The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped the Whole of Human History

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It’s hard to think of a better example of the importance of narrative in recounting history — not just in engaging a reader, and providing a different perspective, but in shaping the history itself. We are used to the histories of kings and queens, of famous men, of villains, of heroines, of civilisations, of conquest and expiration. This gives it a particular, heroic cadence oriented around individual lifespans and personal conflicts. When you stop and think about it, it is implausible think that a hundred, thousand or even ten thousand individuals have shaped a species.

Wood might have, however. The observation has been made about sheep, or wheat, that it domesticated homo sapiens and not vice versa: these are amusing cointrarian ideas; it is far more plausibly true with wood, a material we have lived in, sheltered under, made tools out of, burned and travelled in from the dawn of human race. Wood may have even triggered the evolution of consciousness: apes, manoeuvering through the treetops, needed a concept of “self”, because their bodies changed the world around them by bending the branches they stood upon. That is a profound thought. Those hailing the incipient triumph of the machines might consider how that differs from conditions for evolution of a neural network. What is the “bending branch” that will prompt a learning machine into self-reflection?

The ubiquity of wood, its adaptability for almost any task and its resilience — not just as a material, but as compared to any other material, up to the present day — makes for fascinating reading. Ennos repeatedly confronts and rebuts conventional wisdom with deep observations, often on topics that seem well-removed from wood. For example, how an abundance of wood has been not an accelerant of civilisation but a retardant: If you have all the wood you need you are not forced to improvise, to fix and make do, to use what you have in creative and unconventional ways to make things better — from which impulse comes innovation.