Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Origins by Lewis Dartnell

Subtitled How The Earth Shaped Human History, this is a fascinating and very well written survey of how geology and landscape have shaped the course of human history. It’s aimed at the general reader, but doesn’t skimp on facts and theory. Comparisons with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens are for once not exaggerated.

Set into nine chapters, the work opens with the evolution of humanity in East Africa, showing how continental drift, deep magma events and climate all forged conditions in which human evolution occurred. Continental drift is the fascinating subject of the next chapter, followed by chapters covering ocean geography, fault lines, building materials, metal, the steppe and desert areas of the world, trade winds/currents and the age of Western explorers, and finally energy, this mostly coal and oil.

What this book excels at is showing how apparently random or unrelated events are actually created, initiated or corralled by geology – the shape of our environment, its long-term change, what it’s made of and where it is. This work is readable, accessible and enjoyable. Highly recommended.


This Is Your Brain On Music review

This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin

A couple of months ago I watched Stewart Copeland’s three-part tv series Adventures In Music, which aimed to get to the heart of what music is and why it means so much to us. The series was very enjoyable, and in one of the episodes there were interviews with Daniel Levitin, so I bought his book This Is Your Brain On Music.

I have to say, though it’s not a bad book, it is rather dry, and I did struggle with it. The opening three chapters (as the author observes) can be skipped by anyone reasonably au fait with music, while the rest, which is mostly neurology and brain science, is interesting enough but not terribly engaging. I confess I skipped a few sections.

It could be that a book simply isn’t the right vehicle for this topic. There was nothing specifically wrong here, but I found the continuing descriptions of brain operation to be a case of diminishing returns. Perhaps the book should be televised.

Interesting, then, but arid.


A Mithen Celebration

Recently I’ve been re-reading for research purposes a couple of books by Steven Mithen, so I thought the time was appropriate to write an appreciation of his enormous contribution to research into human evolution.

Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, his career has been decorated with many highlights. I first came across him when I stumbled upon a book entitled The Prehistory Of The Mind (1996), which turned out to be fascinating reading. Actually I didn’t get it at first, but after a second reading I realised what a remarkable description of the evolution of the human mind it was.

Mithen is known for his concept of cognitive fluidity, which, in a nutshell, suggests that “modular” aspects of the proto-human mind – in particular the social module, the language module, the technical module and the natural history module – all operated independently of one another during the long evolutionary process leading to homo sapiens. Slowly, these modules merged. Using supplementary ideas suggested by various other evolutionary scientists, Mithen’s book theorises that the language and social modules first merged, allowing the development of consciousness itself, which is a feature of the mind necessary for survival in highly complex social groups (cf Dunbar and Humphrey). The beauty of Mithen’s idea is that it explains the otherwise baffling: why cultural stasis marks hundreds of thousands of years of proto-human existence. This fact has always been difficult to explain. But if the mental modules were separate, no technical knowledge – for example how to sophisticate stone tools – could have been passed on, for example via language, leading to cultural stasis. All such knowledge would have been learned by imitation alone. The book is a brilliant description of the likely path of human mental evolution – an inspirational read.


A second work was the remarkable The Singing Neanderthals (2005). In this work Mithen delves deeper into one of the aspects of life not elaborated upon in his previous book: the evolution of language. This, of course, is a tricky and highly contentious area for debate, so Mithen’s contribution was always going to make fascinating reading. His essential thesis is this: proto-language was holistic, mimetic and musical. It consisted of sounds and gestures, which in one indivisible utterance described something. This was not compositional language like ours, which can be cut up into sections for infinite communicative possibilities. The brilliance of the work though is how Mithen develops this notion into a timeline for the separation of the proto-language into our kind of language and music, the latter of which, separated, became our vehicle for emotional expression. This book is another terrific, thought-provoking read.

