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. )

Apparently not yet wearied of the historical adventure, though perhaps cautious of the grinding demands of creating a meaningful and …

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