Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

From Plate Tectonics to the Clay Encompassing the Tube Our Planet Defines Us More Than We Realise

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

From Plate Tectonics to the Clay Encompassing the Tube Our Planet Defines Us More Than We Realise

Article excerpt

Byline: David Sexton

BOOK OF THE WEEK Origins: How the Earth Made Us by Lewis Dartnell (Bodley Head, PS20) SO WHAT'S going to happen now? In the next two months, say. Nobody knows. What can we do? Take long views. "Why is the world the way it is?" asks Lewis Dartnell, introducing this sweeping, confident explanation. "History is chaotic, messy, random," he regrets but he promises that "beyond the particular contingencies of history, if you look at our world on a broad enough scale, both in terms of time and space", reliable trends, dependable constants, even ultimate causes can be discerned.

Dartnell is professor of science communication at the University of Westminster, an articulate populariser of current scientific knowledge who has previously published a "beginner's guide" to life in the universe and a "tourist's guide" to the solar system, as well as a high-concept book called The Knowledge, about how we might "rebuild the world from scratch", if all our current technology disappeared.

Origins takes environmental determinism to its limits, emphasising the influence on life on Earth not just of current geography but of deep geology. In his first chapter, Dartnell argues that human evolution in the Rift Valley in East Africa was prompted by plate tectonics and climate change, forcing us to become an intelligent and versatile species, as we adapted from forest to savannah. "We are the children of plate tectonics," he proclaims, in a book full of such zingy pronouncements.

In the second chapter, Continental Drifters, he explains how the comparatively recent coming and going of ice ages and changing sea levels permitted the dispersal of our ancestors out of Africa 60,000 years ago, able to reach the Americas and Australia before these continents were cut off for millennia.

"Half a million years ago, Britain was not an island" either, he notes a land bridge connected Dover and Calais until it was swept away by a megaflood from a vast lake trapped between Scottish and Scandinavian ice sheets, around 425,000 years ago, followed by another 200,000 years ago, creating the Channel.

Dartnell meditates on what being an island nation has meant for us in terms not far from those of any columnist reduced external threats favouring the development of democracy, and so forth. In a book eschewing the B-word, he allows himself to observe that "geographical isolation has created an island mentality that made Britain often stand aloof and reluctant to enter into close relationships with its Continental neighbours, despite common interest and a shared fate". Aye, aye.

Next, he turns to "our biological bounty", the domestication of plants and animals, Eurasia being specially favoured species-wise, both in large tractable beasts, the sheep, goat, pig, cow and horse, and in cereals. "Humanity survives by eating grass," he says.

Then there's a chapter on the geography of the seas the northern Mediterranean coast is rich in islands, headlands, bays and natural ports, while the southern coast is smooth and bereft of natural harbours, because in the collision of tectonic plates, the Eurasian rises up to form these features, while the African plate is being tipped down and subducted. …

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