Saturday, February 16, 2019

David Reich - Who We Are and How We Got Here

Where did we come from? When I was young I had a book that showed how humans had evolved in Africa and spread outwards, moving left and right into Europe and Asia and then colonising the whole world. At a certain point a few brave souls must have crossed the land bridge into North America and spread through the Americas. Much later in history these groups of people started to encounter each other - and the rest is history. A slightly less crude version of this history sat in my head until I picked up David Reich's book which uses the science of Ancient DNA to uncover the much more complex history of population evolution and movement to clarify much better who we are.

It is a complex book. I'll say at the outset that lacking a background in the biological sciences I struggled to really understand some of what Reich writes about DNA. Precisely how scientists can examine the strands of DNA (modern and ancient) to determine an individual's history is a complex bit of science and understanding it fully will require more than Reich's book. That said you don't need the complete science to get his argument and readers who stumble at that first block should persevere.

Reich covers a lot of ground, and I can only acknowledge some of the discussions - for instance the detailed debate about the interaction between modern-humans and Neanderthals is covered extensively. This is always a favoured point of discussion for people interested in ancient human origins so I'd encourage them to pick it up. More importantly what Reich demonstrates is that humans today are the consequence of wave after wave of migration, encounters and mixing. As he says:

Ancient DNA has established major migration and mixture between highly divergent populations as a key force shaping human prehistory, and ideologies that seek a return to a mythical purity are flying in the face of hard science.

The complexities of these migrations are written into the genes if you know where to look. So regarding the entry of humans into the Americas, it turns out that there were at least four, and possibly five migrations onto the continent that each followed different routes once on the landmass and different genetic legacies. These are written in ancient bones and modern people, and Reich gives a fascinating (though he is very frustrated) discussion of how indigenous communities in the Americas have demanded back ancient remains and refused to give DNA samples because of how they have been treated. Given the treatment of Native Americans today and in the past it should not be a surprise that they have suspicions of researchers aims - not least because sample taken has on one occasion been tied to the promise of social care. But one solution to the frustrations that Reich and other researchers feel might be if some of the communities' grievances and injustices were solved.

Those interested in the development of inequality might be surprised to learn that DNA carries traces of this historical process. Reich writes:
The genome revolution has shown that we are not living in particularly special times when viewed form the perspective of the great sweep of the human past. Mixtures of highly divergent groups have happened time and again, homogenising populations just as divergent from one another as Europeans, Africans and Native Americas. And in many of these great admixtures a central theme has been the coupling men with social power in one population and women from the other.
Later he writes about the Bronze Age when:
Powerful men in this period left an extraordinary impact on the populations that followed them - more than in any previous period - with some bequeathing DNA to more descendants today than Genghis Khan.
In other words the development of a class society which located power in the hands of a small, male, elite has left evidence in the DNA unto modern times, not least because the new class society (though Reich doesn't use this phrase) allowed these individuals to pass on their "social prestige to subsequent generations". This is also true when Reich studies communities in the Americas today - white male slave-owners were able to rape black women and they bore their children and there is a DNA legacy today. Unfortunately I think that Reich is wrong to frame this through the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings - which almost implies that these relationships were mutual rather than ones of about the power of owners over slaves.

Finally I understand that Reich has been the subject of criticism about his comments on race. In this book Reich makes his opposition to racism, discrimination and bigotry abundantly clear. He does however argue that studies of ancient and contemporary DNA with the new technology does make it clear there are differences genetically between groups of people. Reich is very clear that he does not say this means that the concept of "race" in its historic, and racist use, is correct. He argues that precisely because some groups of people separated from each other many thousands of years ago, that it is inevitable that differences arise. Indeed he gives several examples - for instance some people of African descent are more likely to have Sickle Cell Anaemia as this arose out of an evolutionary building of resistance to malaria. He also argues that these differences, while they can lead to social effects, are negligible in the context of the influence of wider social conditions. I do, however, think that sometimes Reich minimises the social context. For instance, he argues rightly that:
Suppose you are the coach of a track-and-field team, and a young person walks on and asks to try out for the 100 meter race, in which people of West African ancestry are statistically highly over-represented, suggesting the possibility that genetics may play a role. For a good coach, race is irrelevant. Testing the young person's sprinting speed is simple... Most situations are like this.

Unfortunately what this neglects is the possibility that the coach might be racist, or influenced about racist stereotypes of different people's ability to run. Or that different students have varied access to training, facilities and support because of their skin colour or background. We should treat everyone like this, but society doesn't and that is because racism in society is underpinned by longstanding ideologies. David Reich's book is a good way of demonstrating how racism is scientifically inaccurate and how far-right fantasies about race and history are completely untrue. But this is not enough - confronting racism and racist ideas will not be done just through the use of facts and figures from scientists, but also through confronting and challenging the system that breeds and uses racism to divide and rule.

