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How Earth Shaped Human History: Interview with Lewis Dartnell about 'Origins'

The earth has had a defining, guiding influence on the whole of the human story.

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In Origins, Professor Lewis Dartnell takes on the daunting task of condensing 1 billion years of human history into a 350-page book. If that wasn’t ambitious enough, the Professor of Science Communication at the University of Westminster recalibrates our sense of history by ‘writing a big history book, but from the point of a scientist,' he explained to HISTORY over the phone.

In his previous book, The Knowledge he tackled the apocalypse and more specifically what key knowledge humanity would need to rebuild civilization from scratch. This conceit allowed him ‘to peer behind the scenes of how our modern world actually works’. With Origins, another weighty subject – ‘I like big ideas we can say that,’ Dartnell admits – the aim was to further develop the ideas laid out in The Knowledge but in a whole new direction: ‘What I wanted to do with Origins was look at how the earth has had a defining, guiding influence on some whole of the human story.' The result is planetary history intertwined with world history.

Origins tackles the whole sweep of human history and looks at it through this scientific lens. From the beginning of human life in East Africa to the development of democracy in Ancient Greece; from the age of maritime exploration to the Industrial Revolution and beyond; human history is the product of our environment on earth. 'The Earth set the stage for the human story and its landscapes and resources continue to direct human civilization' he writes in the book's Coda'. Chapter after chapter covering different countries and different periods, Dartnell shows the impact of these environmental and planetary factors on historical events. Though he doesn’t deny the importance of human action on history:

‘Geographical determinism is something that's been rightly rejected by historians. But you also don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. With Origins, I am not claiming that humans haven't been important in history for things like politics and culture, and sociology and economics. Those, of course, have been hugely important factors throughout history. But I'm arguing that what was often being ignored and overlooked is the line beneath all of those short-term causes and the long term causes, the planetary effects that happen over longer periods and also even over much larger areas of the planet.

To apply Dartnell’s view of history to a more parochial context let’s try and understand the planetary effects that have influenced British history. For that, we need to go back half a billion years, ‘when we were torn off from the continent’. Before this ‘Original Brexit’, Britain was connected to mainland Europe by a land bridge:

‘During an ice age, not the most recent Ice Age, but an ice age four or five ice ages ago, a huge lake of meltwater got trapped between two giant ice sheets and what was then, a land bridge between Dover and Calais which was physically connected to the continent. And that huge lake of water burst through this dam. This megaflood eroded away the land bridge. The White Cliffs of Dover today, are no more than the stumps left behind this once great land bridge linking us to the continent.’

‘You could argue that Britain as an island has been good for maintaining the balance and equilibrium across Europe as a whole

But what impact did Britain’s formation as an island has on its history? And why does this physical separation from the continent 8,000 years ago still have ramifications to this day? What does looking at this science add to our understanding of British identity and culture?

This natural moat means that as a country Britain has never been so worried about external threats. The last time Britain was invaded was in the Norman Conquest in 1066. This freedom facilitated the development of British sovereignty which in turn allowed ‘the rapid the dispersion of power from kings and queens down to the barons noble to everyday people.’ Parliamentary democracy evolved very early in Britain relative to other countries and its geographical isolation may be one of the major factors for this.

Dartnell explains how a sovereign Britain has also positively benefited Europe. But we’re not just talking about the recent history about membership of the EU or the Second World War – Dartnell’s scope is always much greater than that.

‘You could argue that Britain as an island has been good for maintaining the balance and equilibrium across Europe as a whole. And having this island fortress has prevented anyone else from establishing an empire across the whole of Europe. Not Napoleon, not Hitler. And so, this has helped maintain that balance that kind of competition between lots of smaller nations. That's really driven progress across the centuries in Europe, leading up to the modern-day and the industrial revolution.’

As Dartnell see it, it is the very ‘islandness’ of Britain that underpins its history but which also had a huge impact on Britain’s place in the world. Britain has been incredibly fortunate in its physical isolation, its ability to exploit global wind patterns to become a trading superpower (detailed in the chapter 'The Global Wind Machine and the Age of discovery) and in its climate and abundant natural resources.

‘Britain had several advantages. We've got a very temperate climate, it's not too hot, it's not too cold. Agriculture can be very productive here. We also were provided by geology, a bountiful harvest of energy.’

After the domestication of animals, the onset of the Industrial Revolution is one of the most important events in the history of humanity and it began in Britain. While there were a variety of socio-economic reasons the Industrial Revolution started in the UK, Dartnell points out, the country also benefitted from a geographical windfall.

‘We were provided by geology, a bountiful harvest of energy, of very high-quality coal and just on the surface and instead of using firewood, we worked out how to use coal to fuel our furnaces and power us through the Industrial Revolution.’

