Ian Mortimer – Human Race (2015) review

human race

10 centuries of change on Earth. This is a very fuzzy book, with fuzzy meanings and fuzzy goals. Ian Mortimer tries to answer the question: “which century saw the most change?”.

Most people will say the 20th century, but Mortimer is not so sure, and he spent the last 10 years researching this question that kept him occupied. Change is of course a very fuzzy topic, and it is really imperative that you read the introduction of the book. It is so easy to criticize all his choices of topics, of what to talk about and what to leave out. Mortimer tries to forestall most of the screams of outrage in his introduction.

Basically, imagine that you were born in Europe in the year 1000, and you lived for a thousand years all the way to the year 2000, what, in your experience, was the century with the most change? That is the central question. And it is highly subjective. Also, this is mostly about Western Europe, which is Mortimer’s area of expertise.

Mortimer quickly clarifies that this is not a history of highlights. People like Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Mozart and Emmanuel Kant are mentioned only fleetingly in his book. Why? They were certainly geniuses who had a great impact, no? Well, not necessarily on the people living at the time. Or, only on other people living in a close professional circle around them. If you were some peasant living in Italy at around the time of Da Vinci, you may not have been aware of the guy. So, our perspective of looking back at history distorts our view of what it was like to live at that time. Mortimer tries to really imagine what it was like to live in those centuries, and hence which changes had a real impact on the people living in earlier centuries.

Human Race has a really appealing setup of chapters. Each century is covered in a chapter, so 10 chapters for 10 centuries. You can read it in steps, first considering one century, then the next one. And through the course of the book we get a real sense of how much time 10 centuries really are, and how much can happen in them. It is like going back in time and strapping yourself in for a ride back to the future. After this book, what earlier centuries looked like really has begun to stick in my mind.

Mortimer has a really accessible writing style. He is easy to follow and this could be an entry-level book for historical non-fiction. He does like to throw around a lot of names and assumes that people are familiar with them, and that wasn’t always the case for me personally. What makes this book work as an easy and yet intellectually interesting book is definitely his choice of themes. He doesn’t go deep into the usual popular topics like the medieval crusades, but he explains deeper changes in society and the way people lived.

It is a rich book, filled with a tremendous variety of topics that doesn’t grow stale. However, for this research question of what were the big changes of each century, he doesn’t go into the topics that didn’t make the cut. We are left to guess whether Mortimer made the right choices. We have no choice but to trust his judgments on this matter. I have no idea whether historians would agree or disagree with him.

The biggest message of the book is that, actually, things have always been changing dramatically. Mega-events such as the Black Death but also little inventions such as the clock have influenced the entire subsequent history of the world. You could argue that such changes and inventions were low-hanging fruit in history, but the point of the book is to argue about the impact they made compared to earlier times.

Mortimer does give us an answer to the question. Which century saw the greatest change? I won’t tell, sorry!

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