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Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization. To the author, Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a society's relationship to climate, geography, and ecology are paramount i Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization. To the author, Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a society's relationship to climate, geography, and ecology are paramount in determining its degree of success. "Unlike previous attempts to write the comparative history of civilizations," he writes, "it is arranged environment by environment, rather than period by period or society by society." Thus, for example, tundra civilizations of Ice Age Europe are linked with those of the Inuit of the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi Mound Builders with the deforesters of eleventh-century Europe. Civilizations brilliantly connects the world of ecologist, geologist, and geographer with the panorama of cultural history.


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Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization. To the author, Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a society's relationship to climate, geography, and ecology are paramount i Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization. To the author, Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a society's relationship to climate, geography, and ecology are paramount in determining its degree of success. "Unlike previous attempts to write the comparative history of civilizations," he writes, "it is arranged environment by environment, rather than period by period or society by society." Thus, for example, tundra civilizations of Ice Age Europe are linked with those of the Inuit of the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi Mound Builders with the deforesters of eleventh-century Europe. Civilizations brilliantly connects the world of ecologist, geologist, and geographer with the panorama of cultural history.

30 review for Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

  1. 4 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for the “geography is destiny’ cry of the determinists, he also quickly pulls that argument down. In Armesto’s vision, the geography a civilization finds itself in, or the latitude to be more accurate, is not a determining factor in its history, but a limiting factor in their growth. It is something to be overcome, a basic tenet of the ‘civilizing impulse’ that Armesto believes is a part of all of mankind - the desire to modify the environment as much as possible. To show that geography can be transcended thus, he takes us on a long tour that encompasses all the major geographic niches that the earth has to offer - spanning the frigid snow-lands, the arid deserts, the sultry tropics, the gloomy marshes, the cloudy highlands, the loamy riversides, the stormy coastal areas and the lonely islands - and shows magnificent examples of stunning civilizational attempts that flourished and faded on those vastly different habitats in every latitude of the world. The current predominance of certain civilizations is less than a few centuries old, and could just be a freak of history; after all quite a few civilizations that were less strategically placed geographically have had longer reigns in the past. Armesto makes a compelling case and argues that a lot of things go into the cauldron that spawns civilization and to limit the explanation to any single ingredient is clearly an over simplification. But then, Armesto too is a historian and like all historians, unfortunately, he cannot avoid trying to construct a story that can explain the present from the past. Why write a history book if it has no thesis to offer on how things got this way? So Armesto proposes his own counter-thesis: Though he struggles throughout the book to avoid any kind of determinism, he goes on to admit in his concluding argument that “geography, in the broadest sense, the palpable realities of the planet, the exigencies of nature, the soils and seeds, the winds and waves has shaped the world presented in these pages.” He says that even though civilizations might have grown out of their environments of origin, they have been borne by the wind. This forms his principal argument of the book, and it takes shape only at the very end, catching the reader by surprise, after lulling him into the belief that civilizations are a chaotic emergent phenomena of complex human interactions. I would have liked him to stop there and I really don’t buy his causation arguments that make up the last 100 odd pages of the book. But, they are still compelling and thought-provoking and deserves to be presented too. The crux of Armesto’s final argument then is that instead of the 10,000 BC that Diamond takes to be the point of divergence that led to the current state of the world, Armesto chooses 1490 AD (or the 1490s) as the diverging year that scripted the story of modern colonizations and formed our present. Armesto claims that the unique location of the ‘Western Civilization”, which he prefers to call the “Atlantic Civilization” along with their extremely fine timing to choose their moment for civilizational expansion was what contributed to their world domination - a case of luck and industry going hand in hand. The Europeans, he argues, were always backward in terms of technology, especially sea-faring tech, in comparison to China, India and even the Ottomans,.While they had trade across the Mediterranean (inherited from the Romans), the Atlantic was largely an unexplored territory even while the Indian Ocean had established itself as the preeminent, busiest and most profitable trade route in history. This was due to the fact that the civilizations that rimmed the Indian Ocean enjoyed the Monsoon winds which helped in promoting trade and making travel safe, fast and orderly, with its cyclic nature and seasonal reversal - aiding ships to and fro in their travels. The unidirectional and turbulent winds of the Atlantic were much harder to decode, especially by sailors anxious about how they would ever make it back if they hitched a ride on these winds that never returned. Armesto claims that the Indian Ocean was so busy and so rewarding that it used up all the available resources (ships) in its own internal trade and the rich nations there had no reason to risk the treacherous voyage to the Atlantic and to Western Europe. The Western Europeans on the other hand, wanted to be in on the high-return trade of the Indian Ocean and was willing to take risks, and over time they decoded the cipher that is the Trade Winds of the Atlantic and eventually learned how to link the two wind systems (trade winds and the monsoon) when Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut. Armesto says: That may be the simple reason why Vasco da Gama appeared in Calicut, before an Indian or Arab or Chinese or Indonesian merchant "discovered" Europe by sea, despite the superior equipment and longer tradition enjoyed by the seafarers of the East. It was not because of any superiority on the Europeans part but, on the contrary, because of the urgings of a kind of inferiority: laggards have to catch up. In pursuit of the kind of advice Lazarillo de Tormes got from his mother, “the relatively poor reach out to the relatively rich in the hope that something will rub off” This along with Columbus linking Europe to the New World set in motion the period in which Atlantic took over as the oceanic center of trade, catapulting all the countries on its rim (Armesto calls them the Rimlands) first into financial security, then trade dominance, then imperial eminence and finally into a common civilizational bowl. This western civilization coalesced into a single gel and then set about trying to remake the rest of the world in its image, borne by the new-found winds, and fueled by missionary zeal; infecting the coastal regions first and gradually encroaching inwards. The consequence was the creation of a single Atlantic civilization which spanned both shores of the ocean. In the seventeenth century, this inchoate civilization came to embrace North as well as Central and South America, and Africa as well as Europe, steadily seeping into the rest of the world as well. That then is Armesto’s thesis, except for the concluding chapter which sketches a possible future in which the power base shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, thus altering everything again. This is not as believable since the world we know today is not shaped by marine trade as much as the world of the East India Companies. This scholarly and poetic work tries to give us the history of civilization by giving us glimpses of the images that were the high-watermarks of each of the great civilizations that has graced this world. It is evocative of the splendor of these ancient wonders, even while being more descriptive than narrative. The sheer ease with which Armesto manages to make us feel that we are traveling with a Marco Polo or an Ibn Batutta of our own, enjoying the rise and fall of Rome, pondering the mysterious disappearances of the central American cultures, navigating the glory of Venice in its prime and shuddering at the all-conquering Ottomans bearing down on us - all these experiences ensures that the laborious and careful reading that a book like this demands is entirely worth the effort. Armesto’s masterpiece leaves you with a sense that you have witnessed history in all its nebulousness and that there is no history, no single narrative that can ever be told. It can only be glimpsed and appreciated, never understood.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Tim Pendry

