CIVILIZATIONS: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

By Thompson, Nicholas | The Washington Monthly, June 2001 | Go to article overview
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CIVILIZATIONS: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature


Thompson, Nicholas, The Washington Monthly


IN HIS INTRODUCTION, FELIPE Fernandez-Armesto does his best to deter you from reading his new book, Civilizations. He warns that he has written it "in something like a frenzy, anxious to get down what I wanted to say before I forgot it," and, additionally, "few specialist readers have restrained or righted the judgments." If madcap, inaccurate writing isn't enough to discourage you, the Oxford professor warns of coming inscrutable allusions: "I think literature in which everything is explicit is no fun to read."

Still, the subject of the book is irresistible. As science decodes the human genome, we've been learning the amazing extent to which everyone is made up of the same stuff, from Abyssinians to Ziqualis. So why are the societies we've built so very different? What can an American civilization of Wal-Marts and Hollywood learn from the Kalahari Bushmen? How did a species so genetically connected reach a point where it seems half the world is dieting and the other half is foraging for food?

Trying to discern how civilizations developed was one of the great tasks of historians, from Oswald Spengler to Arnold Toynbee, in the years running up to World War II. But with the Cold War, curiosity about the roots of civilization was substantially edged out by the more immediate struggle between democratic capitalism and communism, both of which claimed to have the formula for how the rest of the world could, and should, develop.

Now, of course, it's clear that the Communists struck out everywhere and, although increasingly dominant, the democratic capitalists have failed to bring benefit to a great deal of the world. Much of sub-Saharan Africa has actually gotten poorer since 1990 and Russians have been longing for Brehznev since not long after they began their capitalist experiment. Unsurprisingly, scholars and readers are now reaching beyond political and economic models for a deeper understanding of how civilizations evolve and why some prosper. David Landes recently published a magnum opus, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, to much acclaim. Jared Diamond's Pulitzer-prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, about the mostly environmental reasons the West came to dominate industrial development, has now been on The New York Times' paperback best-seller list for more than 100 weeks. Civilizations is the next major crack at the topic.

After the discouraging introduction, Civilizations gets off to a strong start. Fernandez-Armesto vividly describes the struggle to carve societies out of arctic climates and desert wastes, offering interesting detail on nearly every page, even if, true to his word, the writing can be a little cryptic. He introduces us, for example, to the men and women of Skateholm, in Southern Sweden, who depended on dogs so much for their survival that they were often buried next to their canine companions, often in less dignified graves. They also believed they were descended from a Swedish princess driven into exile "with only her dog for company." Fernandez-Armesto then takes us into the Sahara where blind guides were considered the most effective in the 14th century since "eyesight was delusive in the desert." Next, it's on to the Eurasian steppe where Mongols reportedly "barked like dogs, ate raw flesh, drank their horse's urine, knew no laws, and showed no mercy." Then we're off to the grasslands, the tropics, the mountains, and so on.

In every region, the pattern proves the same: Humans managed to form civilizations no matter the environmental obstacles, always shaping their civilization with the environment.

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