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Between the above two books came After The Ice (2003). In it, the impact of alterations in climate owing to the planet’s Milankovitch Cycles was developed into a global description of massive changes in human culture, not least the change from hunter-gatherer societies to those depending on agriculture. Cutting edge research about life during the Ice Age brings veracity to a very well written narrative. (This book would benefit from being read alongside Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, I think.) What might be called “eye-witness accounts” bring a vivid feel to much of the book. It’s more of a survey of prehistory than the two theoretical earlier works, and it’s a wonderful read.

after i

None of these three books require any prior knowledge other than that human beings evolved and there needs to be an explanation of the process. What the reader brings is a sense of wonder and the desire to learn about our prehistory.

Highly regarded by his peers, and a terrific writer, Steven Mithen has opened up the possibilities which we have for developing a description of our evolution. All three of these books come highly recommended from me.

(A Prehistory Of The Mind here.)


Dilly by Mavis Batey

Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas is an account by Mavis Batey not only of the great code-breaker Alfred Dillwyn Knox, but of the whole wartime code-breaking effort centred in Bletchley Park. Mavis Batey was one of “Dilly’s girls,” in fact she was one of two particular women whose brilliance helped the mercurial and eccentric Dilly. This biography spends a little time on his upbringing and education, before heading off into his WW1 work, but it is really WW2, Bletchley Park and Enigma which it focuses on.

Written with sensitivity and charm, and with many personal anecdotes, it’s a great account of a man whose work made an enormous difference to our lives.


How Compassion Made Us Human

How Compassion Made Us Human:
The Evolutionary Origins Of Tenderness, Trust & Morality by Penny Spikins

This is a terrific book – and one welcome in a field dominated both by men and by male versions of prehistory, which (as the author glumly notes) are usually violent and full of conflict.

That male version of prehistory though is not supported by evidence. In this remarkable book, Spikins – a highly experienced archaeologist and academic based in the north of England – makes the case for a different interpretation, both of the evidence and of supporting evidence, for instance ethnographic work done with modern-day hunter gatherer peoples. The book is also a really good read: well written, clear, taking the reader through the argument with skill and panache.

The chapters cover the basis of archaeology, how men have interpreted evidence in the past (not least Raymond Dart and his ludicrous “killer ape” hypothesis), re-interpreting archaeological evidence with common sense, zoological and anthropological evidence, and then a brilliant section on how small objects represent big emotions. It’s this chapter in particular that reveals the scope and depth of the author’s vision. Subsequent chapters cover the dark side of humanity, and then a detailed survey of how Spikins thinks human evolution went, focusing on compassion, trust and morality. All in all, an amazing vision of evolutionary history: vivid, engaging, scientifically sound.

I highly recommend this to all those interested in human evolution, ethics and morals, and the current state of archaeology.

The Evolution Of Imagination

The Evolution Of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma

This is a particularly good book for artists of all types to read. The author is a jazz musician, and themes of improvisation – which jazz thrives on – run through the work. But this book is in the main a deep and often well thought out exploration of imagination and creativity, with much to say about the evolution of the modern human mind.

The book is split into six chapters dealing with: the mental models we carry in our minds, how our bodies may be the source of creativity especially in music, visual improvisation and creativity, tale-telling, the self, and finally a section on imagination in the political world. Lots of fascinating ideas are put forward, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of them – for instance the role of the body in kick-starting imagination via music and rhythm, which some experts think may have preceded language. The author is particularly good at presenting ideas of how the emotions serve as a foundation for most of what we think and do.

I do have some reservations. The author separates “hot cognition” (emotion or feelings based cognition rooted in the limbic brain) with “cold cognition” (rational or logical thought rooted in the neocortex). While the description of the triune brain is useful, Asma leans too much upon it to separate two modes of cognition that really are merged into one, with emphasis vaying according to situation. I also think his guess that full language emerged only 40,000 years ago is way off the mark – 150,000 to 200,000 years ago is much more likely.

All in all, a very thought-provoking read from somebody in an interesting position and with lots to say. The first four chapters are superb, but the chapter on self is a bit of a mess, and the final chapter, while interesting, seems to me to be an afterthought. So I’ll be giving this 4* on goodreads, but 3½* is nearer the mark.

Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

This is a detailed study of the history of hypnosis, the debate around whether or not it exists as a defined phenomenon, and much else besides. Written by novelist, biographer and translator of Greek texts Robin Waterfield, its author’s wide-ranging interests and skill in telling a tale is evident.

The book begins with an in-depth and sophisticated discussion of the history of hypnosis, notably the contribution of Anton Mesmer (from whom we get the word mesmerism), moves on to sociological considerations, arrives at Freud and the modern world, then concludes with a few chapters on hypnotherapy and ‘modern forms,’ such as the psychedelic experience, political and advertising ‘mind control’ and various New Age considerations.

All in all, a fascinating, detailed and intriguing work. The author’s plea at the end is for hypnotism to lose its tarnished reputation (much of which he considers rooted in so-called stage hypnotists) and become an important part of therapy in our various cultures. As he points out, the evidence that hypnotism works is vast and incontrovertible. Let’s use it.

hid depths

Coal by Barbara Freese

Subtitled A Human History, this book surveys coal and its relationship with us and with our various cultures. Opening with a history of its finding and use in medieval Britain, it shows how for centuries coal was a misunderstood, disliked and even feared thing, until Newcomen made his steam engine and the Industrial Revolution came into view. Then, reluctantly, people began using it, though they continued to suffer from the sulphurous smoke. Further chapters look at the industry in America and China.

I liked this book a lot. It’s insightful, well written, fair minded and ends with a warning about global warming. Though written in the early 2000s, its history and message still resonate, and will do for some time, as America and China continue to use this dirtiest and most polluting of fossil fuels.


The Glass Bathyscaphe by Macfarlane & Martin

Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin’s The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed The World has to be one of the most fascinating history books I’ve read for a long time.

Starting off with an overview of the origins of glassmaking, the book passes through various periods of history. But this is not just a summary of what is known. These two authors have a hypothesis, which they develop marvellously as the book progresses. Their contention is that glass was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for the Scientific Revolution which occurred in Europe following the Renaissance; and they make a convincing case for counting the Renaissance and the arrival of what they call reliable knowledge as aspects of the same thing. They compare and contrast the situation in east and west, and find many reasons for the difference in the use of glass. They also look at how social and religious conditions changed the perception of what glass could do for a society.

It’s all well written, interesting and engaging – the perfect example of a history book with a ‘bit more.’ Too many history books I’ve read in the last few years have been little more than lists. This one is considerably more.

I got this for a couple of quid at my local Oxfam, so I’m doubly pleased!


Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is a really fascinating book. I picked it up because I wanted to compare what it said with what other authors have written about social media, but, to my delight, it gave me far more.

Kahneman is a psychologist with an interest in decision making, thought processes, and how such things relate to the economic world in particular. Working with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel award for his ground-breaking, often counter-intuitive discoveries.

This book posits two thinking modes, that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, “intuitive” (although see later), easily fooled, and quite often wrong. System 2 is our reflective, slow, rational mode. But, it turns out, System 2 is lazy and only comes into play when System 1 is stuck.

The first two thirds of the book especially are a revelation. We all know we’re not entirely rational or reasonable – we all have quirks and foibles, biases and predilections – but this book shows just how irrational we can be, and how easily we’re fooled by such things as verbal framing, halo effects, cognitive illusions and much, much more. This part in particular has great relevance to our online life, since that – social media especially – has been moulded by the international technology companies in order to put us in their thrall. They know what System 1 buttons to push and they do it mercilessly, exploiting people at will and with almost no regulation. (I used this theme in my novel The Autist.)

A later section on decision making is a bit mathematical and detailed, but overall this is an amazing and very thought-provoking book. Everyone who’s concerned about how social media especially is changing our modes of thought, and therefore our behaviour, should read it. Educators in particular should read it! And although it seems at the outset that Kahneman is worried about how easily we are fooled by our intuitive irrationality, he does point out the evolutionary merits of that system and that, if it is fed with truth and reality, it is right at least as often as it’s wrong. But of course, in the digital world, truth and reality is what is being eroded.

Highly recommended.