    Published just after the Millennium as a sort of popular pot boiler, no doubt making excellent use of material derived from editing various Times' historical atlases and his research on his own 'Millennium', the idea behind Fernandez-Armesto's book has some experimental merit. What the Argentian-born academic tries to do is to limit the chronological bias of history by exploring what civilisation means in terms of human mastery of the environment. There is a dull introduction for fellow-profession Published just after the Millennium as a sort of popular pot boiler, no doubt making excellent use of material derived from editing various Times' historical atlases and his research on his own 'Millennium', the idea behind Fernandez-Armesto's book has some experimental merit. What the Argentian-born academic tries to do is to limit the chronological bias of history by exploring what civilisation means in terms of human mastery of the environment. There is a dull introduction for fellow-professionals which the author implies we can freely skip and a speculative final chapter that seems already overtaken by events but the remaining 450 pages of this blockbuster contain a great deal of material that will probably be as new to you as it was to me. The book has to become much more conventional as he moves towards the story of Greece and Rome and then on to the creation and dominance of what he calls Atlantic civilisation but, even here, there are important insights. His critique of slavery abolitionism is devastating and depressingly true and he reports back on the 1997 500th anniversary academic investigation into Vasco da Gama in a way that suggests that its findings have partially helped to underpin his book. What we can learn from history is not so much how to predict the future - this is impossible - but how our modern decisions are often wrong because we have not understood what happened in the past (or, equally likely, are in denial of that past). Even now, in the slavery case, we have eager beaver idealists in the NGOs and amongst the Christian evangelicals causing similar harms on the 'victims' because of their idealistic commitment to issues of 'principle'. Overall, I like his conservative but humane approach to history as a complex system where good and bad things arise from each other, mostly beyond the control of anyone, rather than a story of inevitable or automatic progress and individual heroism. What progress there is is incremental and derived from blind luck and necessity as much as any other factors. The mythologies of inevitability and superiority arising from a 'win' in 'life's race' are suggested throughout to be false. The judgments of the early modern and modern era are mostly sound if necessarily selective in scope. But a book on civilisations that appears to entirely neglect the globalising inter-ocean power of the British Empire in the nineteenth century and over-emphasises the power of the United States since then has to be considered slightly flawed. As a result, the British Raj is scarcely alluded to (nor the parallel trek across the world of the French) and Australia arises very late and in passing as part of the putative Pacific World where (I think) the author's predictions are too much of the time of his writing. But the meat of the book - easily two thirds of the whole - is filled with insights on cultures and civilisation that are usually neglected in Western school rooms, covering almost every conceivable human environment excluding space and deep sea exploration (which have not constructed true civilisations as yet). Here are just some of the peoples that Fernandez-Arnesto introduced to me and which had me searching for more information on Wikipedia - the biarmians, the orang laut, the kutchi, the garamantes, the dawada and the mapuche as well as, more anciently, the hagarites. Alternatively, you might try looking up some very obscure but interesting kingdoms - Funan, Shatrunjaya, Srivijaya, Rozwi, Mwene Mutapa or the Maroon Kingdoms such as Palmares. Overall, not a bad entertainment and an excellent guide to how sensible history should be written - conversationally, contingently and evidence-based with a critical attitude to the stories we tell ourselves in the dark.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Andy

