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

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

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 conventional history a particular, heroic cadence oriented around individual lives and personal conflicts.

We are in love with our cult of personality. But it isn’t plausible think that a hundred, thousand or even ten thousand individuals have shaped our species.

On the other, hand wood really might have.

The observation has been made[1] about sheep, or wheat, that they domesticated homo sapiens and not vice versa: these are amusing contrarian ideas with perhaps an element of truth (but they are better examples of the dynamic nature of complex systems where everyone co-domesticates everyone else). But it is far truer of wood: you can only eat wheat, and its domestication began only a few short millennia ago. About ten.

Wood has been — ahh — part of the furniture a little while longer than that: since — well, since we came down from the trees, we have lived in it, sheltered under it, made tools and weapons out of it, burned it as fuel, and travelled in it. It is strong, flexible, combustible, shapable, carvable, and it doesn’t melt. It 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?

Wood’s ubiquity, 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.

See also

References

  1. Yuval Harari for certain, and it’s the sort of thing Richard Dawkins would say, when not trolling Christians, too.