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17 December 2001

These books could change the world

The New Statesman Christmas - You will spend the holiday catching up on important new works

By Peter Watson

“Books of the Year” is the new upmarket spectator sport. All the broadsheets, and now several magazines, play the game. By this stage of the festivities, every celebrity you have heard of (and quite a few you haven’t) has told you which books he or she has been reading. We now know what is the celebrity circuit’s favourite novel, travel book, gardening manual, football annual, children’s book.

But which were the most important books of the year? “Important” sounds a touch portentous perhaps, but some books do change the way that we think, or advance scholarship, or expose scandal or wrongdoing. The books described below, all published in 2001, were chosen after culling professional journals and talking to academics in a range of disciplines. It is inevitably a small list; even so, it is not exhaustive.

Radical Enlightenment: philosophy and the making of modernity 1650-1750
Jonathan I Israel, Oxford University Press

The author, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, argues that most approaches to understanding the Enlightenment have been too nationalistic to grasp the essence of the movement. When you break away from the nationalistic approach, he says, Spinoza’s dominating influence – above Voltaire, Diderot, Hobbes or Locke – emerges clearly.

Israel ranges from Spinoza’s denial of miracles and his relationship with Boyle (the chemist) to his critique of scripture and an analysis of the then new learned journals appearing everywhere, and he even has a section on what he identifies as the “Spinozist” novel.

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Is it likely, he asks, “or even conceivable, that any single, 17th-century author, let alone an aloof, solitary figure raised among a despised religious minority [Spinoza was Jewish] who lacked formal academic training and status, can have fundamentally and decisively shaped a tradition of radical thinking which eventually spanned a whole continent, exerted an immense influence over successive generations, and shook western civilisation to its foundations”? The answer, he says, “is arguably, yes”.

The scholarship is breathtaking. Israel has read everything, absorbed every nuance, followed up every byway. This is the kind of history book that will take a while to sink in. But the general view is that, five years from now, our views of the Enlightenment will have been enormously influenced by Israel.

The Molecule Hunt: archaeology and the search for

ancient DNA
Martin Jones, Allen Lane

This is the third major work of synthesis in archaeology that Cambridge professors have produced in the past three decades. In 1973, Colin Renfrew, now Disney professor at Cambridge, produced Before Civilisation: the radiocarbon revolution and prehistoric Europe, which showed how a new dating technique had changed ancient chronologies. In 1987, in Archaeology and Language, he showed how early languages may have developed, in association with farming. Now Jones, Pitt-Rivers professor at Cambridge, has done a similar job of synthesis for DNA and archaeology.

For example, DNA has helped explain how the Neanderthals differed from Homo sapiens and shown that they survived in Spain for 20,000 years longer than anyone thought. DNA research has provided a more accurate date for the first domestication of crops in the fertile crescent, and shown that there was also a fertile crescent in China where rice was harvested 8,000-9,000 years ago.

Whole areas of antiquity, which nobody dreamt were accessible a generation ago, have now been illuminated by DNA.

Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective
Donald Davidson, Oxford University Press

The author is professor of philosophy at Berkeley, and this is his long-awaited third book. His main aim is to show that the philosophers’ traditional distinction between subjectivity and objectivity is invalid. For Davidson, there are three kinds of knowledge: of our own minds (subjective), of the contents of other minds (intersubjective), and of the shared environment (objective). His achievement is to bring the intersubjective to the fore, and to show that none of the three forms of knowledge could exist without the other. “If I did not know what others think, I would have no thoughts of my own and so would not know what I think. If I did not know what I think, I would lack the ability to gauge the thoughts of others. Gauging the thoughts of others requires that I live in the same world with them, sharing many reactions to its major features, including its values.”

Varieties of Capitalism
Peter A Hall and David Soskice (editors), Oxford University Press

This book combines research reports and argument. The most important argument is the division of the member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development into “liberal market economies” (USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland) and “co-ordinated market economies” (Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Austria) with the remainder “ambiguous” (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey).

Neither system is superior to the other on all measures, such as GDP or unemployment rates. But there are systematic differences between these varieties of capitalism, say the authors. Compare, for example, new patents in Germany and the United States. German patents are dominated by those in engineering, machinery and basic materials chemistry. In America, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and telecommunications predominate. The German patents are designed to produce incremental improvements in performance, the American patents to produce radical innovations.

These differences exist, say the editors, because financial structures in liberal market economies demand more immediate profitability; co-ordinated market economies look for long-term stability.

We haven’t heard the last of this approach. Now that the cold war is over, and the euro is upon us, the main economic tussle looks like being the one described in this book.

The Skeptical Environmentalist: measuring the real state of the world

Bjorn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press

Lomborg has been described as “a soft-left Greenpeace defector, a photogenic blond Dane, a charming self-promoter”. He is a professor of statistics at Aarhus University, and his book has created a furore in Scandinavia; it hasn’t done too badly here and in the United States, either. He attempts to counter the environmental pessimism that some see as the defining mood of our age.

Years ago, the psychologist Hans Eysenck, embroiled in the rows over race and IQ, went back to the sources used by his opponents and created his own stink when he claimed that they had in many cases misrepresented the facts, lied or ignored inconvenient caveats in the data. Lomborg has done the same with the environmental debate – with much the same result.

It is not true, he says, that the world is heading for environmental ruin. For example, global forest cover grew between 1950 and 1994. Lomborg doesn’t deny that there is some damage going on, or that some global warming is taking place. That is his strength. He seems so fair-minded that when he turns up the heat you are apt to sympathise. He argues, for example, that countering global warming would help the developing world, but the beneficiaries would be mainly the descendants of those alive today. If we spent the same money on the immediate provision of fresh water, we would also help those alive now.

One True God: historical consequences of monotheism
Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press

The author has two main theories. The first is that we should not attribute anti-Semitism to psychological factors or to perverse leaders. Major outbreaks of anti-Semitism, especially in the Middle Ages, says Stark, were a form of “collateral damage”: the Jews were a minority in or near areas where Christians and Muslims were battling for supremacy. Once either religion felt threatened, it lashed out at the numerically weak faith near by. This improved its own solidarity.

Stark’s other theory is that western history in particular cannot be fully understood without seeing it as a three-way competition between the great faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in their attempts to govern men’s minds. It is this competition (in a Darwinian sense) that has kept religion alive much longer than would otherwise have been the case. One consequence was to delay the arrival, and then the acceptance, of science and reason.

Neighbors
Jan T Gross, Princeton University Press

If you thought that Holocaust literature was complete, think again.

On 10 July 1941, half the inhabitants of Jedwabne, a small town in north-west Poland, murdered the other half. The non-Jews, led by the mayor, killed all but seven of the town’s Jews, nearly 1,600 people. Although the country was then occupied by the Germans, the massacre could not be attributed directly to them. Most of the murders were carried out by ordinary Poles, in very primitive ways: people were clubbed, stoned, drowned, impaled on pitchforks. Eyes were plucked out, tongues cut off.

Gross’s work builds on Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It underlines Goldhagen’s controversial point: that although the Nazis masterminded the killings, many ordinary people were only too willing to help.

Gross questions the belief that the Holocaust was a phenomenon rooted in modernity. “We know very well that in order to kill millions of people, an efficient bureaucracy is necessary, along with a (relatively) advanced technology. But the murder of the Jedwabne Jews reveals yet another deeper, more archaic layer . . . primitive, ancient methods and murder weapons: stones, wooden clubs, iron bars, fire and water; as well as the absence of organisation.”

Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty: a history of the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind is published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Books Review of the Year, pp108-119

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