    A superb and enlightening book. The author contrasts and compares different cultures and civilisations, not by their time period, religion or other more conventional groupings, but rather by the type of environment that they inhabited - e.g. plateau, tropical rainforest etc. The book was a real eye-opener for me in terms of learning about societies that I hadn't heard of before and in changing the way that I think about how societies develop and succeed. The book is broadly of the same genre as A superb and enlightening book. The author contrasts and compares different cultures and civilisations, not by their time period, religion or other more conventional groupings, but rather by the type of environment that they inhabited - e.g. plateau, tropical rainforest etc. The book was a real eye-opener for me in terms of learning about societies that I hadn't heard of before and in changing the way that I think about how societies develop and succeed. The book is broadly of the same genre as Guns, Germs and Steel, but much better in my view.

  4. 5 out of 5

    James Henderson

    The subtitle for Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's amazing book references culture, ambition and nature. These ideas are all central to his history of civilizations, but as he states near the end of the book it is a "book of places". That is an overriding theme that is underscored by the many diverse civilizations that he discusses. Thus the book is a history of civilizations, not one civilization; and it is also about the power and ambition of mankind that he uses to tame geography, ecology, climate a The subtitle for Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's amazing book references culture, ambition and nature. These ideas are all central to his history of civilizations, but as he states near the end of the book it is a "book of places". That is an overriding theme that is underscored by the many diverse civilizations that he discusses. Thus the book is a history of civilizations, not one civilization; and it is also about the power and ambition of mankind that he uses to tame geography, ecology, climate and other animals to form cities. Although, the author argues in his introduction that cities are not a necessary condition of civilization no matter how frequently they have been associated with the rise of civilization in history. Like all history the book presents an empirical argument with examples of civilizations from grasslands and forests, arid and rain-filled climates, highlands and ocean-based areas. It is a tribute to the intelligence and adaptability of man that civilizations can be found in places as disparate as the Andes and the Aegean; the Euphrates and post-glacial European forests; the Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers of Asia; and other places. The result of Civilizations wide-ranging, through time and geography, ruminations and revelations is a book that is informative and thoughtful. Undoubtedly controversial at times, it is an exciting read for anyone interested in the ability of man to create and mold the world into civilizations.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bill O'driscoll

    Masterful work by the brilliant British historian that groups various civilizations not by time period or continent by the type of environment in which they formed. Not quite "geography is destiny," but close. F-A regards "civilization" precisely as humanity's attempts to control the environment, and he's very much a "two cheers for civilization" sort: obviously in love with culture and in awe of achievements like transoceanic sailing passages, but pretty clear-eyed about the destruction humanit Masterful work by the brilliant British historian that groups various civilizations not by time period or continent by the type of environment in which they formed. Not quite "geography is destiny," but close. F-A regards "civilization" precisely as humanity's attempts to control the environment, and he's very much a "two cheers for civilization" sort: obviously in love with culture and in awe of achievements like transoceanic sailing passages, but pretty clear-eyed about the destruction humanity causes. Heavy stuff, but F-A is a witty, almost Wildean sort of writer, and this is highly enjoyable reading as well as magisterial history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Timothy

