Category Archives: Book review

Bone Lines, by Stephanie Bretherton

Stephanie Bretherton’s Bone Lines (Unbound, 2018) is built around two brilliant intertwined stories. In one, our common ancestress flees the desolate wastes of the north, leaving her clan and lover as ‘bones under snow’ in the fallout from a super-volcano eruption in Sumatra 75,000 years ago. This is the gentle, piercing, plausible tale of her long and dangerous slog, a growing daughter on her back, to safety in what would one day become East Africa. In the other, her bones have been discovered and she has been named Sarah after Barack Obama’s granny, while her DNA is being extracted, sequenced and interpreted by scientists in London. Eloise is the leader of the research team, and as she muses about her own life and the meaning of her work, she offers pithy thoughts on the modern world. The quest for decent sex and rewarding partnerships by single, professional women is a recurrent theme – resolved near the end – but on the way there are useful, intelligent and, as far as I can see as an ecologist and primatologist, accurate observations on human evolution, medical genetics, climate change, consciousness, perception, anthropology, biogeography, and genocide, while she also puts the boot into Brexit, Trump, misogyny and fascism. All this is great! Meanwhile there is a conspiracy of religious nuts haunting the modern story, just as there were cannibals stalking the ancient one, who are satisfyingly defeated by medical compassion and lethal bear claws respectively.  And the book ends with the kind of hair-standing-on-end sentence that one half-expected but didn’t dare hope for. Faced with such a thoughtful, modern and often very beautiful read, all I can say is: go get it!

© Julian Caldecott

Same old ape, same old ecology

In the Lent 2018 issue of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, Professor David Runciman argues that democracies cannot fail exactly as they did in the 1930s, since we now “live in a world that is much richer, older, more peaceful and more networked” than existed then.  This may rule out ‘back-sliding’ to a “time when strongmen ruled the Earth”, but leaves open the possibility that our democracies will instead be hollowed out from within by “heartless, conscienceless, super-capable” corporations and/or machines, using algorithms of power and process that we “lack the power to understand, never mind resist”.

This is all very well, but two questions follow. First, do the new forms and scales of human society truly imply an altered nature, or are we collectively the same old ape driven by the same personal and small-group motivations and vulnerabilities that we always were, easily confused and quick to prejudice, regardless of some extra memes and technologies? And second, does our apparent insulation from nature mean that we can actually afford to ignore the rules of ecology, or do we continue to depend utterly on food, water and environmental security provided by ecosystems that we are systematically destroying, regardless of some extra gimmicks and the reassurances offered by our elites? I suppose what I’m saying is: ‘yes!’ to a study of recent history and the social import of new technologies, but also ‘yes!’ to a much fuller understanding of deep history and ecology, without which the future may be both a surprise and a desolation.  Runciman’s new book (How Democracy Ends) sounds like essential reading.

© Julian Caldecott

Too many people

When Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people on Earth, up from 1.4 billion in 1901 and heading for our early-2018 total of 7.6 billion.  Ehrlich feared the worst – accurately predicting, in general terms, the stress that meeting everyone’s needs would place on the living world.  He also proposed some alarming and heavy-handed remedies.  All this has just been been revisited in The Guardian’s over-stretched cities series, in a 50th anniversary interview with Ehrlich.

I once planned a book on population, since I’d noticed that it was a taboo subject yet, to an ecologist, one that simply had to be considered.  So I tried to find out why there was so little on population, which must surely be a starting point for the sustainable development of anyone’s country, or immigration issues, or ecological collapse, mass extinction or climate change.  And yet it wasn’t anything of the sort.  I concluded that this was because it’s all too difficult, far harder than any of the specific development issues since it’s connected to what we do as a species: competitive breeding among peoples, cross-contaminated by issues around patriarchy, family planning, sex education, adoption, immigration, juvenile pregnancies, class, honour killings, religion, euthanasia, test-tube babies, you name it!

Besides, for various reasons that have been perfectly valid for at least 99% of our species’ time on Earth, few people even see that there might be a problem with ‘population’.  Into this mess only the bravest or most foolhardy are likely to venture.  So I chickened out, and here we still are, heading for unimaginable global calamity and taking the whole living world down with us.  What to do?

© Julian Caldecott