THE AXEMAKER'S GIFT: A Double-Edged History of Human Culture by James & Robert Ornstein Burke

THE AXEMAKER'S GIFT: A Double-Edged History of Human Culture

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A Cook's tour of humankind's great innovations and the glories and tribulations that came in their wake. Burke (The Day the Universe Changed, 1986, etc.) is a master storyteller of the big picture: the origin of Western attitudes and institutions, and how technology shapes destiny, are a couple of his earlier efforts. Here he and psychologist Ornstein (The Roots of the Self, 1993, etc.) chronicle those achievements that allowed humans to make great leaps forward. And they do go back, all the way to the first stone tools of ancient hominids. Some of the axemakers' (people whose inventions shaped our world and our minds) big ""gifts"": the protohorticultural societies, the hydraulic civilizations, the first laws and alphabets, printmaking, the discovery of the New World, medical advances, the Industrial Revolution, the computer age. Each of these gifts causes major ripples in the prevailing institutions, opens new vistas, makes life a little easier (at least for some folks), and the authors do an excellent job outlining the dynamics and tensions they arouse. But each gift also exacts a price, be it rigid hierarchies, slavery, or grotesque environmental degradation; furthermore, in every instance, these gifts have increasingly distanced the axemakers and their governmental masters from the general population. We now find ourselves at a precarious historical juncture, say the authors, with a vulnerable agricultural base, population numbers run amok, a trashed environment, and a citizenry out of touch with how the world works and relying on the axemaker's quick fixes. Their Rx, in miniature: Concentrate on small-scale communities, indigenous knowledge, and participatory democracy; use the computer to gain access to the web of knowledge already available. Hardly original, but Burke and Ornstein are quick to admit it. The beauty of this book lies in the conjuring of those innovative moments, beautifully woven, entertaining vignettes that explain where the changes came from, the trouble they caused, and where they led.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1995
ISBN: 0874778565
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Grosset/Putnam