    I found this book both captivating and difficult -- the author is a skilled writer and wonderfully evocative with his description, emotional language, and sense of placing everything in it's context. However, one wonders if some of his assertions are perhaps solely his own rather than verfiable as "fact." The overall premise of the book is fascinating in my opinion -- that is that civilization is a continuum measuring man's relative bending of nature to his needs (or conversely bending himself t I found this book both captivating and difficult -- the author is a skilled writer and wonderfully evocative with his description, emotional language, and sense of placing everything in it's context. However, one wonders if some of his assertions are perhaps solely his own rather than verfiable as "fact." The overall premise of the book is fascinating in my opinion -- that is that civilization is a continuum measuring man's relative bending of nature to his needs (or conversely bending himself to limits imposed by nature). At times I must confess myself somewhat lost -- I am not the expert I wish I was in all regions or all epochs of history. I was particularly intrigued by his scheme for classification and comparison -- selecting civilizations by environment type. Hope others enjoy this book!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dennis

    An historian's look at the dialectic of environment and civilization. Also a good antidote to Jared Diamond's environmental determinism. Fernandez-Armesto is an excellent writer, and though this is a dense, long book, his style makes reading a joy. It is rich in information and detail that exposes new ideas and new ways of looking at world history. Most of his other books (most recently "Pathfinders") are excellent as well. If you want to know who you are and the where and why you came to be, th An historian's look at the dialectic of environment and civilization. Also a good antidote to Jared Diamond's environmental determinism. Fernandez-Armesto is an excellent writer, and though this is a dense, long book, his style makes reading a joy. It is rich in information and detail that exposes new ideas and new ways of looking at world history. Most of his other books (most recently "Pathfinders") are excellent as well. If you want to know who you are and the where and why you came to be, this is a book for you.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    This guy is one of those writers who says such stupid things that the few good things he has to say can't make up for it. While he shows some respect for indigenous cultures and doesn't necessarily consider "more civilized" to be the same as "better" societies, and says that things like happiness and health are better gauges for a society's success, he still says things like this: "The world is a place of experiment-- an expendable speck in a vast cosmos. It is too durable to perish because of u This guy is one of those writers who says such stupid things that the few good things he has to say can't make up for it. While he shows some respect for indigenous cultures and doesn't necessarily consider "more civilized" to be the same as "better" societies, and says that things like happiness and health are better gauges for a society's success, he still says things like this: "The world is a place of experiment-- an expendable speck in a vast cosmos. It is too durable to perish because of us. But it will perish anyway. Our own occupancy of it is a short-term tenancy: time enough, Norbert Elias hoped, for humans to "muddle their way out of several blind alleys and to learn to make their life together more pleasant, more meaningful and worthwhile." We ought to make the most of it while we have it. This may be more satisfactorily achieved by a sort of cosmic binge-- a daring self-indulgence of the urge to civilize-- than by a prudent and conservative desire to protract our own history. Just as I would rather live strenuously and die soon than fester indefinitely in inert contentment, so I should rather belong to a civilization which changes the world, at risk of self-immolation, than to a modestly "sustainable" society. Just as I would rather join a war or a movement of "protest" than submit to superior force, so I want to be part of a society keen to challenge nature, rather than submissively to remain "at one" with her in static equilibrium. Dazzling ambition is better than modest achievement. If you listen too hard for cosmic harmonies, you never hear the music sent up to god by the lover and the bard." He then goes on to use cultural diversity as an excuse not to condemn ecocidal empires, as if anyone who appreciates diversity is a hypocrite if they ever complain about violent neighbors threatening their existence. It's also pretty incredible considering that civilizations generally destroy more cultures than they create, making this about as illogical as an idea can ever be, frankly. As for the previous statement about going on a "cosmic binge", it's one thing to say that shit happens every few thousand years, like asteroid strikes or volcanic eruptions, and therefore if our societies last that long they're about as sustainable as it realistically matters (although even that would be kind of pushing it in my opinion) but glorifying the most insanely wasteful and unjust lifestyles and mocking those who are happy to live simply is completely nuts. And it gets worse. He also says that environmentalists worrying about humans destroying the planet has more to do with our arrogance about the power of our species than scientific analysis and that "most extinctions happen despite us, not because of us." And this one pretty much sums it up: "We are more likely to be surprised by a new ice age imposed out of the blue than frizzled by global warming through our own fault." What an asshole.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    This book is interesting and fun, but it very assiduously avoids making any points explicitly - the author frames it as a fun intellectual adventure he undertook without any real agenda, and this is felt throughout. So while there are takeaway points - history is complex and much of what you know about it is burdened with value judgments that impair deduction from it; the term civilization should be defined on a spectrum, revealing many examples with broadly diverse histories; environment shapes This book is interesting and fun, but it very assiduously avoids making any points explicitly - the author frames it as a fun intellectual adventure he undertook without any real agenda, and this is felt throughout. So while there are takeaway points - history is complex and much of what you know about it is burdened with value judgments that impair deduction from it; the term civilization should be defined on a spectrum, revealing many examples with broadly diverse histories; environment shapes civilizations and is shaped by them, but variation between societies in similar environments belies any determinism that is insufficiently caveated and nuanced. It just didn't keep my attention - it's 500 pages long and gets repetitive. It doesn't make any points, and it doesn't go into much detail, and each section only includes, it seems, aspects of the society that the author found interesting or romantic. That's great, and it gave the book a really nicely romantic and foreign feel while thoroughly avoiding Orientalist notions. This was a nicely walked line. But it just got boring, and other things took my attention away. I've tried twice now, and maybe I'll finish one day, but it seems unlikely. Incidentally, this is the only book I've read lately that gave me the chance to keep a list of words to look up. "Pinguid" is a nice one, as is "gyneaceum."

