Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

The Journey Of Humanity by Oded Galor

The Origins of Wealth and Inequality

This book promises a broad and deep sweep of global human life, focusing on history and prehistory in order to answer its main question. It certainly delivers on that promise. Based on decades of research into the deepest roots of change and progress, it presents the reader with two sections, one outlining life up to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, one developing a theory of inequality from that analysis.

Inevitable comparisons with Yuval Noah Harari’s world-bestriding Sapiens are for once justified. The first section brilliantly and clearly describes the Malthusian Trap, whereby technological advances are balanced by subsequent population growth and a return to subsistence level conditions. However, all the time, as the centuries pass by, cogs are moving at a deeper level towards a tipping point, mostly generated from geographical conditions and population numbers and diversity. That point arrived two centuries ago, in Britain.

The second half describes the development of inequality according to the proposed mechanisms. It’s also fascinating, albeit a little less focused than the first half. Inequality is due to deep-time and long-range factors, such as precise levels of diversity (too much leads to conflict, too little to stagnation).

The request of the author in this book is for humanity to recognise the undercurrents of human history and to learn from them. Superbly presented here, that is now possible, if unlikely to occur.

I do have a couple of reservations. Although the author speaks of the climate emergency, it’s hardly at all and with little enthusiasm. He believes technical developments will save the day. I’m not so sure. We’ll need new technology, but more than that we’ll need ethical change. My other concern is that, amongst all the analysis of groups, societies, cultures and mass change, there’s too little on how individuals – tyrants, for instance – can affect growth and inequality. The focus on the role of institutions is admirable, but almost nothing is said about the role of individuals within them. But, perhaps this just isn’t the book for such topics.

All in all: clear, concise, focused and very well argued. Well worth a read!

Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

Battling The Gods: Atheism In The Ancient World.

As an atheist seeing this book in the British Museum shop, I was very pleased to buy it! The author is a specialist on Ancient Greek literature, and has an engaging, bracing writing style. Although the subtitle suggests a general overview, in fact the book focuses on Ancient Greece in three phases (archaic, Hellenistic and Classical), and on the Roman Empire. The thesis of the book in fact is to show that atheism is not a post-Enlightenment social construction, rather one with a much longer history.

Much of the book is given over to a study of Greek religion and philosophy, pointing out the complete lack of centralisation, and the status of religion in typical Greek city-states. It’s fascinating stuff, deeply informed by the author’s understanding of Ancient Greek society, and by his grasp of sources in particular. A delight of this book is how, instead of relying on standard public sources, the author teases meaning out of secondary and contextual sources. This is a scholarly work, yet very readable.

The section on Rome emphasises the relationship between emperor and monotheistic god, while the superb and too-short final chapter shows how christianity, having become a Mediterranean state faith, turns into an aggressive, brutal, authoritarian, anti-science dogma – the religion we know today.

All in all, an enlightening and very enjoyable read. The author, for all that he is a recognised scholar, has a light touch and is in full command of his material. The enthusiastic quotes on the front cover and inside are all well-deserved.


Lady Sapiens by Cirotteau et al

Lady Sapiens by Thomas Cirotteau, Jennifer Kerner and Eric Pincas

This overview of the position of women in Palaeolithic society is a welcome reminder that men and their views – often ridiculous views, such as “man the hunter” – are both outdated and inaccurate. The book uses science, ethnographic comparison, archaeology and a dash of common sense to make its case.

That case is clear. Women were central to life in prehistory. It says a lot about the domination of male views that we need a concerted campaign to point out this obvious conclusion. But, anyway, this book does that exceedingly well.

The best chapters deal with clothes, art, adornment and jewellery, and female status, not least burials. All fascinating. The section on clothes is particularly good. I also was intrigued by the evidence for a general lightening of African skin tone in Europe dated approximately only to twelve thousand years or so ago. Ice Age skies of course were clear and blue, since so much water was locked up in ice; very little of it in the cold atmosphere. At the end of the last Ice Age, we start getting much more cloud in much warmer skies; less sunshine to make Vitamin D.

I really enjoyed this book. It gives me hope that, as archaeology changes, common sense regarding the relative positions of men and women in prehistoric societies prevails.

The Humani

It’s been a long time since I visited a far-future imaginary milieu – fifteen years, or more. On September 21st I hope to self-publish an SF novel that, on and off since 2011, I’ve been working on, editing and honing. This is something akin to Memory Seed and Urbis Morpheos. I finally have the last version ready… The novel is called The Humani. After all this time, I hope I can do it justice!

A Machinati.

I Am Mars & The Moon

Well… today I emailed to myself the first finished drafts of I Am The Moon and I Am Mars. Each book is ready for editing and honing. I’ve really enjoyed writing them! Both books follow the template of I Am Taurus by beginning in the distant past and journeying forwards through time. These books however have a short story at the end: ‘White Face Tribe’ for the Moon, and ‘A Biosphere Ends’ for Mars. I’m not sure whether JHP (Iff Books) will accept them, I suppose that depends on how well I Am Taurus does. Fingers crossed, anyway.

