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Origins: How the Earth Made Us

Dartnell OriginsA professor of science communication should be an excellent communicator, and in this book Lewis Dartnell does excel. Personally, I find books that bring together multiple strands of scientific information irresistible. The unexpected consequences of the geology beneath our feet and how these have influenced and directed the evolution of homo sapiens is brought out in fascinating stories and descriptions of many everyday elements of our historic and modern-day lives.

Opening with a description of the lineage of homo sapiens, the book examines how climate variations were as strong an influence on why man developed in east Africa as geology. Both climate variability and the geology of the area created a challenging but hospitable environment for our forebears. Indeed, the interplay between climate and geology as a driver for our development, as well as our more recent cultural and industrial development, is a constant message throughout the book.

The influence of the cotton soils of the deep south on the politics of the USA is not something many understand. In the 2016 presidential elections, there was a hardcore of counties in the midst of the Republican south that voted strongly for the Democrats, and have been doing so since the Civil War. This strip of Democrat counties lies along a narrow band of Cretaceous outcropping shale that forms the cotton soils of Alabama and Mississippi. People who lived and worked here have always been plagued by low incomes, fluctuating and often high unemployment with attendant socio-economic problems. The area was the centre of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and when they vote, they vote Democrat. Fascinating, all because this area was a seabed during the Cretaceous era.

All the major routes Marco Polo traversed on the Silk Route existed because of geological controls that directed how ships navigated across the Indian Ocean, and how caravans migrated from the Gobi Desert to the Mediterranean. These routes were established due to Roman, Arab and Chinese dynasties whose spread was limited and controlled by geological features (in the form of oceans, mountain chains and deserts).

There is much more on geological controls and mobile phones, the energy sources that we depend on for life, what we build with and the biological bounty of Earth. Every student should read this book.

Reviewed by James Montgomery

ORIGINS: HOW THE EARTH MADE US, by Lewis Dartnell, 2018. Published by the Bodley Head, London. 348pp. (hbk). ISBN 978-1-847-92435-3 List price: £20.00 W: