How rocks shaped Brexit (and all of history)

Continental: The land bridge connecting Britain to mainland Europe was washed away 450,000 years ago.

Brexit, ancient Greece, human evolution… What is the key to understanding all these things? Geology, according to a groundbreaking new book by astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell.

Half a million years ago, Britain and France were linked by a 20-mile wide bridge of chalk. As the glaciers that covered much of northern Europe broke apart, this bridge was swept away by catastrophic floods.

Britain was severed from mainland Europe, and the course of our island’s history forever changed. Had the link with France survived, European conquerors, from Napoleon to Hitler, could have marched their armies straight into Britain.

In Origins: How The Earth Made Us, Lewis Dartnell describes how the geology of our planet has been “the leading protagonist in shaping the human story”. The shifting of plate tectonics influenced not only the past, Dartnell argues, but the political landscape of today.

Britain’s geographic isolation forged an island mentality, with accompanying feelings of superiority, independence and a desire to forge its own path. These sentiments have resurfaced in Brexit.

According to Dartnell, political divides are carved into the very rock beneath our feet. In the US, Democrat-voting counties are clustered around an arc of Cretaceous rock. The soil above this arc is perfect for growing cotton, and so slavery was concentrated there. The region still has a large number of African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

The same is seen in Britain, where the Labour vote — traditionally rooted in mining communities — can be traced along coalfields that formed 320 million years ago.

In fact, these ancient, clashing rocks could be the key to human evolution. As mountains formed in northeastern Africa, the Rift Valley was transformed from dense jungle to dusty plains. The primates living in the trees were forced to survive on the ground, first on four legs and then eventually on two.

Even now, the African plate is slipping under Europe. The pressure from this collision created the natural bays and harbours of Europe’s Mediterranean coast, which allowed ancient Greece to flourish through trade and cultural exchanges. It was here that democracy was born.

Etched in stone

Dartnell believes that geology shaped not only our history but the political events unfolding before our eyes right now. Is he right? Historically, a nation’s culture and identity may have been determined by the land around it. Now that culture is globalised, and we have the technology to master our environments, does geography still matter?

How much should places matter to a person’s, or a nation’s, identity? The nationalism of Brexit and Donald Trump’s “America First” outlook are often seen as a direct reaction to globalisation. Why does this “green and pleasant land” inspire such strong feelings? Is it a silly delusion? Or a crucial part of our heritage?

You Decide

  1. Does geology really shape today’s politics?
  2. Does the UK have an “island mentality”?

Activities

  1. Make a short presentation explaining plate tectonics and where the major joints between the continental plates are.
  2. Choose a place that is important to you and write about how it has helped shape your identity.

Some People Say...

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Martin Luther King Jr

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Lewis Dartnell is a professor of science communications. His new book, Origins: How The Earth Made Us, argues that the planet’s geological processes have shaped the entirety of human history, from early evolution to Brexit and modern-day American politics. Environmental determinism, as these kinds of theories are known, has been popular in recent years. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was a bestseller in 2015.
What do we not know?
Whether geology can really be said to be the main factor that has shaped human history. Some might say that this is a negative or pessimistic view of human history because it limits the role of human agency and free will. Also, it is uncertain whether geology still shapes our societies or whether technology has halted its influence.

Word Watch

Glaciers
A dense body of ice and snow that forms and recedes over a very long time.
Geology
The science of rocks and their processes over time.
Plate tectonics
The theory that explains how continents move and shift against each other. It was discovered by meteorologist Alfred Wegener in 1912.
Island mentality
The idea that geographically isolated communities on islands see themselves as different or superior to the rest of the world.
Cretaceous
A period in Earth’s history between 145.5 million years ago and 66 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out.
Mining
The Labour Party is traditionally allied with trade unionist and workers’ rights movements. Miners were among the first workers to organise into trade unions.
Rift Valley
The Great Rift Valley is a 3,700-mile long trench where human life is believed to have originated.