Related Reviews

Stringer - The Origin of Our Species
Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived
Flannery - The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

Monday, February 11, 2019

Derek Robinson - Hornet's Sting

Hornet's Sting is the third novel that I've read recently about the Royal Flying Corps in France in World War One. It is a prequel to the excellent Goshawk Squadron, which I reviewed here. This has many similar themes - though set a year earlier its pilots fly the Bristol F2 flyer and some of the characters from the later book only appear in this one latter on.

The introduction of the Bristol F2 was a disaster - depicted here in a horrific scene where five planes are lost as the pilots and gunners strive to use tactics that are brilliant on paper, but terrible in the air. Flying straight and level the gunners are supposed to knock attacking aircraft from the air, but the technical difficulties of this sort of shooting condemn the crewmen to certain death. Captain Woolley, who is the key figure in Goshawk Squadron turns this on its head and orders his pilots to fly the F2 like the fighter it is intended to be.

Here, Robinson is using themes that are evident from many of his books - the leadership of the RFC and later RAF are unable to allow themselves to learn from those fighting the actual battles and stick hard to outdated tactics. For Robinson the men flying the planes knew best and should have had more freedom to learn them. In particularly his novel argues that the Deep Operating Patrols over enemy territory were dangerous and unproductive.

Either way, the turnover of pilots is shocking. New faces come and go, and few last more than a couple of pages. From their vantage point the pilots know that's its worse on the ground and there's a clever scene when they get to view the water-logged ground ahead of the final Battle of Ypres.

As with all of Derek Robinson's novels in this vein there is brilliant dark humour as the men drink and joke their way through the stress and losses of friends. Hornet's Sting doesn't work as well as te earlier books, and I felt that some of the subplots were a little unbelievable, particularly the one that takes place on the other side of the lines. The depiction of air-combat is believable and the senseless waste of war is a constant theme, that underlines a solid novel that isn't quite up to the excellence of other books by this author.

Related Review

Yeates - Winged Victory
Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Michael Manson - Riot! The Bristol Bridge Massacre of 1793

During a recent trip to Bristol for a meeting I took some time out to walk around the city and quickly got some insights into its radical history. By chance I came across a copy of Michael Manson's book in the markets and bought it to learn a little more.

In the introduction to the book the author jokes that he often had to answer "No not THAT Bristol riot" when asked about what he was writing. In 1831 there was a major riot in the city when the Reform Bill was rejected. Instead Manson is writing about an earlier event in 1793 that today is little remembered, but lived long enough in popular memory to coin the defiant shout "Give them Bristol Bridge". The story is rooted in two events. The first is the decision to extend the period of time that tolls would be charged for the crossing of Bristol Bridge. This was expected to have been cancelled once the building costs had been paid off, but the lucrative income was too much for the town's leaders to abandon, and they decided to extend things. The second is the French Revolution.

The authorities were terrified. Manson quotes a little in a local newspaper which expressed fear at the "machinations and plots of evil and designing men". It seems that no such plots really existed, but there were certainly tensions and anger from the ordinary people of Bristol. The economic situation was difficult and a decision to continue charging tolls hit a section of the population hard. Indeed given that foot travellers didn't have to pay, but only those in carts or on horseback, Manson points out that it might have worried the authorities that the "labouring poor" were protesting.

The actual protests took place over the course of a couple of days and involved the destruction of the toll booths and pricing boards - something that echoes the Rebecca Riots - and then a much bigger protest when the bridge was reopened on Monday 30 September, 1793. A huge crowd gathered to watch proceedings, and as Manson points out, it is likely that only a small group were involved in the actual destruction of property. The situation rapidly became a confrontation as magistrates were belligerent, eventually calling in a troop of soldiers who were quickly driven off:

While the unfortunate soldiers remained on the bridge they were an easy and defenceless target... Oyster shells from the fish stalls on Welsh Back, stones, brickbats and clods of mud rained down on them. Captain Maxwell was hit on the head and his hat was knocked off.

A hasty retreat followed, but later another group of soldiers marched up with fixed bayonets. "Children in the crowd were hoisted onto shoulders to get a better view... The crowd's mood of exhilaration changed to apprehension" and suddenly the troops opened fire into the crowd of thousands. The troops then turned and fired again. In moments eleven people were killed and up to forty-five injured - though we might not know all the injured as people were wary of going to the hospital.

