scientists.
Don’t expect to learn anything revolutionary or ground-breaking. This book, in parts, is a science primer. There was some material I already knew pretty well, and some parts, such as his explanation of the causes of earth’s seasons, and the discussion of tectonic plates, I have known since geography classes at age 13. It is a bit like Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything.
I really enjoyed the sections covering the Big Bang, how elements are formed inside stars, and what it’s like on Neptune and Mars. His discussion of the effect of gravity on mammalian body size is compelling, and includes the following observation, which is typical of the author’s entertaining style: ‘if you drop a mouse down a 1000m mine shaft, it gets up and walks away; a rat is killed; a human is broken; a horse splashes!”.
The story meanders from subject to subject. It is ostensibly about the impact of the cosmos and the laws of physics on our daily lives, but sometimes it wanders off at a tangent and you forget the core theme of the book. For this reason, and the fact that I was distracted by hedge-cutting while I listened, I took the unprecedented step of listening to the book twice. I picked up a lot of interesting stuff that I’d missed first time around.
The narrator is excellent and, as long as you are not looking for anything too cerebral, this is great popular science.