A reply to ‘Marcus’

I don’t normally respond to critical reviews of my book on Amazon, which tend to be ill-informed, poorly expressed, and of questionable relevance (for example, two stars because there was no reference to Jesus). Marcus’ review is none of these things. He gives no details of his background, but he is clearly well read and highly knowledgeable on the subject. His review is one of the most detailed I have seen. Please read Marcus’s Amazon review here (as I obviously am not able to reproduce it on this site).

Marcus begins by noting that around a hundred years ago, it was common to publish books that were ‘grandiose’ in their titles and scope, purporting to cover subjects such as world history in their entirety. He suggests, not entirely incorrectly, that I have attempted something similar.

His main criticism is that my book “…has no point of view and no goal, except to be fair and comprehensive…” unlike the works of Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. But that is hardly a valid criticism because to be fair and comprehensive is exactly what I set out to do. I never set out to put forward an overarching point of view.  I have read many of Jared Diamond’s books, and share many of his views, but I felt that the book that I was attempting would not be a suitable platform for them.

Marcus is the first person to comment on the last chapter of my book, entitled Humans: the future. This is exactly what I intended it to be: a more-or-less standalone essay about humanity’s future as a counterweight to the rest of the book.  As Marcus correctly observes, it is certainly not a summary of the rest of the book; but it was never intended to be. However, to Marcus, it sums up the ‘problems’ of the book.

I think the main ‘problem’ is summed up by Marcus when he says “Personally I prefer a book that wears its heart on its sleeve.” In other words, what he sees as a ‘problem’ is nothing more than his personal preference. He is, of course, fully entitled to his preferences, but he should not confuse a book that does not meet these preferences with a lack of quality on the part of the author.

Marcus does make some good points. In the last section of the book, I swallow the early civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt into a single chapter, but  I devote three chapters to the pre-Columbian civilisations of the New World (though not to the Aztec or Inca, which I mention only in passing). The rationale was that I was writing about places and times before the advent of written records, and writing was far less prominent in the New World. The same criticism has been made by others, and in the upcoming second edition of my book, I have considerably expanded my coverage of the early civilisations of the Old World.

Marcus also notes my support for Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian hypothesis about the spread of Indo-European languages, which he describes as ‘rather unfashionable’. Here I will note that my book was published in 2014, shortly before ancient DNA studies provided clear support for the rival Steppe hypothesis. I was indeed a strong proponent of Renfew’s elegant hypothesis for many years, but I will admit that the Steppe hypothesis now seems very likely to be the correct model. The forthcoming second edition of my book reflects this new evidence and my changed position.

Marcus does make some claims about my book that I would strongly dispute. In particular, he states that “…the bibliography is rather heavy on generalist popular books and rather light on academic works…” This is completely false – out of around 1,200 references cited, there are no more than a few dozen populist works. The vast majority of the citations are peer-reviewed journal articles. He also claims that I am “...very dismissive of any idea that non-sapiens humans had any culture, which is another example of his lack of even-handedness.” I am not sure how he comes to this conclusion, as this is certainly not the view I take. Nor do I dismiss astronomical alignments, as he suggests. There is a difference between healthy scepticism and outright dismissal. Finally, Dyson spheres are not “weird ideas from science fiction” but a serious proposal put forward by the highly respected physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson in 1960 in the journal Science.

In conclusion, Marcus questions whether such ‘grandiose’ books as mine have a place in the twenty-first century.  His view (albeit containing a few editing errors) is that you will get more out of reading works that are narrower in scope and less even handed. While such works are evidently more to his personal taste, they are not what I set out to write, and there is surely a place for both.


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author