John Gray at Literary Review:
In a popular American blog propagating Darwinism, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reports, a well-known biologist with mildly unorthodox views has been described as needing a ‘good punch in the balls’. Fernández-Armesto writes, ‘This is almost as nasty as anyodium theologicum rival religious dogmatists have ever exchanged.’ It is a characteristically civilised comment on what has become a thoroughly uncivilised debate. For some of its most ardent proponents, Darwinism is not a scientific theory about the origins and development of living things but instead a comprehensive world-view. For these evangelists, evolution enables us to understand everything that exists – not least human culture.
A mix of wide and deep learning and rigorous argument, beautifully written, A Foot in the River demolishes this way of thinking. Fernández-Armesto is no enemy of science. Already in the early 1970s he was holding a seminar with a colleague on what they called ‘historical ecology’, which aimed ‘to understand humans in relation to the whole of the rest of nature: the climate that surrounds us, the landscape that enfolds us, the species with which we interact, the ecosystems in which we are bound’. This kind of understanding infused his illuminating surveys of human history, Millennium (1995) and Civilizations (2001). Far from resisting any role for scientific enquiry in the humanities, Fernández-Armesto has been a pioneer in showing how the material circumstances in which humans act have helped shape their histories.