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Did Ancient Urban Apes Accidentally Create Cities?

Read this provocative account by an Oxford historian of ancient civilizations.

Great Colonnade at Apamea, Syria (Wikimedia Commons)

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History, Greg Woolf, Oxford University Press, 528 pages

You may be struck, as I was, by the juxtaposition of the title and the subtitle of Greg Woolf’s new book. Taken by itself, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities is anodyne—perhaps even a bit sententious. But when coupled with the subtitle, “A Natural History,” it becomes a provocation. We typically distinguish between “history” and “natural history,” but Woolf contends that ultimately all history simply is natural history. As he writes in his preface (just over five pages long, somewhat in the style of a manifesto), “This book has an explicitly evolutionary agenda.” Elsewhere in the preface he refers dismissively to “the Romantic and Biblical idea that humans are in fundamental ways quite different to other animals.” But suppose that you (like me and many others, right out in the open, not hiding under rocks) think it quite evident that humans are in some crucial respects different from all other animals? Does that mean you shouldn’t read Woolf’s book?

Not at all. We humans do share this world with our fellow creatures, large and small and so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye. Our lives, intertwined with theirs, are subject to the evolutionary “selective pressures” that Woolf is keen to draw our attention to. If we have rarely or never thought of the emergence of cities in that light, we now have an opportunity to do so:

This does not mean we have to live in cities. Evolutionists admit no design, no destiny, no fate. At present it looks as if our species has existed for around 300,000 years, and we have been building and inhabiting cities for maybe 3 percent of that period….Yet in recent millennia living in cities has turned out to be a solution to a wide range of problems.

And yes, of course, while solving some problems, cities have in turn created others; that fits Woolf’s manifesto to a T. But please note in particular his emphasis on “no design, no destiny, no fate.” (Imagine a t-shirt that reads “S**T HAPPENS*” and then, in much smaller print below, “*subject to selective evolutionary pressures.”) This is unambiguous, but Woolf is not sure that we’ve really taken the point. To prevent us from backsliding, he repeats it a bit further on:

Let us be clear: there was no plan, no road map to urbanism buried deep in our brains or written in our genes. . . . Evolution is never directed towards a particular goal. If we are urban apes it is not because we were ever designed to live in cities, but because changes that our species underwent in different and (obviously) nonurban conditions have made city life an increasingly viable and attractive option. We are accidentally urban.

Clearly there’s something more at stake here for Woolf. He begins the next paragraph thus: “Some people resist this idea very strongly. The association of urban life with a high culture of ‘civilized values’ remains very strong in many traditions, not just those that look back to Plato or Aristotle.” And he concludes it thus: “Some find it frightening to think that all our species has achieved, for good or ill, has come about by chance.”

Oh, dear. There is more to unpack here than space (or the reader’s patience) would permit, but let me try to clarify a bit. First, alongside the vein of thinking about “urban life” that Woolf highlights, there is a strong counter-tradition in which cities are ultimately cesspits. Second, the old canard suggesting that people who disagree with you are simply frightened by the truth is unworthy of a historian of Woolf’s stature. Third, I strongly doubt that at this moment around the entire globe, there are very many people brooding over the possibility that “all our species has achieved, for good or ill, has come about by chance.” But fourth, even though my perspective on these matters differs significantly from Woolf’s, I am very thankful for his emphasis on the role of chance in history, and I hope more scholars (in a range of disciplines), not to mention writers of all kinds, will follow his lead.

“Chance” is of course notoriously resistant to definition in a way that achieves consensus. To convey the sense I intend, I will quote from The Big Sleep, by that great philosopher of noir, Raymond Chandler. Perhaps you recall the meeting between Philip Marlowe, the private eye and protagonist, and Harry Jones, a small-time grifter who shows unexpected nobility before he is murdered. Thinking over a story Jones has just told him, Marlowe decides that it “seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact.” History such as Woolf writes doesn’t grudgingly admit “the tangled woof of fact”; fidelity to that tangle—as opposed to the shapely accounts of “the classical world” with which we are familiar, say—is its raison d’être. There’s no evocative atmosphere in this Woolf’s book, and that is not accidental.

A word about style. “Style” is every bit as important in history as it is in fiction; in both cases, the sentence is the basic unit of meaning, and some sentences are much better than others, though of course the criteria for judging them vary according to their purpose. Woolf writes many good sentences. He excels at pithy ones:

“Cities have become our nests.”

“A network of cities can function even if the numbers of individuals crossing it are relatively few. It is what they carried with them that mattered most” (ending a subsection “Networking the Mediterranean”).

“The history of Mediterranean cities as human communities is a long one, but for much of that time they were not much to look at” (the first sentence of the chapter “Cities of Marble”).

Sometimes Woolf will give us two very pithy sentences in a row, to good effect: “Grandiose designs demanded some new materials. Marble is very heavy.” (This would have been even better with “some” deleted from the first sentence.)

Occasionally, like Homer, even Woolf nods: “The career of Alexander the Great has mesmerized later generations.” You don’t say? But of course this historian resists being mesmerized. These sentences don’t simply convey information efficiently; they convey an attitude, they give us some sense of what it would be like to sit in a seminar room or a lecture hall and listen to Greg Woolf speaking.

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities isn’t inexpensive, but it is still a bargain. Today I spent $17.04 (including the tip) on an iced latte (with whole milk) for myself and an exotic smoothie for my daughter Katy. You can get Woolf’s book for double that (or less). If you have any interest in its subject, you won’t regret the investment of time and money.

John Wilson is a contributing editor at The Englewood Review of Books.

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