It’s an article of faith and certainty among many humanistic circles that the enterprise of our species has been one of continual progress, to which London-based humorist Phillips replies, bollocks.
It’s been a mess ever since our protohominid arboreal ancestor, Lucy, fell out of a tree and died only to have her bones discovered in the 1970s and become a star of paleontology: “And yet,” writes the author, “the only reason we know about her is because, bluntly, she fucked up.” According to Phillips, humans are particularly good at this, and instances of error outweigh our better achievements. The author’s approach is spirited and goofy, and though the fault-finding can seem excessive at times, you’ve got to enjoy a book that explores weird manias (including “outbreaks of panic that malign forces are stealing or shrinking men’s penises”) and misguided actions like introducing a potentially species-hopping virus to kill off the rabbits that humans introduced to Australia in the first place. Phillips can go obscure at the drop of a hat, as when he writes of the sultanship of Ahmed I of the Ottoman Empire and the brother-to-brother succession that followed his premature death: “It’s fair to say that this did not go well.” The author moves easily from subject to subject, and he does have a point: Some of our best-laid plans quickly go awry. A good example is the endless built-in struggle of democracy to balance tyrannies of the minority and keep from “sliding into autocracy,” and it’s undeniable, unless you benefit from denial, that we’ve made an incredible mess of the planet and are pretending things are OK “when instead we should probably be running around in a panic like our house was on fire, which…it sort of is.”
Al Gore by way of Monty Python. Readers should be aware of the F-bomb throughout, but otherwise we should all be hanging our heads in shame, lifting them for a frequent chuckle.