There is an uncanny correlation between people voting for labour, in general elections over decades, going back in time, and rocks beneath your feet, which are 300 million years old

interThis passage from Origins chapter 9 'Energy' illustrates the importance of Britain’s coalfields in powering the Industrial Revolution:

‘By the 1840s. Britain’s coalfields were supplying so much energy that to match it using charcoal would have required burning 15 million acres of woodlands – an area equivalent to the entire country – every year’.

Though Britain has largely abandoned coal, this geological legacy is still affecting people’s lives today in fascinating ways. ‘There is an uncanny correlation between people voting for labour, in general elections over decades, going back in time, and rocks beneath your feet, which are 300 million years old’.

In other words, the geological map and political maps correlate. Coal mining sprung up according to the distribution of carboniferous deposits. The labour movement sprung up in these coal mining areas. Even though since the 80s the majority of the coal mines in Britain have closed down that link still remains. There is a similar example linking Democratic voting behaviour and to rock formations laid down this time in the Cretaceous, not the Carboniferous period.

‘Running through the wide expanse of red in the south-east there is a very distinct blue line of counties that voted strongly Democrat, curving through North and South Carolina, Georgia. Alabama and then down the banks of the Mississippi,’ Dartnell explains. 'These counties correlate to rocks laid down in the cretaceous period 80 million years. The resulting soil produced from these Cretaceous rocks formed from compacted sea mud is particularly fertile making these areas perfect for growing cash crops like cotton which were harvested by slaves.' The legacy of the slave trade was that the population of these areas remained predominantly African American, as ex-slaves became sharecroppers and continued to work the land.

‘Even today, after hundreds of years of civil war and emancipation from slavery in the civil rights movement, we still see that the greatest concentration of African Americans lives on that band of Cretaceous aged rocks. People unfortunately still suffer from socio-economic issues of poor salary, poor healthcare, poor opportunities, people who are much more likely to vote for Democrat ideals.’

Looking at two maps of the area provided in the book, that correlation between Democratic voting counties in the 2016 election and the arc of 75-million-year-old Cretaceous rocks is incredible. It is these sorts of examples (and the book is full of them) which show how these planetary factors are still influencing our lives on a day-to-day basis, and most people are completely unaware about it.

One of these grand themes that hold true across thousands of years of human history is access to resources.

Origins is awork about how human history is intertwined with planetary history but what can this methodology reveal about the future?

‘One of these grand things that hold true across thousands of years of human history is access to resources,’ Dartnell explains. ‘We see this through the Bronze Age through the Iron Age and towards more modern history - a lot of the territorial strategies of the second world war revolved around gaining access to coalfields and the need steel for the modern economy.

‘And that's the same pattern that we're seeing today, but it's not metals that you're familiar with like copper, or iron or, tin, the critical elements for the modern economy - the digital electronic economy - are rare earth elements, you probably wouldn't even recognize the name of.’

These rare earth elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium are essential in the manufacture of electronic devices. ‘ You’ve probably got right now in your pocket 30 or even 40 different metals, in your pocket in your smartphone’ Dartnell quips.

And which country has these elements in abundance? China. This distribution of rare earth elements under Beijing's control is going to have huge ramifications for the global economy and relations between two of the world’s superpowers, Dartnell explains:

‘Currently, it is China that provides 80% of the global supply of these rare earth elements. So with this ongoing trade war between two of the biggest superpowers on the planet today between the US and China, it is absolutely China that holds the trump card in those negotiations and they really have got the US on the back foot. Because the US simply cannot afford for China to start restricting the supply of these rarest elements to America.’

Looking even further in the future, Dartnell moves onto one of the greatest challenges facing humanity and one in which planetary science is of paramount importance: climate change. Dartnell recognizes the devastating consequence of climate change – ‘It's definitely happening. It's definitely caused by humans. And it's getting much worse.’ but sees an unexpected benefit of global warming. Though as with everything with Dartnell, he sees things on a grander scale, so he's talking about the next ice age, not about the next decade. Raised global temperatures may prevent a future ice age.

‘If you're looking thousands of years in the future history, one could make the argument that the fact that our current human-caused global warming has skipped the next Ice Age; you could argue that there was a silver lining that had benefits. But in terms of the way our global civilization was set up today. Imagine how much things would have to change if you started having ice sheets grinding across Canada, North America, Europe, Russia, and you will find it easier to adapt to a warmer climates with slightly higher sea levels than you would city after city being scraped off the face of the earth by three-kilometre thick ice sheets.’

‘Origins' by Lewis Dartnell is out now – available from Waterstones and all good book shops.

Take part in our Origins competition to win a copy for yourself.