21 January 2006

What are these Humans? From whence came they?


Talkorigins.orgprovides a good introduction to the scientific study of human origins.

If you have a high speed connection, this website will give you an interactive experience through four million years of human evolution.

Wikipedia has a good article about human origins. Homo Sapiens has been around for over a quarter of a million years, since the last inter-glacial period. Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans, came on the scene sometime in the past 100,000 years. When humans developed language and technology, things began to happen.

After the Ice by Steven Mithen covers the period of time between 20,000 B.C. and 5,000 B.C. During that time, a great deal of human migration occurred. As the weather warmed, plant life and animal life exploded. Human populations multiplied and overfilled the islands of thaw. Tribes were pushed outward in all directions. The ice had not melted, sea levels were low, and many present day islands were accessible to migrating humans and animals. When the ice melted, sea levels rose, islands formed, and hundreds of human populations were cut off. At the same time, the western hemisphere was populated by migrating tribes from Siberia.

The Human Web, by John Robert McNeill and William Hardy McNeill, picks up where "After the Ice" leaves off, at the dawn of agriculture. From Publishers Weekly
The spread of agriculture, the growth of world religions and the rise of European civilization to world dominance are some of the themes explored in this engrossing addition to the distinctive McNeill brand of broad-brush macro-history. The motor of history this time is the growing "web" of interactions-weaving together hunter-gatherer bands, then civilizations and finally the whole world-by which people, goods, diseases and ideas spread. As it binds ever more people ever more tightly, the web both brings them into conflict and lets them share and build on each other's achievements; thus Columbus's extension of the web to the Americas led to conquest but also to the exchange of New World potatoes and maize for Old World horses and smallpox. The father-son historian duo also revisit ideas from William's previous books, discussing the co-evolution of humans and microbes, the uneasy symbiosis between warrior elites and the farmers they protect and exploit, and the social solidarity imparted by group singing and dancing. More ecological than humanistic, the McNeill outlook sees conflict and cooperation as twin outcomes of the struggle for survival that drives developments in technology, political organization, social habits and even religious beliefs. This approach can be reductionist (Europe's vibrant civil society is said to spring from its use of mold-board plows); and as impersonal historical meta-agents go, the trendy "web" conceit is less substantive and fertile than other McNeill brainstorms. Still, this concise and beautifully written synthesis brims with revealing insights that make history comprehensible and enthralling. 25 illus., maps.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray, looks at human accomplishments in the sciences and the arts. The leading names are predictable: Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin in the sciences, Beethoven and Bach in music, Shakespeare and Schiller in literature, Michelangelo in painting, Euler in mathematics, and so forth. Murray is at pains to eliminate Eurocentrism in his analysis: there is separate coverage of Chinese and of Indian philosophy to match Western philo- sophy, Chinese painting, Japanese art, Japanese literature, Arabic literature, and Chinese literature. These include, at a level he views as comparable to Aristotle and Mozart, such names as Gu Kaizhi, Basho, al-Mutanabbi, and Kalidasa. Murray’s goal is not, however, merely to make a list of 4002 all-time greats. He wants to build up a general view of the historical conditions that allow for the flourishing of artistic and scientific innovation and discovery.

Speaking of cultural histories, Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence" is a useful addition to the list. Barzun looks specifically at the last 500 years of western culture.
From Dawn to Decadence, [1] Mr. Barzun’s overview of the last five-hundred years of Western cultural history, is a magnificent summa of his concerns as a thinker and historian. It synthesizes as well as summarizes a long lifetime’s reflection about the fate of those distinctive energies that define Western culture: “the great achievements and the sorry failures of our half millennium.” The first thing to be said about From Dawn to Decadence is that reading it is an exhilarating experience. I mention this partly to reassure those intimidated by the book’s length, partly to mollify those put off by its admonitory title. At nearly nine-hundred closely printed pages, From Dawn to Decadence certainly is long, but it is also a rich tapestry of a book—the product, Mr. Barzun remarks, of accidents like “insomnia and longevity,” as well as of immense scholarship. Despite the book’s intimidating girth, I suspect that many readers will, like me, come to feel about it the way one feels about certain long novels. For the first hundred pages or so, a mixture of wariness and anticipation predominates: will the book really repay the time and effort it demands? These feelings give way, as one settles into the story, to eager excitement. Finally, as the end approaches, one finds oneself madly trying to prolong the experience and delay coming to the final page.

National Geographic's Atlas of the Human Journey website is a fascinating glimpse at the sweep of human pre-history. The graphics are exceptionally good.

The New Geneva Center website presents an engaging discussion of human culture from ancient to modern, including cultures from east and south asia, the levant, africa, pre-columbian america. The author discusses both secular and spiritual aspects of culture which shaped ancient and modern civilisations.

This website is packed full of links about western civilisation.

To understand where humans are today, you must understand western civilisation. No other civilisation has created such an environment so conducive to learning, scientific and cultural freedom, and societal ferment. It is almost certainly from western civilisation that the next level will grow.

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