The author mentions “ancient Mesopotamia” primarily in order to

Objectively, of course, the various ecosystems that sustain life on the planet proceed independently of human agency, just as they operated before the hectic ascendancy of Homo sapiens. But it is also true that it is difficult to think of a single such system that has not, for better or worse, been substantially modified by human culture. Nor is this simply the work of the industrial centuries. It has been happening since the days of ancient Mesopotamia. It is coeval with the origin of writing and has occurred throughout our social existence. And it is this irreversibly modified world, from the polar caps to the equatorial forests, that is all the nature we have.

The author mentions “ancient Mesopotamia” primarily in order to

  1. provide some geographical and historical contend for an earlier claim about the ascendancy of Homo sapiens
  2. support the idea that the impact of human culture on nature was roughly the same in the ancient world as in later times
  3. identify a place where the relationship between culture and nature, was largely positive
  4. emphasize, the extent to which the modification of nature by human culture preceded the industrial period
  5. make a connection between the origins of writing and other aspects of human cultural development

An important thing to keep in mind about the Reading Comprehension section of the GRE as we use PowerPrep online to study is that it is just that—reading comprehension. In other words, as difficult as it may seem, and it can be pretty tricky, the test makers will always give us all the information we need in the passage to answer the question, even when the question asks us about the author’s intent, like question 11 of the second Verbal section on practice test 1.

It’s pretty easy to identify the keywords in this question because they’re in quotes, “ancient Mesopotamia.” Specifically, we want to know why the author mentions this phrase, so let’s back to a sentence before this phrase is mentioned and read the passage through the next sentence.

“Nor is [modification of ecosystems] simply the work of the industrial centuries. It has been happening since the days of ancient Mesopotamia. It is coeval with the origin of writing and has occurred throughout our social existence.”

Hmm. The sentence just before made the point that the humans impacting the environment is not just a product of our more recent times. According to the sentence with our highlighted phrase, “it,” again referring to human modification of ecosystems, has been happening since the days of ancient Mesopotamia. The next sentence further elaborates on how long it has been happening by suggesting that it began when humans began to write and form societies. So, it seems the author’s purpose was merely to really emphasize just how long humans have been affecting the environment—since all these things that happened a long time ago happened.

  • provide some geographical and historical context for an earlier claim about the ascendancy of Homo sapiens

This answer does not match our prediction. It’s trying to trick us by bringing “Homo sapiens” back into the mix, the passage doesn’t actually tell us that ancient Mesopotamia is where civilization began. We can sort of guess that—we might know it—but ultimately it’s a bit of an assumption. Also, the author referenced the “ascendency of Homo sapiens” to point out that the world existed before humans, so this reference to Mesopotamia doesn’t really seem to support that idea. All around, A is not a great answer and we should eliminate it.

  • support the idea that the impact of human culture on nature was roughly the same in the ancient world as in later times

Here is a very important piece of FREE GRE advice that you’re about to get just for googling around for an explanation to this question: avoid answer choices that make comparisons. It’s not that these choices are ALWAYS wrong—we should always double check—but more often than not they are a clever way of creating an answer that sounds good and uses keywords, but actually doesn’t say exactly what the passage said. This one can be particularly tricky, but in making the point that humans have been impacting the environment since long before our industrial age, the author never actually said that this impact has been steady or that it was the same in ancient times as it is today. And, while we shouldn’t answer questions based on outside knowledge, we can also usually avoid answers that go against conventional wisdom—obviously humans have a larger impact on the environment in today’s world than humans in ancient Mesopotamia did. This answer isn’t actually what the passage said, though it sounds similar. We can eliminate B.

  • identify a place where the relationship between culture and nature, was largely positive

The passage gives us no information as to what kind of interactions between culture and nature existed in mesopotamia and, in general, doesn’t comment on whether certain interactions are “for better or for worse.” We can eliminate answer C.

  • emphasize, the extent to which the modification of nature by human culture preceded the industrial period

Aha! This answer matches our prediction and makes sense with the fact that the previous sentence made the point that interactions between human culture and nature are not “simply the work of the industrial age.” We should keep D.

  • make a connection between the origins of writing and other aspects of human cultural development

This reference to “ancient Mesopotamia” doesn’t actually make any specific references to “other aspects of human cultural development,” unless we make assumptions about aspects of ancient Mesopotamian society the author is referring to, which we know we shouldn’t do. We can eliminate E.

Questions about the author’s purpose often prey on our tendency to want to find a deeper meaning in the passage. However, we should keep in might that it’s called “reading comprehension” for a reason! We’re not being asked to answer quesitons based on an interpretation of the passage, but rather the passage itself, so often the simplest answer is the best. In this case D does not try to add any assumed reasoning behind why the author made this reference, so D is the best answer.

 

Want more expert GRE prep? Sign up for the five-day free trial of our PrepScholar GRE Online Prep Program to access your personalized study plan with 90 interactive lessons and over 1600 GRE questions.

Have questions? Leave a comment or send us an email at gre@prepscholar.com.