There was a supercontinent called Pangea

Tomi Haffety reviews Lewis Dartnell’s 2019 book ‘Origins’ and argues that now is a better time than ever to appreciate the human connections to nature.

The Grand Canyon
Image courtesy of Catherine Holländer

Reading Origins, I struggled to comprehend the age of our planet. At 4.5 billion years old, Earth has accommodated climactic changes, continental drift and mass migration of both humans and animals. Lewis Dartnell’s most recent popular science book delves into the way that geography shapes everything humans have ever done. In what reads as a more geologically focussed mix between Sapiens and Prisoners of Geography, Origins requires deep concentration and an understanding of the geographical and political jargon used to tie everything from why the presence of Carboniferous coalfields in certain areas of the UK is the reason why some constituencies are traditional Labour voters, to why the rich oilfields in the Caucasus region stimulated the beginning of World War Two.

Relying heavily on environmental determinism, Dartnell uses three hundred pages to tell the reader one thing: there is no separation between humans and the earth. The materials of our environment are ingrained within our bodies and Origins suggests that what seems like our freedom of choice is really billions of years of climactic changes influencing our political decisions. Although this leaves little room to argue for human free will and the power of the human mind, Dartnell raises concise and interesting points with geological evidence which is often manifested within a clear map or diagram. Origins presents exhaustive reasons behind renowned historical events, both human and pre-human, displaying essential information for anyone interested in how closely connected our species is to the planet.

The Atlas Mountains
Image courtesy of Catherine Holländer

It may seem astonishing that there are geological reasons to why some empires lasted longer than others, but Dartnell uses an intelligible and holistic approach to explain monumental occurrences. With every page turn, another global event is explained and it becomes clear that some events are unlikely to ever occur. For example, the freedom of Tibet from Chinese control seems inconceivable once you understand that the Tibetan Plateau is a strategic military base for China as it prevents India from having a commanding position overlooking the Chinese mainland. More essentially to Chinese economic development, the Plateau holds the largest store of glacial ice and permafrost outside of the Antarctic and Arctic, meaning that Tibet is the home to the headwaters of ten of the biggest rivers in the world. This is an immense ecological asset proving that without access to the highest and largest plateau in the world, China would cease to hold such economic and political capabilities.

Surveying the links between plate tectonics and human movement to ease the reader in before he mediates the connections between energy conservation and global dominance, Dartnell’s emphasis on the way that human civilisation is ‘a flash in the current interglacial period’ left me somewhat dumbfounded. It is as if these words, which are enough to make anyone feel insignificant, are encouraging the reader to have multiple existential crises throughout the book.

The Hopi Reservation
Image courtesy of Catherine Holländer

This is an epic book with an epic goal. Dartnell, professor of science communication at Westminster University, has successfully balanced the complicated geographical science with popular history and established geopolitical facts. He has managed to shrink down 4.5 billion years of history into a bite size encyclopaedia which proves that everything we are able to do is thanks to our planet. Utterly compelling, Origins is a must-read to understand the complexities of the world around us at a time when the links between humans and natural world seem unquestionably interlinked.

Origins is now available in paperback.

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