Ahead of his regional theatre tour around the UK later this summer, we caught up with author, presenter and Professor of Science Communication at the University of Westminster, Professor Lewis Dartnell to discuss his new book Origins: how the Earth made us.
What prompted you to write Origins?
Curiosity, plain and simple! For my last book, The Knowledge, I explored how human ingenuity and resourcefulness enabled us to build the modern world, and this time I wanted to expand the scope even wider to look at how different features of the planet we live on have directed the human story - from our very origins as a species, through the history of civilisations, and right up to current affairs and modern politics.
How has the environment and its history shaped humans as a species?
Like any species of animal, humanity - and our entire family tree of hominins - adapted to our natural environment. Fundamentally, the transition from tree-dwelling apes to bipedal, naked hominins was driven by the drying-out of East Africa, when the dense forest disappeared and was replaced by savannah grasslands. This environmental change in our homelands was caused by tectonic shifts deep beneath our feet, as the Ethiopian highlands rose up over millions of years.
But a question that has been puzzling palaeontologists for a long while is what specifically about East Africa drove us to evolve to be so very versatile and intelligent? The answer that has been emerging in recent years is that the landscape of the East African rift valley and cosmic cycles in Earth's orbit and tilt conspired to create periods of very unstable climatic conditions. It is this rapidly fluctuating climatic instability that crafted us as such intelligent apes, and bestowed us with the ability to go on to colonise every climatic zone around the Earth, and to develop agriculture and civilisation.
Fascinating - in what ways has the Earth shaped our civilisations and society?
Once we had spread around the globe, the end of the last ice age triggered humanity to domesticate wild animal and plant species, to settle down in ever more populous cities and develop civilisation. But these deep connections between the planet we live on and the fate of our cultures and civilisations didn't end here. Different features of the Earth affected everything from the course of the Bronze Age, to the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution, and the Earth's underlying signature can even be seen in modern politics and current affairs in the newspapers.
Can our past help prepare us for a future of anthropogenic climate change?
Absolutely! Many of the challenges we are currently facing with fossil fuels and climate change stem from the solution we found to an energy crisis in the 17th century, and this in turn reaches back over 300 million years of Earth's history to strange times when the planet's carbon recycling system broke down and huge layers of coal were deposited. The crude oil we learned to suck up more recently derives from another chapter in planetary history when the recycling systems in the oceans broke down.
But we can also look to the Earth's past to understand what might happen if we allow climate change to continue unchecked. The closest natural event to the one we are causing right now occurred around 56 million years ago. The 'Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum' (or PETM) saw an intense fever of the world as temperatures leapt by up to 8°C and caused immense disruption to the global ecosystems and ocean circulation. If we inadvertently trigger another PETM today the results would be catastrophic to the world-spanning civilisation we've built. It is through considering the Earth’s past that we can understand the challenges of the present, and prepare ourselves to face the future.
What can audience members expect from your talk?
Lots of maps! I'll pick out just a few of the many stories in the book and walk through these fascinating chains of causation from human history to fundamental features of the planet. I became a massive map-nerd while I was researching and writing Origins, so during the talk I'll illustrate these deep links by overlaying maps on top of each other on the screen.
Professor Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: how the Earth made us, is part of the Society’s Regional Theatre Programme. Book your spot now to hear Professor Dartnell for yourself.
18 June at 8.00pm, Southampton. Book now.
4 July at 8.00pm, Darlington. Book now.
7 July at 7.30pm, Keswick. Book now.
15 July at 7.30pm, Grantham. Book now.
16 July at 7.30pm, Stamford. Book now.
17 July at 8.00pm. King’s Lynn. Book now
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