  10. 4 out of 5

    Neal Shah

    A fascinating book based on a simple thesis: "civilization" should be seen as a cultural (including technological) adaptation to a society's natural environment. This definition broadens the term considerably, allowing Fernandez-Armesto to explore a much wider range of societies than the "high cultures" normally found in these kinds of general histories. It makes it all the more exciting when he presents the more familiar civilizations in this context, as it simultaneously drives home the sophis A fascinating book based on a simple thesis: "civilization" should be seen as a cultural (including technological) adaptation to a society's natural environment. This definition broadens the term considerably, allowing Fernandez-Armesto to explore a much wider range of societies than the "high cultures" normally found in these kinds of general histories. It makes it all the more exciting when he presents the more familiar civilizations in this context, as it simultaneously drives home the sophistication of their adaptations and reminds us that their celebrated strategies were just one possible approach to their natural constraints. "Civilizations" is also a great companion piece to the kind of "biological" or "environmental" history associated with people like Jared Diamond, which have been accused of being too determinative and mechanistic. Fernandez-Armesto manages to illustrate the power of ecology over society while also recognizing the enormous cultural diversity in dealing with that power.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    This book was very interesting, and different, all for the way the author categorizes civilizations- not necc. by their contiguous geography nor chronology (although he does work through eras as well) but they are organized by ecological similarity- Ice & snow, desert, alluvial valleys,, highlands, oceanic, etc. And it works really well. I took my time reading it, each chapter is well compressed so that you can read it, as I did, in little chunks throughout the day, without becoming too bogged d This book was very interesting, and different, all for the way the author categorizes civilizations- not necc. by their contiguous geography nor chronology (although he does work through eras as well) but they are organized by ecological similarity- Ice & snow, desert, alluvial valleys,, highlands, oceanic, etc. And it works really well. I took my time reading it, each chapter is well compressed so that you can read it, as I did, in little chunks throughout the day, without becoming too bogged down. Good stuff.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Crystal

    I really enjoyed Fernandez-Armesto's fresh look at "civilizations" as an antidote to the eurocentric view that is still taught in school. (Full disclosure: I've taught it! That's one reason I was interested in this book in the first place.) The only disappointment was the ending, in that the book was published in 2001, so describes the future of civilizations in a pre-9-11 world. I really enjoyed Fernandez-Armesto's fresh look at "civilizations" as an antidote to the eurocentric view that is still taught in school. (Full disclosure: I've taught it! That's one reason I was interested in this book in the first place.) The only disappointment was the ending, in that the book was published in 2001, so describes the future of civilizations in a pre-9-11 world.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Duncan Mchale

    A fun read. Looking at civilizations from the point of view of the environments in which they exist is a pleasantly different perspective from the usual chronological and hierarchical progression. And the fact that the book is made up of a series of anecdotes makes it very pleasant to read.

  14. 4 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS KOBOBOOKS

  15. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    (seen in Aardvark Books in SF, looks interesting)

  16. 4 out of 5

    Arya

    It is a good book to know well the phase of human civilization in the world history.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Marijan

    Izvrstan presjek i prikaz načina na koji ljudi uspiju razviti kulturu, i, da, i civilizaciju i u najnevjerojatnijim uvjetima.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David

    A good book. I enjoyed and was informed a great deal by this text.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Henrik Moller

