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A Brief History of the Human Race Paperback – 7 Feb 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (7 Feb. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862077347
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862077348
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 3 x 21.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 640,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'A concise, intelligent study of human beings… a pioneering masterwork of research, science, politics and will.’ -- The Good Book Guide

'A highly accessible read, definitely worth the time for anyone interested in what human beings get up to' -- Evening Herald (Dublin)

'Anyone needing a really good account of the historical part of humankind’s history could do no better than Cook’ -- A.C. Grayling, Literary Review

‘A rigorously and exhilaratingly "why"-driven work...constantly stepping back to the big picture’ -- Sunday Telegraph

‘A wonderfully accessible overview of our more recent past’ -- Sunday Times

‘An elegant, quick and engaging way to review what has happened in history, the whole world, not just the West’ -- Nature

‘Cook adroitly accomplishes what his title declares, but the real joy of this book is in the detail’ -- Independent

About the Author

Michael Cook, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, was educated at Cambridge and the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. In 1986 he took up a position at Princeton. His publications include OUP's Very Short Introductions to the Koran and Mohammed. In 2002 he received the prestigious USD1.5million Distinguished Achievement Award from the Mellon Foundation for his significant contribution to humanities research.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Rgh1066 on 28 Mar. 2005
Format: Hardcover
John H. Arnold called this "the first really important book of the twentieth-first century". Granta Books must have loved that!
Hyperbole aside, this is an impressive overview of human history - by far the best I've read in this field (and I seem to have been averaging at least one a year for the past decade). Cook is professor of Near East Studies at Princeton. His overview is different from other similar works in that he explains in beautifully clear prose how physical geography plays a part in the development of civilisations.
Cook's descriptions of the Mediterranean and Chinese civilisations are carefully married to illustrations of the seas, peninsulas, deserts, mountains, rivers and climatic phenomena that played a part in the civilisations developing along the patterns they did. Cook's long experience teaching at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (before he joined the brain drain) also allows him to make authoritative comments on linguistics. Despite this he manages to include one Chinese text back to front, but you can't win them all.
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Format: Paperback
Concise, multi-disciplinary, well-written. A beautiful example of system approach to a question. By far one of the most enjoyable book I have read in the last decade.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 15 reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
The Forest, Not the Trees 7 Jan. 2004
By William Holmes - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Cook's "A Brief History of the Human Race." Although Cook does not address the details of world history, his book is a well-written exploration of broad themes and interesting questions.
Much of what Cook has to say seems simple but is nonetheless thought provoking. For example, Cook poses the intriguing question of whether human history as we know it was, broadly speaking, the only kind of history that humans could have made. Specifically, was there anything inevitable about the development of farming and civilization, or might we have somehow "chosen" to remain nomads or hunter/gatherers or pastoralists? Having posed this question, Cook skillfuly compares the development of civilizations in both the new world and the old world, concluding that, given enough time and population, agriculture and a civilization of some sort are inevitable outcomes of human history.
Cook's work explores a number of other interesting questions, such as why human history as we understand it appeared when it did (it has to do with the warm period that began about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age) and why writing appeared first in civilized societies rather than earlier among hunter-gatherers. Whether you agree with Cook or not, his answers to the broad questions of history are quite interesting, and his writing style is clear and enjoyable.
Keep in mind that Cook's focus is on the forest, not the trees. Although he discusses a few important historical events in order to make his points, "A Brief History of the Human Race" is a book about broad themes rather than a chronology of events. If you want to learn the basics of world history, you would probably do better to start with a book like J.M. Roberts' "A History of the World" (or his somewhat less weighty "Concise History of the World). But if you already know something about world history and you want to explore some big ideas that make sense of some of those facts and dates, Cook's "A Brief History of the Human Race" is a great place to start.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Thought provoking and well organized 22 Feb. 2004
By Lynn Harnett - Published on
Format: Hardcover
True to his book's title, historian Cook takes on a daunting project and manages to chart a flow of global human history over the last 10,000 years, since the start of our present era of benign climate, the Holocene, and the consequent advent of farming. Only with farming can people begin to put down roots, feed larger numbers, accumulate pottery, build cities, and construct - or steal- a system of writing to leave an account of themselves for posterity.
