Tag Archives: history

** Identity by Francis Fukuyama

I suspect that the many self-avowed readers of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment may have skipped a few pages or fifty. This is dense prose. Fukuyama takes us all the way back to Socrates (to end up, unsurprisingly, at Trump, who seems to have fired up all kinds of resentment) but the main idea is that one of the main human motivation, at least today, is for respect and dignity, both for the individual and for various subgroups. This desire, the author thinks, creates all finds of dividing politics and we would be better off building national identities. While his thesis of identity and recognition-seeking sounds very convincing, it’s a little hard to see how organizing by nations would necessarily be better (hello, traditional cross-nation wars?)  But I would encourage you to read what he has to say about the quest for dignity.

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** Who We Are And How We Got There by David Reich

Let’s start with what does not work so well in Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past: the author’s repeated insistence that DNA analysis will change every field of inquiry (please show us, don’t tell!), and his decision to include minute details of how his team conducted various analyses he describes in the book.

Apart from that, the stories are fascinating: who invaded, who introduced new technologies, who imposed draconian restrictions on marrying outside the group, can be revealed through DNA analysis, with the main obstacle being the availability of ancient DNA. Indeed, many of the theories (and boy, do geneticists like theories!) seem to be built on very small data sets, suggesting that they will likely be toppled as we find more remains. I was most interested by the idea that humans, even very ancient ones, roamed a lot, so that the ancestors of people living in a given regions routinely came from very far away. This seems to be a very inconvenient truth to racists everywhere, as well as to nationalists. Let’s find and analyze more ancient DNA!

 

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** The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World tells the fascinating story of how engineers managed to create more and more precise tools and measurement devices to create widgets of increasingly stunning precision. With humble beginnings manufacturing accurate rifles all the way to the dizzying precision of computer chip making, the author retraces inventions and inventors with verve — and often rather abstruse, impenetrable  vocabulary for the initiated. Sample: “The slide rest is necessarily placed between he lather’s headstock (which incorporates the motor and the mandrel that spins the workpiece around) and the tailstock (which need the other end of the workpiece secure).” A diagram might help, right? I don’t want to say that the whole book is as perplexing. In particular, the explanation of how GPS works is one of the clearest I have read.

A perfect book for our favorite geeks.

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** The Taste of Empire by Lizzie Collingham

The subtitle of The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World is probably backwards, in the sense that the author mostly shows that the quest for economic domination shaped the food of Britain rather than the other way round. She builds each chapter of the book around a specific meal eaten in a particular place and time that defines some kind of new historical development, some well-known but others not so much, such as the mass importation of British indentured servants alongside African slaves into in the West Indies. And she does not ignore liquid nourishment, from rum distilleries in Massachusetts to pale ale beer in India. It’s a lot of information, spanning 400 years — and with sometimes surprising rationalizations of the greatness of the empire…

Overall, the good news is: as a group, we are eating much better than we used to!

 

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* Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

I loved Homo Sapiens. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, not so much. I suppose that the author gave himself an impossible task in predicting the future. Strike 1. Strike 2 is that the book is a muddle, fun to read (at times, when I was not enraged but the wild theories being put forward) but without a clean construction or purpose, meandering. If you approach it as a compilation of essays on various historical trends, and you are not bothered by the aforementioned wild theories, you might like it…

(And if you are worried about the string of one-star reviews this week, come back tomorrow. I have not finished the book I will review yet, but it’s a good one!)

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*** Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

70,000 years of history in 400 pages. That’s the challenge that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind tackles, and it is, perhaps surprisingly, successful at showing coherent themes with strong opinions and a good sense of humor. It’s fun to read, and the illustrations are well-chosen and not the same old ones we have seen dozens of times. Still, some will quibble that some important aspects of humanity are not covered at all (looking at you, art), and that interpretations of archeological data can be uncertain. Still, it’s very satisfying to get through so many years and so many concepts (empires, the market, religion, law, ecology) in a concise way.

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** The Invention of Science by David Wooton

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution is a massive tome written by a historian who believes, convincingly, that the scientific revolution was the defining event in history. It is not an easy book to read: if you expect fast-moving stories of hero scientists, go elsewhere. Indeed, the author goes on for dozens of pages on whether the word revolution is indeed appropriate for the events of the 16th through the 18th century, a discussion that is probably interesting for specialists, but not so much for the general public.

That said, the book does a great job of demonstrating how changing the way we looked at the world changed the way we thought about knowledge itself, from something we know to something we are forever seeking. I would quibble with some of the author’s interpretation of how differences between English and French shaped the scientific discourse but his knowledge is encyclopedic.

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