Book Review:
The Human Age

The latest book by naturalist Diane Ackerman is titled, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us. In it, she notes that some scientists have proposed that the current age we are living in could be called the Anthropocene—the Human Age. Such labeling recognizes “our unparalleled dominion over the whole planet.” Ackerman cites a number of surprising statistics. For example, she writes, “We and our domestic animals now make up 90 percent of all the mammal biomass on Earth; in the year 1000, we and our animals were only 2 percent.”

As might be expected in such a book, Ackerman discusses issues related to human-caused climate change. The most intriguing part of the book is her discussion of a variety of alternative energy sources that most of us have probably never heard of before. She tells of a train station in Stockholm, Sweden, whose ventilation system is able to capture surplus body heat from commuters—this captured heat warms water that is then used to heat a nearby office building. She also describes bladeless wind turbines that are being developed in the Netherlands (a country that knows a thing or two about deriving energy from wind).

The next most fascinating section of the book is about robots. Ackerman writes about scientists working to develop robots that are conscious and self-aware: “Engineers are designing robots with the ability to attach basic feelings to sensory experience, just as we do, by interacting with the world, filing the memory, and using it later to predict the safety of a situation or the actions of others.”

There is one part of the book, near the end, that is weaker than the rest. Ackerman talks about a young woman’s DNA in this part, and at first the young woman seems to be a real person, and then later on she appears to be an invention of the author. This lack of clarity is confusing and distracting. A reader might wonder if this section was written in haste to meet a deadline.

But the disappointing discussion of DNA is an aberration. Most of the book makes for satisfying, informative reading. All in all, in The Human Age, Ackerman does a fine job of presenting some of the concerns and hopes of our times. 

See more features from the March 2015 issue