    Is an elegantly written defence of the proposition that "civilisation" is the extent to which cultures shape their environments rather than being shaped by them. Despite the eloquence--and length--of Professor Fernandez-Armesto's exposition, I found myself unconvinced. Like Kenneth Clark, I'm at a loss to define "civilisation," but I think I know it when I see it--and I'm more persuaded by what I see, the end result, than I am by how much jungle or impenetrable forest was cleared before the resu Is an elegantly written defence of the proposition that "civilisation" is the extent to which cultures shape their environments rather than being shaped by them. Despite the eloquence--and length--of Professor Fernandez-Armesto's exposition, I found myself unconvinced. Like Kenneth Clark, I'm at a loss to define "civilisation," but I think I know it when I see it--and I'm more persuaded by what I see, the end result, than I am by how much jungle or impenetrable forest was cleared before the result was obtained. Like, to some extent, Toynbee, Fernandez-Armesto seems to be offering an apology for the different degrees of what most think of as characteristics of "civilisation" achieved by different human cultures--as Clark points out, there's little obvious similarity between Charlemagne's reliquary and a crudely carved wooden mask, both asserted by some to be evidence of "civilisation."

  20. 5 out of 5

    Joy

    A whirlwind tour of many of the world's civilizations, this is an ambitious, enjoyable tome. The author defines civilization more inclusively than what most of us would have learned in school. In essence, it is a group of people that do not just survive in an environment, but have learned to thrive and perhaps shape it, forming a distinct way of life, and sometimes even imposing that way of life on other groups of people. This book is very comprehensive and makes me curious to read about some gr A whirlwind tour of many of the world's civilizations, this is an ambitious, enjoyable tome. The author defines civilization more inclusively than what most of us would have learned in school. In essence, it is a group of people that do not just survive in an environment, but have learned to thrive and perhaps shape it, forming a distinct way of life, and sometimes even imposing that way of life on other groups of people. This book is very comprehensive and makes me curious to read about some groups and times in history that I have not read about previously. He writes clearly, with some wit and humor here and there.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mayank

    One good reason to pick this book is if you've ever wondered about the uniqueness of the history and the traits we were imparted through our civilization and how it differs from other civilizations across the globe with respect to the nature and climate they grew in. The contents as I'm understanding, or rather, using, is that it has been broken into sections of around 30 pages or so for every type of terrain and geographical type and then discusses the way civilizations are in that type of a te One good reason to pick this book is if you've ever wondered about the uniqueness of the history and the traits we were imparted through our civilization and how it differs from other civilizations across the globe with respect to the nature and climate they grew in. The contents as I'm understanding, or rather, using, is that it has been broken into sections of around 30 pages or so for every type of terrain and geographical type and then discusses the way civilizations are in that type of a territory and discussing parallels that exist across them.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    The introductory chapter of the book blew my mind. The author eloquently relates the history of 20th century "civilization thinking" and then, theory by theory, cuts them all down. All prior ideas have glaring shortcomings, they are: self-aggrandizing, teleological, short-cited, and rely on dubious definitions of what exactly a civilization makes. This author proposes that what really drives civilizations is an impulse to separate from the environment. So far, so good, but then the book begins. T The introductory chapter of the book blew my mind. The author eloquently relates the history of 20th century "civilization thinking" and then, theory by theory, cuts them all down. All prior ideas have glaring shortcomings, they are: self-aggrandizing, teleological, short-cited, and rely on dubious definitions of what exactly a civilization makes. This author proposes that what really drives civilizations is an impulse to separate from the environment. So far, so good, but then the book begins. The book is ordered by environmental settings: ice, desert, swamp, highland, coast, etc. About two hundred pages in I grew very weary of the book. There was nothing to tie any of these sections together or the societies offered as examples. The selection seems so arbitrary that I could be reading about any place. I kept on thinking that this would make a great PBS documentary entitled "Unconsidered Civilizations" or something such. While I thought all of these societies were interesting the intervention of the book, at this point, seemed less constructive than illustrative: there are many civilizations to talk about besides the ones you always read about: here are a bunch of them. OK, I get this, but then the author seems to undercut his own writing by suggesting that some adaptions to nature perhaps don't quite qualify as civilization. This comes across in the authors tones and descriptions, and his continued comparison of one civilization to another and implications that civilizations can improve or decline. A term he claims to abhor in the discussion of civilizations. On the Arctic: "In certain environments, it seems, civilization is an irrational strategy and it is better to defer to nature than to try and warp her to men's ways." (pg. 55). Though this quote appears directed at European colonists aborted or energy-intensive settlements in the Arctic, it implies that the first examples of civilization in this book: the indigenous people perhaps don't really qualify as civilization. If the defining mark of a civilization is simply working with or against nature, in some presumably peculiar way, to hammer out a toehold for humanity, how can a civilization dim? "Tibet emerged as a vassal state of the Chinese empire….The dynamic days of Tibetan civilization were over." (pg. 270) "When it was cut off from access to the Red Sea, … Ethiopian civilization dimmed." (pg. 260). There seems to be more at foot in the author's civilization then he implies in the opening and closing arguments. At other times the author seems unclear as to his own arguments. He argues against the concept of "Indo-European" language only in order to continue to use it to categorize civilizations. He implies that Ethiopia was isolated by its religion, but then goes on to emphasize shifting trade networks. Although these two factors could be reasonably related, the history of Mediterranean and Eurasian trade is defined by religions cooperating, often while or between periods of feuding, in order to sustain the profits generated by trade. Some civilizations, such as Great Zimbabwe, seem included mostly because of their monumental building, which partway through the the book it becomes clear is one of the author's secret criteria, along with written language. While at times this links to environmental management, such as in large irrigation works, at other times in seems Fernández-Armesto is simply privy to the same big building, big territory, big art criteria that often defines the models he so detests. Or take this quote on Papuans: "They had no access to metals they could use for tools, so their civilization was stuck in the Stone Age." (pg. 248). On the one hand, the author is simply stating a fact: a society is only out of the Stone Age when they have Bronze, Iron, or some other qualifying metal to use as tools. On the other hand, after lambasting the stiff chronologies of progression that are part and parcel of conventional civilization writing, Fernández-Armesto does not hesitate to state that a civilization is "stuck" in the Stone Age. If stones are enough to make a civilization, why lament when a culture only has stone tools? Yet it is hard to avoid such traps when writing such a world history. Perhaps, then, the author should stick to what he knows best rather than attempt such a grand narrative. My favorite part of the book were undoubtedly chapters fifteen and sixteen. The author's knowledge of sea travel in the era concerned was strong, convincing, and avoided the muddiness that consumes the author's other historical explanations. Winds and ocean daring had a very strong causation in affecting how and when the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans were crossed. The comparison between highland civilizations in the Americas was also strong. Based on his other books, both the sea travel and Americas aspects are greater concerns of Fernández-Armesto, so I am not surprised that they were the best elements of this history. In sum, the book is an interesting survey of civilizations (or societies?) and how they adapted to their environments and whether they influenced or were influenced by others. But I was left with little better way to identify a civilization. If the term is worthless, which it very well may be, this book didn't do much to set it to sleep. If we want the term to be broader, perhaps it would hurt to be a little more constructive in model building, but I don't think this author has much of a desire to attempt anything more positivistic.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mohammed Thouseef