How Language Began by Daniel Everett

This is a wide-ranging, in-depth and readable account of the author’s considered opinion of the origin of human language. The three main stages of the evolution of language are well covered, from signs, through “icons” (signs with some meaning), to symbols. This aspect of the book is particularly good and insightful.

The supporting chapters on human evolution and the structure of the brain are all excellent. Everett points out the fallacy of brain hemisphere specialisation, though he (just about) admits to the existence of some asymmetry. Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area are in his view are illusions, though the consistent right-hand (left brain hemisphere) bias of 90%/10% in all known human populations way back into prehistory does I think point clearly to language facilities being weighted to the left half of the brain, if nothing more specific than that.

Everett’s main thesis is that language evolved in a framework of culture, and that should be the mode in which we consider it. Everett is dismissive of linguists who believe the purpose of language is grammar (eg. Chomsky). I didn’t know about this schism, and was pretty gobsmacked that the obvious purpose – communication in social situations – could be considered secondary. The author’s supporting evidence for communication as the primary purpose is easy to follow, and in my view conclusive. Some reviewers have complained that Everett wastes no time opposing Chomsky, but I didn’t find his position particularly aggressive.

In summary, this is a really interesting book. It’s well structured, well written, consistently interesting and full of fascinating insights. You don’t have to be a specialist to read it, in my opinion – some critics found it a bit advanced. I think the balance between depth and readability is well managed. Most enjoyable, and I learned a lot.

A Hairy London Gallery

A gallery of Midjourney images for Hairy London.

Victorian gentlemen awaiting the Arctic Onion soup.
Eastachia with a bag over her head.
Belgian chocolate train.
Karl Marx.
Highgate Cemetery.
Melting train near Egham.
Escape balloon across London.
Queen Albert & King Victorian.
WW1 in the park.
Der Tod.
Death stalks nearby…
Two Zeppelins mating over London.
Wilhelm Reich.
Sigmund Freud is sad.
In the workhouse.
The mind-o-meter.
Residents near Virginia Water.
Windsor Great Park.

Halfie On Sale

Window display at the Castle Bookshop.

Book Signing In Ludlow

Just come back from a most enjoyable book signing at the Castle Bookshop in Ludlow. Big thanks to Stanton Stephens there for hosting me. We hope to have a “garden event” over the summer. Photo below is me and a customer who came in. Special thanks to Pippa and family. The postcards were printed by my hugely talented partner Nicci, using the linocut made by her mum Wendy. Everyone loves the book’s cover!

At the Castle Bookshop.

The Patriarchs by Angela Saini

The Patriarchs: How Men Came To Rule

This is a really good book, important, timely, superbly researched, very well written… and yet I feel a little let down. But the good things first.

In eight detailed, cogent, imaginative and impassioned chapters, Saini presents a history of patriarchy, both as fact and as an idea. The first chapter – a kind of introduction to her deepest theme – is a study of existing forms of matriliny. Chapter two deals with the view of indigenous women, in particular through the Western lens of them as second-class citizens, if not actual slaves. Chapter three explores the idea (semi-fantasy, as it turned out) of a global prehistoric goddess culture, while the fourth chapter looks at whether or not a violent, repressive male culture took over a few thousand years ago in Europe and the Near East. The fifth chapter deals with restricting women within the framework of the nation state, while chapter six is about how women are isolated by patriarchal culture, in a form of divide-and-rule. Chapter seven shows how twentieth century social revolutions failed to liberate women, and why, while the final chapter looks at transformative social movements, acting as a kind of conclusion.

Brilliant though all this is – and I emphasise again the depth of the research and the cogency of the argument – the reader has to dig deep to find any kind of overarching conclusion. You have to ferret through chapter five to find Saini’s most striking assessment – that patriarchy is intimately bound up with the concept of the nation state – while the last chapter, though marvellous, again falls frustratingly short of anything concise. Where Saini is good she is brilliant, as with her understanding of patriarchy as a social ecology of patriarchies, all of them having to be shored up and reinvented as the decades pass by. It’s a lesson to all who lump social groups into homogenous wholes.

I feel as though there’s a chapter missing here, chapter nine, in which the author pulls together her many and illuminating threads into a satisfying conclusion. For detail, quality of writing and importance of subject, this is a fantastic book, showing how hard male elites within the framework of politics especially work to keep their privileges. She is also refreshingly candid about how religion is a misogynist force which, because it offers other comforts, even feminist women are reluctant to let go.

Overall: essential, readable, timely, brilliantly researched. Yet, missing that final chapter.

The Patriarchs