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The Whole World in Their Hands


Writing a history of the world is surely one of the greatest challenges a historian faces. The problems are formidable: there must be erudition, it goes without saying, but there must also be a rigorous selection of material, a persuasive structure, stylistic vigor to guide the reader over such vast territories, and some internal principle to the work that will keep the reader intellectually engaged. One’s own civilization or nation must be firmly placed within a truly global context, so as to avoid parochialism. And the author must have the mental energy to draw the work to some kind of closure that would give significance to the entire venture, and at least would suggest to readers how all the knowledge they have just been exposed to can be meaningfully integrated into their thinking about the largely unknowable future.

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History by William McNeill and J.R. McNeill is the latest attempt to deal with the entire human record. The initial inspiration for the venture, they tell us in their preface, was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. If Hawking could cover the universe in 198 pages, then surely they could do the same for the human race in 200. That turned out to be beyond their skills at condensation; but the 327 pages puts them way below what are probably the two previous most widely read histories of the world in the English language: Walter Ralegh’s History of the World of 1614, covering, in 1,427 pages, the period from the Creation until the mid-years of the Roman state; and H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History, spanning the period from the “fixed stars” to the birth of the League of Nations, first published in 1920 with 1,126 pages.

In the eighty years that have passed since Wells wrote his “outline,” the study of history has changed dramatically and scores of new interpretative disciplines have gained widespread acceptance. In many respects the shifts in historical knowledge and methodology between Wells’s time and the pres- ent are as great as those made in the period between Ralegh and Wells. Probably few historians have managed to keep up with the historical innovations of the twentieth century as William McNeill has done, and few have made so many contributions in varied fields. During his professional career of over fifty years, in addition to his detailed studies of Venetian diplomacy and his hugely successful survey The Rise of the West (1963), McNeill has written at length on topics as varied as plagues, migrations, the intersections of technology with armed force, cultures of the steppe, ecology, and—most recently—on the mobile and rhythmic arts of dance and drill. (The most recent essay of his that I have read is a sprightly and scholarly study of the potato.1 )

Apparently not yet wearied of the historical adventure, though perhaps cautious of the grinding demands of creating a meaningful and original world history, William McNeill has teamed up with his son, the historian J.R. McNeill, who has himself written histories of the Atlantic empires of France and Spain, as well as histories of the environment in the Pacific, in the Mediterranean, and across the twentieth century as a whole. Between them, they muster a formidable range of knowledge, and have written a book that despite its comparative brevity is absorbing, comprehensive, and challenging.

The McNeills use the idea of emerging and “thickening” webs as the organizational theme of their study. A web, according to the McNeills, is “a set of connections that link people to one another,” such as “chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition.” The crucial element of a web is that “people communicate information and use that information to guide their future behavior.”

The idea of a “worldwide web” being an integral part of our current human lives is of course an accepted, if extremely recent, one. As the McNeills themselves observe, by the year 2000 the world had over one billion telephones all technically able to be connected to one another, several hundred million computers with Internet access (on which ten million e-mails were being delivered each minute), and around 1.6 billion Web pages.2 For the McNeills, however, the metaphor has a much broader application.

Given the intense contemporaneity of the web metaphor in the current “www” sense, the McNeills’ use of webs inevitably suggests a premeditated march across world time down to our own fleeting present. Yet at the same time the web metaphor gives them a way to escape some of the historiographical conventions of earlier days, along with their ideological constrictions, and they have made it an inescapable part of their book’s structure and argument.

It is their contention that from the very dawning of human communities and the development of speech some form of “human web” came into being. The earliest, simplest webs consisted of people talking to one another and coordinating their activity: hunter-gatherers roamed together in small groups. Such groups came in contact with other groups as they migrated, forming a loose network that the McNeills call “the first worldwide web.” (They cite, for example, the widespread use of the bow and arrow as evidence that information traveled between these scattered, roving bands.) By the time human beings were beginning to discover and exploit the possibilities of agriculture, a process the McNeills date to around 12,000 years ago, the webs became “regional in scope.” People who settled in agricultural villages had regular interactions with one another, sharing knowledge about farming techniques, fishing, and animal husbandry among themselves and with nearby communities. They formed a “tighter, denser” web than those of nomadic groups.

