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.


How to think like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge

Of all early humans, none have captured the public imagination to anywhere near the extent of the Neanderthals. Indeed, with the possible exception of the dinosaurs, no extinct species is so deeply rooted in our popular culture. The idea that tens of thousands of years ago, people very much like ourselves shared the planet with another human species is one that intrigues many, although the term ‘Neanderthal’ is all too often used in a pejorative sense, and there is a widespread perception of the Neanderthals as dimwits.

In this engaging and accessible book, which is nevertheless as rigorous as any textbook, anthropologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge paint a very different picture of the Neanderthals and their way of life. Drawing on archaeological and fossil evidence, they go beyond reconstructing the Neanderthal world and attempt to deduce their underlying thought processes.

In the first chapter, we are given an introduction to the world of the Neanderthals. From the start, Wynn and Coolidge refer to the Neanderthals as ‘people’, which is entirely correct as they were every bit as human as we are. The name comes from Neander Tal (‘Neander Valley’) near Dusseldorf, where Neanderthal remains were first identified in the 1850s (it was originally spelled ‘Neander Thal’, hence the more commonly-used spelling, but it has always been pronounced ‘tal’ and not ‘thal’). We learn that the Neanderthals were short, stocky, powerfully-built folk, with chinless, protruding faces, pronounced browridges over their eyes, and long, broad noses. The braincase was long and low, rather than the globular shape of modern people. Many features of their distinctive anatomy were adaptations to the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe, but in comparison to very early humans it turns out that modern people are actually far more distinctive than Neanderthals.

An important difference is the shape of the braincase, which reflects the actual shape of the brain itself. Neanderthal brains were differently shaped to ours, and about ten percent larger. Does this mean that they were ten percent smarter than us? Wynn and Coolidge believe that they were neither more nor less intelligent than us – just different. This conclusion provides a focus for the rest of the book.

Neanderthals lived hard and died hard. Shanidar 1 lived in Iraq about 50,000 years ago, and was in his late 30s when he was killed by a rock fall. But long before his death he had suffered a number of major injuries, any one of which could have killed him. He owed his survival to caring companions, who nursed him back to health – and a dogged ability to cope with pain and life-changing injuries. Nor was Shanidar 1 particularly unusual: the pattern of healed injuries suffered by Neanderthals is very similar to those suffered by rodeo riders, suggesting that were regularly pitted against large, dangerous animals.

Each subsequent chapter focusses on a different aspect of Neanderthal life, and uses the evidence to build on this initial picture of them as tough but compassionate folk. Topics include hunting, spear making, family life, burial traditions and language. Wynn and Coolidge even examine Neanderthal humour before characterising them as pragmatic, stoical, risk-taking, empathic (in that they cared for their sick and injured), hard-hearted (in that they were prepared to leave the sick and injured behind if they needed to move camp), conservative (from the point of their extremely static technology, not their voting intentions), and xenophobic (in that they rarely met strangers and distrusted them when they did).

The final chapter plays a game of ‘Trading Places’ and speculates how a Neanderthal might fare in our modern world, and how a modern human in theirs. Wynn and Coolidge suggest that Neanderthals would do well in our world, and would excel as doctors, mechanics or soldiers. On the other hand, they suggest that a modern human would struggle to make a go of Neanderthal living.

The demise of the Neanderthals is covered fairly briefly. The arrival of modern humans in Ice Age Europe is viewed from the Neanderthal perspective. It is surmised that the end came when the climate began to deteriorate 30,000 years ago. This had happened before, and the Neanderthals had able to cope – but now they had competition. The modern humans were more adaptable and inventive when it came to finding new sources of food and developing new hunting methods. The Neanderthals retreated south to the Iberian Peninsula, where they held out for a while, but in the end they died out.

Wynn and Coolidge suggest that the Neanderthals may survive as dim cultural memories. Possibly some European folk traditions have their origins in ancient encounters with Neanderthals. More plausibly, they also suggest that our enduring fascination with the Neanderthals is that they were humans who led very different lives to ourselves, yet were still somehow like us. The Neanderthals live on as “inexact mirrors of ourselves”, Wynn and Coolidge conclude.

How to think like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge is published in the USA by Oxford University Press © 2012

White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980

The period from 1960 to 1980 was underlain by Harold Wilson’s Utopian vision of a Britain “forged from the white heat of technology”. In an era before computers became just another domestic appliance and IT staff were banished to the basements of large companies, computing was seen as a glamour industry with a key role to play in the contemporary arts.

White Heat Cold Logic is aimed at recounting the history of digital and computer-based arts in the United Kingdom from their origins in the 1960s up to the advent of personal computing and graphical user interfaces around 1980.

The editors of this much-needed book argue forcefully against the woeful neglect by contemporary art galleries of British computer art from this heroic period, when artists needed to build their own machines, collaborate with computer scientists and learn complex computer languages rather than simply boot up their Mac or PC. Aside from their relevance to the then-contemporary art scene, the academic papers that make up this attractive illustrated volume will appeal to anybody with an interest in the social and political history of that time.

(A shorter version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine www.artworldmagazine.com Issue 11 June/July 2009.)

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Bussard Ramjet, by John Timberlake

John Timberlake (born 1967) is a London-based artist and writer whose work frequently explores realities that never came to pass. Blurring the boundaries between literature, painting and photography, this slim retro-styled volume ponders a glittering possible future for mankind that, fifty years ago, seemed to be there for the taking. Proposed by the US physicist Dr. Robert W. Bussard in 1960, the Bussard Ramjet (BR-J) was an ambitious proposal for an interstellar drive that would have required leaps technology and, Timberlake argues, radical changes in global economics and the possible remodelling of humanity itself. His images, some apocalyptic, others featuring futuristic water conduits superimposed onto bleak, contemporary settings, are interposed between dream-like narratives referencing alternate pasts and possible futures. There are constant references to Poul Anderson’s 1970 science-fiction novel Tau Zero, which describes an optimistic future in which the BR-J has made interstellar travel a reality; The contrast with the bleakness of Timberlake’s narratives could not be greater and suggests that Bussard’s bold vision will remain forever a dream.

(This book review appeared in Art World Magazine www.artworldmagazine.com Issue 10 April/May 2009.)

© Christopher Seddon 2009