The reaction was anger and bewilderment. How could this have happened? A local doctor and other liberal luminaries set up an independent inquiry but despite dozens of interviews and long investigations it failed to be able to point the finger at who had given the order to fire. Officialdom, needless to say, remained quite. And Manson concludes "following one the worst civilian massacres of eighteenth century Britain no one had been brought to trial, nor had any named person been officially implicated".

Manson argues that the authorities got away with it, and it wasn't until the wider riots in 1831 and the 1832 Reform Act that their monopoly of greed and power was broken. Reading this at the same time as Jacqueline Riding's Peterloo I was struck by how frequently the British authorities resorted to violence in the 18th and 19th centuries. The police at Orgreave in 1984 might not have used rifles, but they certainly were certainly prepared to injure to prevent people protesting.

This short book is a fascinating insight to one such moment in history, when the state intervened to stop the masses having their say against a perceived economic injustice, though the bridge toll was quickly stopped. It locates the episode in the context of Bristol's economic and political development and as such is well worth a read for the contemporary Bristolian or visitor.

Related Reads

Riding - Peterloo
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Jones - Before Rebecca: Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835
Williams - The Rebecca Riots

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

V. M. Yeates - Winged Victory

Having recently finished Derek Robinson's classic novel of war in the air Goshawk Squadron, I was directed towards V.M. Yeats' book Winged Victory. This, I was told, is the definitive novel about the subject written in the aftermath of World War One by someone who had reached Ace status flying Sopwith Camels on the Western Front.

Winged Victory deserves its accolades. It is a powerful denunciation of that particular war and what it did to the men who fought it. The key figure in the book, Tom Cundall, who we can suppose is a proxy for Yeates himself, begins the novel relatively cynical, but by the end has been destroyed emotionally and psychologically by the deaths of his friends and the strain of combat.

Ironically this is a novel where little happens. The main characters in the story exist against the backdrop of wider conflict, but their space in the war is reduced down to small areas, intense, short lived conflict with enemy planes or horrible periods of dangerous ground strafing. Despite their height above the battlefield the pilots, like the men in the trenches, lack the over-view of the war. Inevitably their is a disconnect - from far behind the lines the squadron is ordered into the air, despite the weather meaning its dangerous to fly and the enemy can't be scene. Pilots die on the whims of commanders, through accident or through enemy action they don't even see. Names come and go, and few pilots last long enough to develop the skills and instincts to survive. Even fewer pilots last the six months that Tom endures; and increasingly he copes through heavy drinking.

Tom and his closest friends try to understand the war. Tom's and some of his friends blame a nebulous group of financiers and capitalists who are making massive profits out of the war - given the book was written in the early 1930s I was struck by occasional references to Jewish people. Tom's closest friend Seddon argues:
Do you think we're fighting for England? In private life I'm a ruddy bank clerk, and it's some of those big bank balances we're fighting for. They're not England: they're what gangs of financiers, Jew and Gentile, get out of England. It's too damn funny the way people think England belongs to them because they've nearly all got the vote, whereas its parceled out among a lot of blasted tradesmen who run it as a business for their own profit.
These ideas are confused. Later Seddon sees the war as originating in "Germanic revolt against the International Jew". It's impossible to know whether Yeates intended Seddon's anti-Semitism here as commentary on the growth of fascism in Europe while he was writing, or whether they reflected real arguments in the mess halls of his squadron in 1918. But they have the ring of truth of the type of debates that take place when people are struggling to understand what is going on around them; and the only source of information is propaganda.

Tom is pulled in different directions. On his leave he sees the green pastures of England from his train window, but also visits the East London slums to try and understand what they are fighting for. But by the end of the novel he no longer sees England as his own. The decline in belief in the war - the rapid erosion of patriotism, or indeed humanity, is a great theme in this microcosm of wider arguments around the conflict.

Furious arguments like these, the occasional fantasy of life after the war, heavy drinking, food and a preoccupation with women are the only things that keep the men going between combat. But even these aren't enough and boredom is the day to day reality.

Some will read Winged Victory for its accounts of combat. But there's much more to this than a tale of flying. This is a detailed account of the way the war ruined lives; it demolishes the myth of Biggles and "knights of the air", replacing it with alienated, scared, confused and drunk young men, desperate to survive but with little hope. It deserves to be read alongside great anti-war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front or Catch-22.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele
Romains - Verdun
Bücher - In the Line 1914-1918

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Jacqueline Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre

2019 marks the bicentenary of the most infamous event in British history. In August 1819 at a mass Reform rally, a charge by the yeomanry led to 15 deaths and perhaps 600 injured. Peterloo, as the massacre in St. Peters Fields came to be known, has been the subject of many books, pamphlets and most recently a film by Mike Leigh. Now, Jacqueline Riding who has been the historical adviser to several of Mike Leigh's films has produced her own account.

