Book Review: Origins by Lewis Dartnell

Book Review: Origins by Lewis Dartnell

The gifts I want most are typically books. My husband knows me best, so last Christmas he gave me a copy of science professor Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History. I always like to give special priority in my TBR list to books that John gives me, but I was intrigued by this book for several reasons, most of those reasons being the author’s tweets teasing fun facts from the book.

  • It is a global cooling of the Earth over the last 20 million years that mean most of us eat a bowl of cereal or slice of toast for breakfast.
  • The _original Brexit was almost half a million years ago, when an ice-age megaflood abruptly separated Britain from Europe and formed us as an island.
  • Presidential elections in the US follow the bed of an ancient sea, whereas the UK voting map reveals the pattern of 320 million year old rocks beneath our feet.
  • The Great Wall of China actually follows an ecological boundary, separating climate bands of rainy, agricultural lands from the dry steppes and their nomadic ‘barbarian’ peoples

The book did contain all of these fun scientific and historical facts, but in my experience, those were the highlights of the entire 286-page book. If I’m being honest, it’s probably more efficient to just read the above tweets than read the book cover to cover, since the tweets are as good as it gets anyways. Reading this book made me feel much the same way as I felt when reading Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth a month ago. I felt like I was being presented with a lot of information, but I wasn’t entertained.

I knew that The Greatest Show on Earth had a great audience that loved it for what it was. I just wasn’t a part of that audience, and the book wasn’t for me. I feel similarly about Origins, but I do have a somewhat greater appreciation for this book. I can easily see why people would be fascinated by Dartnell’s work, and I think that part of my disillusionment with Origins is that its subject matter doesn’t overlap very far with my personal interests.

Like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, I enjoyed best the beginning of Origins. This should surprise no one, because both books retrace human history from the very start: our evolution from ancient hominids. Both Sapiens and Origins passed the dawn of Homo sapiens to explain things like the genesis of agrarian societies and the Industrial Revolution, neither of which, for whatever reason, really strike my fancy as a reader.

I think I would have liked this book much better if I was more keen on geology, even if the history of civilization isn’t my favorite. Dartnell had a very unique and intriguing method of juxtaposing, say, the Carboniferous origins of coal and our discovery and use of coal in the nineteenth century. He tied science together with history in an eye-opening way that more people ought to think about; it may even motivate more people to appreciate the planet we live on and not take it for granted.

One thought on “Book Review: Origins by Lewis Dartnell

  • March 22, 2020 at 8:23 am

    I think you are discovering that general science writing is one of the most difficult tricks to pull off. This is why when I find a good science writer, I tend to read everything they have written. When I discovered Steven Pinker, I never thought I would end up reading a book on irregular verbs, but I did because he wrote it.
    Good general science writing can come from authors of a number of different backgrounds. Gary Taubes is a journalist but he wrote one of the best books on diet I have ever read, and it included all of the sciency bits.
    Part of the problem is that there are but a handful of these excellent science writers and their subject fields are far flung: Sean Carroll in physics, Richard Dawkins in biology, Daniel Dennett in philosophy, Steven Pinker in evolutionary psychology, etc. So, hoping for more than one in any subject field is a bit dicy. And they all have flaws, as all authors do, but if you read enough and read some good reviews of their works you can find those out.
    Anyway, you are just starting on your journey and I am near the end of mine, so I wish you good luck and good reading. You have more options now than any human being has had in our history … imagine that!


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