By around the year 3500 BCE some of these webs tightened into “metropolitan webs” as cities began to be founded in regions such as ancient Sumer, fed by the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These cities “served as crossroads and storehouses for information, goods, and infections”—the linkage of these three elements is a classic example of William McNeill’s style—until close to two thousand years ago they began to amalgamate into what the McNeills call an “old world web” that spanned large areas of Eurasia and northern Africa. By around the year 1500 of our current era, oceanic shipping and other developments in society, religion, and warfare had led to the formation of, in the McNeills’ term, a “cosmopolitan web,” in which people were able to pick from one another’s past accomplishments (as the Persians did from antiquity) and much more quickly acquire new knowledge. From around the 1860s onward, as the telegraph, the telephone, and electrification permitted ever faster exchanges of information, a “global web” came into being, constituting a “unitary maelstrom of cooperation and competition.” For better or worse, that is where we are now.

It is from this sequencing of web formations that the McNeills derive their own evolutionary view of the dynamics of history. “The general direction of history,” they write, “has been toward greater and greater social cooperation—both voluntary and compelled—driven by the realities of social competition.” But while some groups lost their internal cohesion and collapsed, others saw the true advantage of communication and cooperation within the web, especially concerning economic, military, and epidemiological matters. Those born inside metropolitan webs, for instance, “were more likely to acquire immunities to a wider array of diseases than could other people.”

Very different groups could acquire such advantages and immunities: families, clans, or tribes; states, armies, or monasteries; banking houses or multinational corporations. Their march was upward and forward, and if not everyone could stand the pace or meet the challenges, others would swiftly enough emerge to take their places.

This vision is the exact opposite of an earlier view such as Walter Ralegh’s, derived from the Bible and from his own experience and reading. Ralegh believed that the human progression is downward across time, from initial fruition to increasing insecurity:

As all things under the Sunne have one time of strength, and another of weaknesse, a youth and beautie, and then age and deformitie: so Time it selfe (under the deathfull shade of whose winges all things decay and wither) hath wasted and worne out that lively vertue of Nature in Man….3

In their early chapters, as the McNeills seek to chart the emergence of the first human webs, they candidly admit that some of what they say about early history should be seen as no more than “plausible guesses.” This is fair enough, for they explore many subjects that defy precise research: the birth of speech and naming, the roles of song and dance in early human groupings, the use of decoration, the birth of animism, the idea of marriage, men and their dogs, and women and their gardens. But like their precursors in the field of world history, once the McNeills are on surer ground with the early empires, they are able to use ancient records and recent historical scholarship to the greatest advantage, and the range of their joint interests is given full play. When they write of trade routes, migrations, and military technologies, of diseases and communications, of tax collectors and merchants, and of the increasingly important role taken by “experts in protection”—usually men with weapons—they are consistently engaging, and keep our minds racing. The same should be said of their account of the incorporation into the web systems of peoples on the periphery, whether the Pacific Islanders in Asia, the Siberians in Russia, or the Amazonians in South America.

Not surprisingly, given the amount of ground they cover, numerous questions arise. Someone interested in China, for example, besides being glad that China is given comparatively detailed coverage, might well feel the need for more discussion of units of time and calendars, since from the documents currently available it seems that the Chinese adhered not to a seven-day week—as the McNeills seem to suggest in their discussion of web connections—but to a lunar calendar, in which days were arranged in repeated sequences of sixty paired cyclical symbols, with the nearest equivalents to “weeks” being counted in blocks of ten days. Such ten-day blocks also dictated the rhythms of local markets in town and countryside.

Similarly, the McNeills write that the spread of alphabetic writing across the southwest Asian parts of the emerging metropolitan web “transformed older social relationships by democratizing literacy” and allowed rulers in Mesopotamia to control distant provinces and develop law codes. If this is so, then why were the Chinese able to attain the same results through their competitive examination systems and their provincial and metropolitan bureaucracies while using their own complex ideographs?

The McNeills’ discussion of specific events such as the plague of 165–180 CE, which had deeply destructive effects on both China and Rome, stimulates different kinds of questions. The “ever-tightening Old World Web was responsible for these disasters,” write the McNeills, by “allowing travelers and armies to extend infections across older boundaries and introduce lethal diseases to inexperienced populations at the western and eastern margins of the web.” But, we can ask, did the deadliness of certain diseases contribute to the formation and strengthening of webs? Or do the deadly diseases spread as the result of the prior existence of the webs? It will surely be inevitable that a book with this density of detail will stimulate similar questions into many other matters.

  1. 1

    William H. McNeill, “What If Pizarro Had Not Found Potatoes in Peru?” in What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley (Putnam, 2001).

  2. 2

    Also in the year 2000, yet another of the roughly six thousand still-surviving languages was becoming extinct every two weeks. Still, as they also point out, such statistics were balanced in part by the one billion people (as of 2002) who still had no electricity, and the three billion-plus persons in the same year who had never made a phone call.

  3. 3

    Sir Walter Ralegh, The History of the World, edited by C.A. Patrides (Temple University Press, 1971), p. 144.

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