A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution
Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Oxford University Press, Reprint edition, 2017, originally published 2015
Paperback, £12.99/$16.95

Albert Einstein claimed he had 'little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy'. Only by seeking out the toughest, most difficult spot, he thought, could one hope for any significant breakthroughs. That maxim seems to have been a guiding principle for One Foot in the River by the polymath historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in which he tackles some of the Big Questions that have fascinated and frustrated brilliant minds for centuries.

The title comes from an aphorism by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: 'You cannot step twice into the same river.' An ethnographer can only gather bucket-sized samples from a culture's flowing stream. Another investigator will take away utterly different samples – and yet there is usually (but not always) substantial agreement on what the whole river is like.

Applying his broad knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, animal behaviour, evolutionary theory and even cosmology and physics, the University of Notre Dame scholar boldly confronts such eternal enigmas as: What is Life? What is the thrust, or direction, of biological and cultural evolution, and what drives their development? What is consciousness? What 'glue' holds societies together? What is unique about human culture when compared to the learned and shared behaviour of beavers or chimpanzees? What does archaeology teach us about the inevitable progress (or decline) of human societies? How did human language come about? Why is religion so ubiquitous in human cultures and societies? Should we consider language as cultural or biologically based? 'The honest answer,' he says, 'is that we do not know; but, in any species, [local] differences… are almost certainly cultural'. But when we compare human languages with animal communication systems, a conspicuous anomaly arises – not only for language but for all aspects of culture: 'Why are human systems so much more dazzlingly diverse? By most counts the tally of extant human languages in the world is between five and six thousand. No other species we know of needs more than one… We have thousands of religions, cuisines, modes of dress, coiffures… The problem for the study of culture is not so much "Why do we have symbolic communication?" as "Why do we have so many varieties of it?" '

That overarching characteristic, he thinks, might well be the most obvious characteristic of humans if we were observed by the proverbial Man from Mars: 'Wheat, or foxes, or protozoa, or viruses might seem more interesting: all, from a biological point of view, have features as conspicuous as those of humans – vast environmental reach, stunning adaptability, remarkable generation. But the Observer would surely notice how [our cultures] differ from [those of] other species... we have more of it, of more various kinds, than any other creature. I think a lookout in the cosmic Crow's Nest would summarize our story in a single word: Divergence.'

Fernández-Armesto argues against the popular views that the big narrative of human history is a pattern of progress or Providence or increasing complexity, or cyclical change or dialectical conflict. Our destiny is not shaped by scientific laws or a pre-ordained Cosmic Trend. 'The galactic Observer, however, would surely notice how the limited, stable culture of early Homo sapiens, and our species' first appearance in the archaeological record, scattered and multiplied… thousands of times to cover the tremendous range of divergent ways of life with which we now surprise each other and infest every inhabitable environment on the planet.'

'By comparison with other species,' he concludes, 'we are strangely unstable: human cultures self-transform, diverge, and multiply with bewildering speed. They vary, radically and rapidly, from time to time and place to place. And the way we live – our manners, morals, habits, experiences, relationships, technology, values – seems to be changing at an ever accelerating pace.'

Fernández-Armesto offers a fascinating guided tour through the intellectual landscape surrounding these questions, entertaining and informing the reader with hundreds of side-lights on intellectual and cultural history. But though our author may try mightily, in the end don't be disappointed if he cannot explain the unexplainable, ponder the imponderable, or unscrew the inscrutable.
Richard Milner