The World from Beginnings to 4000BCE

The World from Beginnings to 4000BCE (The New Oxford World History)

By Ian Tattersall

Oxford University Press, 160pp, £35.99 and £10.99

ISBN 978-0-19-516712-2 and 978-0-19-533315-2

Published 14 February 2008

Review originally published in the Times Higher 22nd May 2008

Human evolution and astrophysics share more than might be obvious at first glance – both address the ‘big’ questions about existence, both fascinate the non-specialist while appearing bewilderingly complex and self-contradictory.  Bill Bryson in his excellent “Short History of Nearly Everything” says that he was ready to be befuddled by astrophysics but the area of science that took him by surprise by its difficulty was human evolution.  The plethora of popular-science titles available on the subject shows the enduring appeal of human evolution, but of course quantity does not equal quality.  Many books suffer from an over tendency to deal with the human evolutionary process as a simple story – which suggests an inevitability about ‘us’ which is unwarranted given our understanding of Darwinian evolution.  To do otherwise requires a deft touch and the confidence to tackle such a complex area head on – on his past record Ian Tattersall has both in abundance.  Tattersall is one of the grandees of the human evolutionary world and any new book by him demands attention.  The stated aim of this new series of books published by the OUP is to provide an informed, lively and up-to date view of the world that differs from ‘old’ world histories.  How then does this title match up to the stated aims of the series?

Tattersall’s “The World from Beginnings to 4000BCE” is a big book that covers a mere 143 pages.  Starting with the appearance of our most distant ancestors around 7 million years ago it takes the reader through the major evolutionary developments, always pausing to explain how we know what we know and why it’s important.  Ultimately our understanding of human evolution is rather like a patchwork blanket, small pieces of information, taken from fossils, genetics, geology, archaeology etc., are stitched together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  It would be easy to fail to convey how and why this is central to the subject but Tattersall deftly avoids this pitfall.  The end product is a comprehensive, yet accessible, review of the current state of human evolution.

This book is not flawless and a major failing is the attempt to take this new history up to 4000 BCE, when in reality the last 6000 years are given a mere 16 pages – an entire volume covering this period would have made more logical sense and better laid the foundations for the rest of the series – this is of course an editorial misjudgement rather than a slight on the treatment Tattersall gives to this period which is as ever balanced and well thought out.  The section containing websites is as something of a Curate’s egg – while they remain active all is good, but the dynamism of the web means that broken links occur with incredible speed.  Likewise the further reading section is comprehensive but the omission of Roger Lewin and Robert Foley’s excellent “Principles of Human Evolution”, unequivocally the next step for the interested reader, is a curious oversight.

Ultimately how good is this book?  Pleasingly, the answer is very.  It takes a complex subject and produces a gripping read while covering the major themes of human evolution with a confidence that is refreshing and will allow the reader to put down the book safe in the knowledge that they have been treated to a master-class in the current understanding of human evolution.

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