By Maxine Bowler
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The Reduced Species Companion

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
Review of ’A Brief History of the Human Race‘, Michael Cook, Granta £20
Issue 283

Quite often under capitalism we are presented with a partial picture and this blinds us to what is really occurring. The separation of the academic disciplines can serve this purpose, which is why this book is so fascinating. Cook draws on geography, anthropology, linguistics, genetics, archaeology, politics, religion and numerous other areas to present a picture of the development of the human race, albeit restricted by the limits of our knowledge.

He starts by asking why history happened when it did. From the results of the drilling of the ice core in Greenland he provides us with a plot of the earth‘s temperature and shows that the last 10,000 years (the Holocene) have been unusually warm and much more stable climatically. Although anatomically distinguishable humans existed for maybe 130,000 years as hunter-gatherers (the period Engels refers to as primitive communism), human history, which according to Cook is founded on farming, began in the Holocene because this was a window of opportunity for making history.

Using the most recent genetic evidence and Darwin‘s theory of natural selection, he takes on the multiregional origins of humans and argues that all human life stems from Africa. He argues that human beings must be very recent on the planet because not enough mutations have occurred to make us as genetically differentiated as the chimpanzee, which has three distinct subspecies. However, studies of mitochondrial DNA show that the greatest differentiation is among the people of Africa, implying that humans have existed in Africa for longer than anywhere else on earth.

What I like about this book is that it brings alive a picture of a world of floating continents. He takes us to a time when only one supercontinent, Pangaea, existed and shows how this divided initially into two, creating a mid-world ocean, and how fragments of these two landmasses fragmented, allowing India to move north, colliding with Asia to create the Himalayas and Arabia and the fertile crescent where farming first began.

Cook then plots out the developments of early societies in each of the different continents. Using archaeology, linguistics, culture and religion, he shows both when and where human beings would have entered the different continents from Africa and where and when farming, animal husbandry, pottery, writing, etc began, and whether these developed independently or were brought from other early societies.

Although this is an extremely interesting book, making many complex ideas and theories accessible, it does have some weaknesses. Although it has a materialist analysis, Cook‘s particular fascination is with the development of religions and studying how the worship of many gods is replaced by religions in which one god is worshipped. He does not, however, explain why this occurs.

He describes the development of farming and settled communities but does not broach the subject of why humans might give up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which was the way in which our ancestors lived for the vast majority of human existence. He says that his intention is to look at the major cultural regions of the world one by one, rather than encounter them as fleeting examples decorating a global narrative. While this has produced an interesting book, its major weakness is its lack of theoretical analysis. In particular he ignores the key element in the development of human societies and in the transition from ape to man – the part played by labour.

Marxism – which clearly Cook rejects as one of those grand narratives – is an essential tool. It understands that history is the product of the activities of ordinary men and women and the activities through which they seek to meet their needs, by acting on and transforming nature. Furthermore it is changes in how men and women cooperate to produce their livelihood which lead to the development of class societies and a history of class struggle.

Without this you can write an interesting book that does help to develop our understanding of the past, which clearly Cook has done, but learning about the past is also about shaping the future. In a world dominated by global capitalism, without Marxism and class struggle, we are left with what I think are extremely pessimistic conclusions: that competition, which Cook appears to see as a feature of our human nature and all human societies, will wipe out all cultural diversity as we lunge forward in a history of ‘unintentional consequences’.

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