Farming began in the Near East - Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) - the birthplace of civilization, as every schoolchild learns. Interestingly, and logically, as Cook shows, the last place civilization caught on in the Old World was Western Europe - its best soils being too heavy for the available plow. When a heavier plow was developed halfway through the first millennium, cities sprouted and armies reaped the benefits.
In broad strokes (with accompanying broad maps) Cook credits geography, climate and natural resources for driving early advances. Cultural flow is more problematic - why did Greek culture spread while Egyptian did not? Or why did Buddhism wander to China while Hinduism stayed put in India? Cook raises many such tantalizing questions and explores what evidence there is, offering cogent theories of his own. And he shows how technological advances shaped larger movements - expensive bronze favoring elite rule, while cheap iron empowered the masses, for instance.
But if farming made civilization possible, monotheism began to shape the world as we know it. Christianity made its way through the scattered Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire and was, as a political expedient, finally adopted as the state religion by Constantine. It then became attractive to frontier peoples as a trapping of civilization. Islam (Cook's specialty) solved a political difficulty by uniting two Arab tribes in Arabia to form a state, which then had the power to coordinate a wave of conquest, which resulted in the largest empire ever.
Cook organizes his book in four parts. He begins with an overview of prehistory and inevitable development and concludes with a question, "Toward One World?" which embraces the Islamic expansion, the European expansion and the modern world. Three-part chapters within each of these sections focus on broad geographical masses and the cultural developments within, then draw it all together by homing in on particular features: the complicated marriageability rules among the Australian Aranda, Chinese ancestor worship, caste and sexuality in Hinduism, Greek pottery and more.
Much is left out; much is simplified. Naturally. And the most interesting bits are the story-like chapter conclusions. But Cook uses these to illustrate his broader points and to show the individual peculiarities of human cultures. His writing is lucid, often witty, and seldom dry. And he gives an extensive "further reading" list for each chapter. A fine, thought-provoking, well-organized and succinct history of the last 10,000 years.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Interesting but inadequate 5 Jan. 2004
By world class wreckin cru - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"No one can know all there is to be known about it, let alone hope to convey even the gist of it in one small volume" - the author in his preface
"The result is that this book is both deliberately selective and involuntarily patchy." - also from preface
The first quote relates the author's ideas on writing about human history, and the second exemplifies his approach to this book. These two quotes convey exactly what you can expect from this book. It is obviously not a comprehensive history of the human race nor does it intend to be, but even as an organized outline of our history, it falls short. It is patchy, and the author often presents his ideas and arguments in rather haphazard sequences.
The main part of Cook's history is separated into chapters based on geographical origins (or absences) of civilization. He takes us from Australia to the Americas then to Africa and so forth, and in the process, he uses familiar discussions of climate and geography to relate the rise of civilization predominantly with farming. The last part of the book is concerned with the interaction of civilizations and how various cultures were affected by the Islamic world, European expansion, etc. All in all, Cook provides very interesting information, and his arguments are fairly good.
However, many of the chapters include interesting discussions of traditions or phenomena that are/were unique to certain civilizations, but the author fails to satisfactorily integrate these with his other discussions. He does not adequately compare and contrast cultural traditions but rather describes them and moves on. Of course, the author may not have able to do that without substantially lengthening the book, but a book titled "A Brief History of the Human Race" should be able to provide a more cohesive picture than the disorganized one that it does.
Another problem I had with this book was that it was sorely lacking in maps and figures. There are a few to be sure, but the author apparently assumes that the average reader has a very good knowledge of geographical and geological history. For example, the author repeatedly refers to Pangaea, Gondwanaland, and Eurasia but never provides a map of the world before the continents took their present shape.
This book is a pretty quick and informative read, but if you're looking for a more comprehensive and organized work, look elsewhere.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The preface sums up the book 24 Jun. 2004
By Craig Steddy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In the preface the author says that the book isn't meant to me a Grand Unified Theory of history. That it isn't, but I get the feeling that the first draft was meant to be and that the preface was subsequently written to state the obvious failure. The first three chapters are good. The rest is an arbitrariliy arranged collection of occasionally interesting facts mixed with poorly argued conclusions. I'm not an academic, but even I found the last two chapters (especially the one on the modern world) almost laughable in the breadth and shallowness of it's argument.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Briefly, in the Beginning There Was a Farmer 1 Dec. 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
November 29, 2003
Briefly, in the Beginning There Was a Farmer