    gaining good knowledge of asian history

  24. 5 out of 5

    Abbey

    This was my World Civ 1 and 2 textbook and it was incredible. It’s not like a textbook. It really helps you understand world civilizations when looking at it through typography.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Charles Gonzalez

    An immensely impressive work. Its hard to imagine the effort needed to pull this epic exploration of human civilizations off. I have to admit that it was slow going in the beginning; as I found myself wandering around his recitations of the various "civilizations" that he describes according to his definition of civilization. Its a broad definition, focused on the a people's ability to change the world around them in order to create a viable life for themselves. Thus he takes the reader on a glo An immensely impressive work. Its hard to imagine the effort needed to pull this epic exploration of human civilizations off. I have to admit that it was slow going in the beginning; as I found myself wandering around his recitations of the various "civilizations" that he describes according to his definition of civilization. Its a broad definition, focused on the a people's ability to change the world around them in order to create a viable life for themselves. Thus he takes the reader on a global adventure visiting locations grouped according to their geographic and landscape similarities. Thus ocean, savanah, desert, etc examples of civilizations around the world from pre-history to the present day. The descriptions are detailed, encompassing so many disciplines that the experience is that of being involved in the most erudite dinner conversation possible. The book livened up with its entry into, for me anyway, more inviting or comfortable environs, the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The author is mainly optimistic about our chances for survival, his last chapter opening up a discussion of what kind of civilization might evolve in the future. In his view it comes down to either a Pacific Civilization, anchored and connected via links that have been impossible till the 20th century, or some kind of global civilization that melds western, eastern and everything in between. He argues that the dominance of western civilization is problematic given stresses and reactions against that dominance in the west and emerging areas of the world, notwithstanding western culture's and business' influence. Or perhaps none will emerge, that the current system will maintain itself as national identities and cultural influences and traditions strengthen. He highlights Japan as a model. I enjoyed this adventure, and it qualified as an interesting and valuable book because it makes the reader think about the world around him as he reads it, and perhaps question some basic premises and assumptions about humanity.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Whew. This was a toughie. I actually bought this book a couple of years ago, and had been saving it like a special dessert, for when I had time to really get down and savor it, along with Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which had read and found fascinating. But this turned out to be a no-go for me. The author is a mind-bendingly erudite scholar who has come up with what he imagines is a brilliant, revolutionary way of looking at culture and history -- which is to 'classify' cultures by t Whew. This was a toughie. I actually bought this book a couple of years ago, and had been saving it like a special dessert, for when I had time to really get down and savor it, along with Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which had read and found fascinating. But this turned out to be a no-go for me. The author is a mind-bendingly erudite scholar who has come up with what he imagines is a brilliant, revolutionary way of looking at culture and history -- which is to 'classify' cultures by their geographic/climatic region and attitude towards nature. For all I know, he might be correct. But after skipping about 100 pages where he goes on (and on and on) about 'what is culture' -- even admitting ahead of time that he is going to go on and on and on, and suggesting that readers might like to skip ahead. I mean, if he knows people are going to skip it, why include it? Then he laboriously goes through one climate/geographic region at a time, describing endless cultures and why they fit into his categories. Admittedly, he talked about a lot of pretty interesting civilization I have never heard of, which was cool. But I just got lost in it all, failed to see the point and, after skimming the chapters later in the book that sounded promising (but were just as long and convoluted and dull as the earlier ones) I just packed it in. Sorry, Sr Fernandez-Armesto. I hope some other scholars read your book. You put a lot of work into it. But I just couldn't wade through it