Peterloo shocked the nation, and even The Times in its reports of the event had to acknowledge that there was nothing "unlawful" about the event that had been smashed up by the Manchester authorities. For the emergent working class movement, for political radicals and for generations since it has become short-hand for the way that the ruling class will use its power to protect its privileges and its system.

Riding's book is an excellent account of the event and its historical context. She begins with the reality of working class life in the early 19th century. The rapid growth of industrial cities like Manchester which sucked in labour and created enormous wealth. Manchester itself was unique - there is a telling quote from a Swiss traveller who describes the city's factories where "a single steam engine frequently operates 40,000 to 50,000 spindles in a mill which has eight or nine floors and 30 wiondows" A single Manchester street has "more spindles than the whole of Switzerland" he complains.

However those who built these factories and operated the machinery benefited least from the wealth that flowed from their labour. Our Swiss traveller noted that "Not one of the many thousand English factory workers has a square yard of land on which to grow food if he is out of work and draws no wages." Low pay, poverty, over-crowded decrepit housing was the workers' lot and they lacked any ability to influence government, so it is no surprise that a movement for Reform was gathering strength among working people across the country and in Manchester in particular. 

So when well known Reform activist Henry Hunt called a rally in Manchester he knew he was guaranteed a monster turnout. Riding argues that the rally, like others before, was an attempt to change the balance of power by forcing the hand of one side or the other:
A key purpose... of these mass meetings was a powerful display of numerical strength and significant collective will, in order to overawe the authorities. There were those on each side who hoped the other would be the first to move beyond the bounds - transgressing the constitution and thus forfeit public support.
The danger with this line of reasoning is it could imply that the Reform movement, and Henry Hunt in particular, hoped for an over the top response from the government that would shift opinion Reforms way. Given the shocked reaction of Hunt to the violence (and his actions in trying to calm the crowd and urge them not to bring weapons), this seems unlikely. Nonetheless, when the yeomanry attacked the crowd, who as The Times understood, had not heard the Riot Act being read and could not have expected it, the authorities certainly did forfeit public support. 

It is clear from Riding's account that the magistrates clearly believed that the meeting was getting out of hand, but though it is also clear that the event was chaotic and confusing - it was not the "tumultuous" event that some thought it was. Rival accounts differ on whether the soldiers and authorities had stones thrown at them - it seems on balance that if this happened it was the exception not the rule for a crowd that had turned out in its best clothes for a spectacle. William Hay is probably representative of the authorities when he said "the assemblage of such a large number of people to be a breach of the peace, according to the the rules of common sense and the best slaw authorities." I also suspect that the size of the crowd terrified Hay and his compatriots because it demonstrated how large and powerful the Manchester workers were.

One of the great strengths of the book is that it brings together the wider issues of the time. Riding describes the inclusion of a group of Irish weavers carrying a banner coloured with their "national" colour. Most importantly however she puts women at the centre of the story of Peterloo in a way that has seldom been done previously. In the years before Peterloo, women had begun to get organised as a section of the Reform movement, and Riding's account of this is fascinating. In particular I was struck by a reproduction of a caricature of women protesters which used the most vile, sexist language and imagery. Clearly the idea of women organising worried many; but Hunt made their involvement central to the day. The arrival of Hunt's carriage with Mary Fildes "perched prominently" was greeted with a "universal shout from probably eighty thousand persons" according to one eyewitness. So it was the sheer size of the crowd and its constituents that terrified the magistrates; Hay said that was "one of the most tumultuous meetings he ever saw" though the reality seems to have been exactly the opposite, right up to the moment the troops went in.

The victims of Peterloo show no deference to age or gender. Witnesses describe indiscriminate slashing with edged weapons and riding down of the protesters. Senior soldiers afterwards described the events with language reminiscent of descriptions of victory on the battlefield.

Yet, strangely perhaps, the movement was not cowed by the massacre. Riding shows how in the aftermath workers clearly wanted to resist. A shop that supposedly had a captured banner on display was attacked in a mass riot a few days later, and in the towns around Manchester men gathered to sharpen weapons and talk of revenge. But the authorities moved to behead the movement. Leading figures where imprisoned and while imprisoned Hunt himself seems to have believed that the time was ripe to move to constitutional change. There was no outbreak of revolution or further protest in the aftermath of Peterloo - though many of Reform activists would form the basis for the emergent Chartist movement; and as Riding points out the women Reformers were the precursor to the suffragettes.

