I was worried my epistemic spot checking project was doomed before it began. The well regarded Sapiens dismissed a link between cultural and genetic evolution, and Last Ape Standing made two explosively wrong errors in the first chapter. Neither related to human evolution (one was about modern extreme poverty and the other about cetacean evolution), but I just couldn’t let them go. I worried that every book was terrible if you actually fact checked it, or maybe just every book on the emergence of homonids?
And then I started A Brief History of the Human Race. Two chapters in, I cannot find a flaw in it. There are a few simplifications, and some broad statements he later walks back, but nothing I can point to and say “that is miseducating people.” Meanwhile there are a lot of things I can point to and say “that is right”, even things I initially thought were wrong. So I think A Brief History… might be the one.
Here’s a list of statements I checked and their results. Normally I sort claims into true and untrue sections, but that proved unnecessary in this case because it is a beautiful rigorous snowflake of a book.
Claim: The holocene era has had unusual climactic stability, and is warmer than typical for the planet (page 6).
This checks out
, but it’s a little weird that his graph doesn’t label the temperature axes, and it’s a graph of oxygen ratios from a single glacier rather than the wider variety of evidence available.
Cook further claims that this warmth and stability is what let farming, and thus history, start. There’s some counter evidence
to the claim of the holocene as the absolute start of agriculture. but it certainly seems legitimate to say that’s when it really took off.
Claim: there exists art “well over 20,000 years old” (page 9)
I was very surprised by this but if anything he’s underselling it; there’s claims of 50,000 year old art
Claim: most human DNA is junk DNA that serves no purpose, and mutations have no effect (page 11):
He’s a little behind the times on junk DNA. Even when A Brief History…
was published (2003) we knew it that while lots of DNA didn’t encode any proteins, much of it does seem to serve some purpose and mutations in it are significant. At a minimum
noncoding DNA definitely plays a role in the regulation of DNA transcription, the structural cohesion of the chromosome, and protecting coding DNA from degradation. This is the closest thing to a falsehood I found in the first two chapters. At the level of genetics this book is discussing I think it’s a forgivable simplification, although an addendum noting the real world was more complicated would have been appreciated.
Claim: humans are inbred (page 12)
Page 13: AFAIK this explanation of multiorigin vs out of Africa human evolution hypotheses is correct, and he’s picked the correct winner.
Claim: evidence of human tool use half a million years ago (page 16)
me: there is no way there were tools that long ago.
Claim: early hominid and chimp tool use are both culturally transmitted (page 17)
I’m pretty sure this is correct, and I appreciate the distinction he is making
Claim: it was hard for nomadic hominids to combine their tools in novel ways, because they had so little room. There are exceptions, but they might have been better off sticking with lower technology (page 20).
I am extremely happy to see this guy acknowledge that hunter gatherers had a pretty kick ass life and farming sucked.
Claim: iron is more abundant than copper because of something about supernovas (page 29).
Claim: cattle domesticated multiple times (page 30).
Claim: humans adapt to domesticated animals culturally but not genetically (page 32).
This ignores the co-domestication of humans and wolves but is basically true for everything else.
Claim: humans did not genetically adapt to farming (page 33).
me: ehhhhh….lactose tolerance was a pretty big deal.
p34: exceptions: lactose tolerance and disease resistance.
me: I accept your apology.
Claim: Maori had and then lost the technique for pottery (p36).
Not only is A Brief History… not saying wrong things, it is throwing out tangential facts at about the right rate. I was never going to look up which molecules supernovas produced. But now I have a general idea of the concept of “primary elements” and how this affected human history, which makes me happy.
Verdict: A Brief History of the Human Race has passed the epistemic spot check with flying colors, and is enjoyable to read.