Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Recent reading

I haven't been blogging about my reading much of late because there hasn't been much of it! I've been busier than normal settling in at my new job, and I've also had enough going on with editing my own work, helping my critique partners, and judging a writing contest that I haven't had much time for already-published books. So, in the past two or three weeks, all I've managed to finish are two works of nonfiction.

The first, The Humans Who Went Extinct (Clive Finlayson, 2009), bills itself as being about why the Neanderthals died and we lived, but it's more of a big-picture overview of the current thinking on human evolution, as thought by Finlayson. I think he does a good job of pointing out logical flaws in the extreme version of the Out-of-Africa hypothesis (i.e. modern humans all came from Africa really recently after some kind of mental evolutionary leap enabled a cultural explosion maybe 40,000 years ago) without going to the other extreme and embracing multiregionalism, which requires you to think, contrary to any genetic evidence, that Europeans are partially descended from Neanderthals, Asians from Homo erectus, etc., but that there was enough gene flow to keep us one species of broadly equal physical and mental capacity. If Finlayson is right, Homo sapiens left Africa earlier than previously thought and before exhibiting obvious signs of culture in the forms of art or extensive trade networks, and that what helped us out-compete the Neanderthals wasn't that we were smarter, but that with our lighter bone structure and greater distance-running capacity, we were better able to hunt on the Ice Age steppes, while the bulkier Neanderthals couldn't run down their prey and needed a forest environment to thrive. Ice age maxima = less forest, more steppe, ergo fewer Neanderthals, more Homo sapiens.

The second, Lords of the Sea (JR Hale, 2009), begins with a period of history that's always fascinated me, the Greco-Persian Wars. Only instead of focusing on the land war and the Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae, Hale looks at the Athenian triumph at Salamis and the century or so of Athenian naval hegemony that followed it. I enjoyed the book immensely (even though, as is so often the case with Greek history, I was a bit put off by the utter masculinity of the world, even though I've never been a reader who insists that everything be All About the Women). I kept seeing similarities to later incidents from British and American history, and then realizing that of course Athens INVENTED the concept of being a democratic empire.

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