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on December 9, 2012
Mankind the Story of All of Us: A Review
"Mankind: The Story of All of Us" is a history book, from the birth of the cosmos to modern times. Any single volume work of this scope must carefully choose its topics and depth of coverage, and overall, I thought the format and structure of the book was well done. The photos were clear and complemented the text quite well (I have not watched the "Mankind" series by the History Channel).
Nonetheless, I can't help comparing this book to J. Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man", and by comparison, I was disappointed. They both attempt to capture human history in a single work, focusing on key moments and advances that pushed civilization forward. However, Bronowski's work is far superior on every level, from editing to accuracy of information to writing style. Below, I give just a few examples from the first few chapters (but errors and problems are riddled throughout the text).
The text states, "After the Earth cooled enough to form its unique configuration of elements and atmosphere, it took another half billion years for the first single-celled organism to blossom in its deep oceanic vents, and two billion more for them to begin to divide and diversify." It should be obvious that it could not have taken two billion years after the first organisms appeared for them to "begin to divide"; the organisms would've died out long before if they were not capable of dividing when they first appeared. While I believe the authors did not intend for this meaning to be conveyed, it shows a sloppiness in writing.
As early as page 3 we see further problems. The text states, "It is here that we join human evolution reached its first critical pivot: the transition from apes to humans". The sentence is a direct quote. I think the authors meant to say, "It is here that human evolution reached its first critical pivot...." While the message is still understood, this shows poor editing (or complete lack of editing) by the publisher.
On page 8, the author describes the hunt, in which a small group of mean pursue an antelope. But then, two paragraphs later she describes a woman and her son watching as these same men "chase the warthog". She then ends the section with the capture of the "antelope". So which is it? Was it an antelope or a warthog that the men were hunting?
On page 14, the author discusses the hominid journey out of Africa. However, she begins by stating, "After about one hundred thousand years, bands of Homo erectus... began to travel farther from the warmth of the Great Rift Valley in search of food, eventually crossing the land bridge where Africa joins Asia. By about 400,000 BCE, small tribes of Homo erectus lived throughout Eurasia, reaching as far east as China." There is an accompanying map, which shows hominid movement into China around 50,000 years ago and into Beringia around 25,000 years ago. So which is it - 100,000 years, 400,000 years, 50,000 years? Did the author mean "40,000 BCE", not "400,000 BCE"? Given that humans (Homo sapiens) were already present 150,000 years ago, is the map referring to Homo sapiens movement, as opposed to Homo erectus. It isn't clear.
Accuracy is one problem that should not plague a history book, but seems to haunt many sections of this book. On page 6, there is a diagram with the caption, "The big bang provided earth with the oxygen-rich atmosphere necessary for fire". There are different ways to interpret this sentence, so at the very least, I would say that this sentence is misleading. However, the author seems to be stating that oxygen came directly from the Big Bang. If this is what was meant, this is incorrect. Oxygen is produced in stars and not a direct product of the Big Bang.
On page 36, the author mentions the first cities, including Jericho (9000 BCE), but then states that the Sumerian cities were the first city-states (civilizations) founded between 4500 BCE and 4000 BCE. The first city could not have been founded at both 9000 BCE and 4000 BCE, so which is it? Perhaps the distinction hinges on the definition between city versus city-state? But the author does not appear to make any distinction between the two terms in the text.
Overall, the writing style is good, though not as rich or articulate as Bronowski. Nonetheless, the author keeps a good pace and the material is interesting.
If it wasn't for the editing and accuracy problems, I would have given this text four stars. However, given these problems, I can only give the book two stars -- one star for a decent writing style and one star for the photos, diagrams, and sidelines. Moreover, knowing that there are other better history books on the market, I would probably not recommend this book.