Peterloo is remembered for its violence. Sometimes I think it's infamy lies in the idea that it was unique. But this was not so. In fact in the period around then there had been a number (some of which Riding mentions) of incidents where state violence was used to quell protest movements - usually deploying overwhelming firepower against unarmed civilians. The British state might have realised that reforms had become necessary in the decades following 1819 (though it didn't stop them massacring workers in Merthyr in 1831); but they remained prepared to use violence against those who challenged them elsewhere - particularly in the colonies. In that sense, Peterloo is not a unique event, but a tragedy in a long line of violent tragedies.

Yet for its fame, and its impact upon subsequent social and political movements Peterloo itself is barely acknowledged in Manchester. Katrina Navickas has written recently on how St Peters' Fields became a site that radical movements wanted to associate themselves with in the years following Peterloo, marching to and rallying in the area the massacre took place. So perhaps this is partly why the Manchester authorities have barely acknowledged the events that took place there.

There's a plaque and proposals for a monument, but today it is easy to walk along the streets that are mentioned in this account and not know that the event had taken place. So it is with great pleasure that I recommend Jacqueline Riding's highly readable account of Peterloo in the hope that radicals old and new can learn the lessons of how far the state will go to protect its interests.

Related Reviews

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

James S.A. Corey - Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn, volume four of the Expanse Series, continues with the soap-opera like structure of the earlier books. Each chapter's focus is on a different character and while central figures from earlier books return (and seem insanely indestructible) new characters are added and some even make it to the end of the book alive.

Unusually though Cibola Burn isn't set in multiple locations across the universe. This time the setting is a much more claustophobic alien planet. In the previous volume our heroes helped explore a set of enormous gates that had opened on the edge of the Solar System. These gave humanity access to a myriad of alien planets, light-years from Earth. At the start of the story a craft full of colonists has burst through the gates and set up a new home on one of these planets; a planet claimed by a mega-corporation which is keen on its easily accessible mineral wealth.

There follows a complex stand-off as each group stakes its own claim and James Holden and his crew are sent in by the UN as mediators, until the planet itself intervenes to get rid of its unwanted inhabitants.

No one would pretend that the Expanse series is great literature. Yet it is compelling reading - well paced and entertaining, and like a soap-opera you know what you are going to get. It's with a only a tinge of guilt that I look forward to the next volume.

Related Reviews

Corey - Abaddon's Gate
Corey - Leviathan Wakes
Corey - Caliban's War

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Brenda Maddox - Reading the Rocks

In 18th and 19th century Britain there was an explosion of interest in scientific ideas. In this accessible book, a combination of biography and scientific history, Brenda Maddox argues that geology played a central role in developing both an scientific cadre who went on to much wider pursuits, and helped encourage the development of wider sciences. Initially geology was a pursuit of the wealthy - gentlemen who had independent means, that could enjoy examining rocks and finding fossils. Unlike other European countries Britain didn't have any institutions dedicated to mining, so there was no real basis for systematic study of rocks and minerals.

However the study of geology raised big, complicated questions that challenged orthodox religious understanding - particularly over the age of the Earth, but also specific questions from the Bible (was there a global flood?) and with the discovery of progressive fossils, opened up the debate about evolution. This, combined with the needs of industry, and the expansion of the British Empire turned Geology into a serious scientific pursuit that linked many of the most important figures of 18th and 19th century science.

Maddox book is well written. But unfortunately I found it failed as a history of geology, or as an account of the science itself. There are many fascinating individuals here, but the author seems to focus on individual anecdote rather than detailed biography. In the history of geology there are plenty of instances of individual rivalry or contested ideas, and Maddox highlights these, but often the reader is left unclear on what the science was. In short I would have preferred more on the nature of the Great Devonian Controversy between Roderick Murchison and Henry De la Beche, and less humorous anecdote. Indeed the history of geology itself seems to be simply an excuse to show how it ended up influencing Darwin's evolutionary theory - a subject that makes up a good percentage of the book and is clearly the author's real interest.

I was particularly disappointed that the final chapter didn't really integrate earlier science into contemporary geology. Instead today's science felt bolted on, almost like the previous 200 years of work didn't really matter.

Readers who want a deep understanding of the Earth's history will need to look else where - Richard Fortey's book Earth is a good start. While Brenda Maddox's book is a quick overview, readers might then want to follow it up with other books on geology and the history of science.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Earth: An Intimate History
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Weiner - The Piltdown Forgery
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause