Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, 
and the Transformation of Nature 

"Many the wonders but nothing walks stranger than man.
The thing crosses the sea in the winter's storm,
Making his path through the roaring waves,
And she, the greatest of gods, the Earth--
Ageless she is and unwearied -- he wears her away
As the ploughs go up and down from year to year
And his mules turn up the soil." (Antigone, 332-8)

The subtitle for Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's amazing book references culture, ambition and nature. These ideas are all central to his history of civilizations, but as he states near the end of the book it is a "book of places". That is an overriding theme that is underscored by the many diverse civilizations that he discusses. Thus the book is a history of civilizations, not one civilization; and it is also about the power and ambition of mankind that he uses to tame geography, ecology, climate and other animals to form cities. Although, the author argues in his introduction that cities are not a necessary condition of civilization no matter how frequently they have been associated with the rise of civilization in history. Like all history the book presents an empirical argument with examples of civilizations from grasslands and forests, arid and rain-filled climates, highlands and ocean-based areas. It is a tribute to the intelligence and adaptability of man that civilizations can be found in places as disparate as the Andes and the Aegean; the Euphrates and post-glacial European forests; the Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers of Asia; and other places. The result of Civilizations wide-ranging, through time and geography, ruminations and revelations is a book that is informative and thoughtful. Undoubtedly controversial at times, it is an exciting read for anyone interested in the ability of man to create and mold the world into civilizations.

Civilizations by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2001

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