“Why is the world the way it is?” reads the first line of Lewis Dartnell’s great book Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History. Many of us have asked ourselves that question in the last twelve to fourteen months, and I’ve repeatedly advised people to zoom(!) out, take longer perspectives, and realize that the world won’t come to an end this time either.
Nobody, though, took a longer perspective than this professor of science communication at the University of Westminster. He is as comfortable discussing elections a few years ago, as he is European explorers a few hundred years ago or the geologic prehistory hundreds of millions of years ago; Dartnell’s perspective is enough to have me dizzy with vertigo.
A thought-provoking 287-page journey later, the reader has plenty of insights into how plate tectonics, atmospheric pressure, and Milankovitch cycles have plenty to say about our twenty-first century life. Dartnell’s belongs with other books painting the Grand Picture story of humanity, from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, or the two 500-page tomes from last year: Rutger Bregman’s Humankind and Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest People in the World.
Writing broad stories that tell all of human history is, as you can tell, a crowded field. Most don’t do it very well: Harari overpromises, simplifies, and flavors the tale with his political leanings; Bregman’s is filled with errors, cartoonish reinterpretations, and yes, littered with political priors. Dartnell avoids many of these traps, or so it seems to me as my understanding of geology, chemistry, or ancient history would have even a middle schooler giggle in shame.
The trouble with trying to explain everything is to navigate the thin line between explaining nothing at all or being all over the place. Dartnell avoids the former charge, while he turns the latter into a badge of honor. It doesn’t matter that we can go in a few pages from the Pyramids to the Great Fire of London, with a quick pause in the closing of the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. He never pretends to capture more than a sliver of humanity’s place in the long arc of the world, and the reader (this one at least) is happy with that. Rather, his tale is one of geology – of metals and rocks forming, of tectonic plates crashing, of mountains reaching for the skies, and glaciers, winds, and water grinding them back down again. Tangents to our own times are carefully selected; not overwhelmingly crowded, yet enough to keep us interested.
Some tangents are shockingly fascinating, too. Like how the coal deposits of Britain eerily overlap with constituents voting for Labour in recent General Elections – or how Democratic-voting counties in the southeastern United States among a sea of Republican counties trail the shape of 75-million-year-old Cretaceous rocks. It’s not as strange as it seems: Labour formed around British coal miner unions; the cretaceous band turned the agricultural soil across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi particularly productive and hosted a higher density of slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still, they neatly illustrate Dartnell’s point: geography and geology shaped the decisions and behavior of historic humans – whether one century ago or a thousand.
The chapter that most resonated with me was Chapter 8, on global winds and the European age of discovery. It shows how much history was serendipitous and random, and yet how the Great Man Theory propelling societies forward is a misunderstanding of the step-by-step development of the actual world.
Every school child hears of the voyage of Columbus, of how discovering the New World changed both hemispheres forever. But even I, with two history degrees from decent universities, have never heard more than a faint whisper of the technologic pre-history of Columbus’ travels and how much it built on the gradual Portuguese understanding of Atlantic winds and currents.
In the 1400s, following the Canary current that took Portuguese sailors from the Iberian Peninsula and Strait of Gibraltar to the Canary islands, they slowly and practically discovered the winds ruling our planet. The return journey was a struggle: in an age of wind-powered ships, sailing a thousand miles against the wind and ocean current was no mean feat – until the Portuguese developed the volta do mar (“return from the sea”). Instead of fighting the current and the wind along the coast, navigators (bravely, at first, I imagine) turned west out into the expanse of the unknown Atlantic. Once away from the current and out of the 30° North latitude that the Earth’s atmosphere has laid down as a natural wind boundary – for atmospheric and planetary reasons that Dartnell clearly and patiently explains – the southwesterly winds would gently push the vessels back to Portugal, in a grand arc.
On this way back, sailors discovered Madeira, another mid-Atlantic island group that although closer to Portugal was discovered after the Canary Islands precisely because of these wind patterns and ocean currents. In doing wider and wider voltas do mar, the Portuguese also discovered the Azores, even further out in the mid-Atlantic.
After 1479, a mere 13 years before Columbus set sail west across the Atlantic, the Canaries fell into Spanish control – again a chance event that would affect Columbus’ success. The Portuguese found a way to round Africa in 1487 through Bartolomeu Dias – first fighting a stubborn northerly current along the African coastline before employing the same volta do mar trick that worked in the Northern Hemisphere but in reverse: by steering out into the sea from the coast of Africa, Dias avoided the current and caught hold of the westerlies to carry him past the tip of the continent. Consequently, the Portuguese were thoroughly uninterested in Columbus’ westward plans for a route to India. Instead, it was Queen Isabella of Spain who funded Columbus’ voyage – which meant that the fleet departed from the Canary Islands rather than Portugal’s Atlantic island outposts Azores or Madeira.
Again, Dartnell shows how Earth’s geography impacted the success of that venture: from the Canary Islands, the northeasterly trade winds blow across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean, giving Columbus a chance at his ocean crossing, whereas from the Azores and Madeira the westerlies would have blown him back towards Europe – probably ensuring that the whole venture would have been hopelessly lost at sea. The reason Columbus succeeded in uncovering the Americas and forever enshrined himself in our history books (rather than join the long list of shipwrecked explorers), was luck – historical and even more so geographical.
Matt Ridley’s objections to the Great Man Theory of history echoes: had Columbus not succeeded, someone else would have tried, at a later day or a different time, and most of history would have progressed roughly the same – but with a different Great Man to misleadingly venerate.
This point shows also that Dartnell’s use of the word “shape” in the subtitle is appropriately chosen. The Earth didn’t quite determine our species’ history; it’s not fate or divine powers that make the soil of the Gulf States full of oil, the Sahara full of sand, and Antarctica full of ice. Rather, those are the background conditions against which human civilization plays: we selected settlements in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, built civilizations along the Nile and Yangtze rivers, and around the Mediterranean Sea because they suited humans at the time. It’s conceivable that we could have developed certain technologies earlier or later; the Earth’s climate could have favored agriculture and sedentary civilizations at a different time than they did; the soil and water sources could have been more productive and plentiful elsewhere – and then the origins and crucial development of our species would have emerged there instead.
Dartnell’s lesson isn’t that geography determines, but that geography shapes. It set the ground rules for how the climate behaves, how the currents run and the winds blow, and along those rules all human history progressed.
“The Earth,” he appropriately ends, “shaped our history.”