s a vantage point for writing the history of the human race," writes Michael Cook with a bit of defiance, "the present has very little to be said for it." )
Unfortunately, as Mr. Cook, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, knows, the present always has very little to be said for it when facing such a daunting task. But it is all anybody ever has.
What is intriguing at this particular present is how worthwhile the task has come to seem. So Mr. Cook's "Brief History of the Human Race," a smart, literate survey of human life from Paleolithic times until 9/11, is joining an honorable recent tradition, which came into its own with Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" and is continuously expanding with new compact histories of peoples, religions and cultures.
Such an enterprise is a bit like setting out on an epic expedition with nothing more than a day pack and a hand full of pemmican, feeling confident that sustenance will be easily found. So Mr. Cook does not engage in ponderous Hegelian probings in search of a deeper order underlying apparent chaos. He has, he confesses, no "Grand Unified Theory," and, he adds, with characteristic humility, "If I had such a theory, it would almost certainly be wrong."
That may even be the point. Mr. Cook is a scholar of Islamic history and was co-author, in the 1970's, of a fairly controversial theory about Islam's origins. . That background, along with political events of the last few years, seems to have given him a healthy respect for diversity and a healthy skepticism about received opinion.
Mr. Cook's expertise also allows him to offer up little-known details, like the fact that in the mid-17th century, the Omanis, Muslims of southeastern Arabia, captured European ships, established a navy and colonized the western Indian Ocean "with a zest that put them at least in the same league as the Portuguese." His insights resonate with his discipline: he suggests that one little-recognized reason for the sudden 15th-century interest by Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration was to compete with the "geopolitical dominance of Islam." .
But the very idea of a brief history of humanity also seems an appropriate response to contemporary crises. For the once-thriving intellectual explanations of the world's past, particularly Marxism and post-colonial theory, have come to seem threadbare. There should be a way to take into account the multiplicity of human cultures and to describe human weaknesses without the application of such highly charged systems, without simply invoking their now-familiar rosters of victims and heroes.
This is just what Mr. Cook does. And by stepping back so far - the last 500 years take up no more than the final 50 pages - another kind of perspective develops. Humanity's written record, Mr. Cook points out, began only 5,000 years ago. Other evidence of human history barely reaches back a few hundred generations. So why has something grown so recently out of nothing and why did it take the shape it did?
First of all, Mr. Cook suggests, the moderate temperatures of the contemporary Holocene era developed only 10,000 years ago. This made it possible to develop farming, which, in Mr. Cook's view, is the foundation of human civilization. Hunter-gatherers, he argues, could neither accumulate goods nor accumulate culture. Their societies had little historical awareness. But farming led to new kinds of social organization, the design of pottery for storage, the domestication of animals and an increasing sense that the world could be shaped to human needs.
Nature even proves the point with experiments of a sort. Australia's climate and soil, Mr. Cook argues, prevented the independent invention of farming; it was also geographically isolated. So until the 18th century the continent remained a land of hunter-gatherers, lacking a written past, let alone pottery. Because of other limitations, farming was also stunted in the New World, which lagged about five millenniums behind the Middle East.
As in Jared Diamond's account, geography and climate are shown here to make indelible imprints on the development of cultures, offering possibilities, foreclosing opportunities, creating strange imbalances of cultural power. And drawing on genetic research that has been done by scientists like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, and invoking sophisticated linguistic geneologies, Mr. Cook traces the migrations of these cultures in their varied struggles for power or resources.
There is the "maritime passivity of Africa" to account for, the relative lack of influence of ancient Egypt to explain, the cultural and political continuity of Chinese history to examine and, of course, the more recent triumph of the British and the imperial West to scrutinize. Each of these subjects already inspires small libraries of research and speculation, but Mr. Cook, by focusing on material resources and geographical restrictions and examining their effects on social organization and cultural enterprise, ends up accounting for a good deal.
At times the survey becomes merely dutiful, but through it all, Mr. Cook is amused by the human race and its peculiarities, devoting attention to cultural variations in snuff boxes or tracing the marital regulations of an aboriginal tribe.
If anything, Mr. Cook is almost too bemused by such detail, referring to the human capacity for "superfluous cultural innovation" and society's "elaborate and ultimately arbitrary rules." But we know from the work of anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss that few rules are arbitrary or superfluous. They establish elaborate systems of belief and provide, as Mr. Cook seems to acknowledge elsewhere, unusual insight into a culture's workings, its past and its possible future.
In fact, Mr. Cook's biggest weakness is that he too readily overlooks the ways in which human action creates its own kind of geography - how culture, like climate and rock formations, helps shape what is possible and outline what is forbidden. Technological innovation, which appears too rarely in the book's latter pages, can even have volcanic force.
But criticizing a brief history for being too brief is too easy a privilege, And in this case, so much has already been achieved not just by what has been put in but by how much has been left out.
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