  27. 4 out of 5

    John

    Not the best or most comprehensive history of civilizations out there, but definitely a unique one. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto believes that a society (or alternately, a culture) becomes a civilization when it adapts its environment not just to meet its vital needs, but to allow it to realize its socio-cultural aspirations. It is his belief that environment informs culture, and that the physical and climactic surroundings of a people are the primary factors in determining what cultures and societi Not the best or most comprehensive history of civilizations out there, but definitely a unique one. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto believes that a society (or alternately, a culture) becomes a civilization when it adapts its environment not just to meet its vital needs, but to allow it to realize its socio-cultural aspirations. It is his belief that environment informs culture, and that the physical and climactic surroundings of a people are the primary factors in determining what cultures and societies those people develop, and whether or not they are able to effectively transform their environments and become civilizations. In the book he identifies types of environments based on vital factors like average sunlight, amount of rainfall, availability of food crops, growing seasons, etc. and divides the world into seven major environmental types, delving into each in detail and giving specific examples.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Finch

    A far-reaching yet narrowly focused examination of what determines the characteristics of varying civilizations, this is a challenging and ultimately satisfying trip through time and across continents as the author seeks to get at the heart of how nature and geography affect given peoples. From Minoan Crete to King Ezana's Ethiopia, from Virginia's plantations to Viking seafaring, from Easter Island to the Aleutian Islands -- Fernández-Armesto covers them all, with varying degrees of success. At A far-reaching yet narrowly focused examination of what determines the characteristics of varying civilizations, this is a challenging and ultimately satisfying trip through time and across continents as the author seeks to get at the heart of how nature and geography affect given peoples. From Minoan Crete to King Ezana's Ethiopia, from Virginia's plantations to Viking seafaring, from Easter Island to the Aleutian Islands -- Fernández-Armesto covers them all, with varying degrees of success. At times he seems to be reaching towards conclusions that are not on the most solid ground, but he never ceases to make the reader think. Most impressively, he uses a seemingly endless array of detail and historical anecdotes to enrich the story, rather than to dizzy the reader.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sumit

    Covering the history of mankind across continents and millennia, historian Felipe Fernandes investigates the role geography and environment played in first shaping cultures and then ensuring its spread across vast distances to build up civilizations. He demonstrates how human history has unfolded across a variety of geographical settings such as oceans, deserts, river plains, jungles and highlands and provides a new model for the understanding of human history and. Although some of the observati Covering the history of mankind across continents and millennia, historian Felipe Fernandes investigates the role geography and environment played in first shaping cultures and then ensuring its spread across vast distances to build up civilizations. He demonstrates how human history has unfolded across a variety of geographical settings such as oceans, deserts, river plains, jungles and highlands and provides a new model for the understanding of human history and. Although some of the observations could be termed as generalizations, the level of erudition the author demonstrates is simply astounding.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bernard

    interesting in a way, but gave it up somewhere halfway, maybe later another change

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