J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill
J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill; drawing by David Levine


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.

All readers will have to decide for themselves how helpful to historical analysis they find the metaphor of the web. Is the metaphor, for instance, more precise or more potentially universal than such long-accepted terms as Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and so on? Does it help us to reduce our dependence on these categories, which have their roots in Western experience? How can one really date the transition from one type of web to another, or decide when something that may have web-like aspects is merely a set of temporary conjunctions, formed by chance?

Thus the “American web” is used as a subcategory to cover Olmec, Mayan, Hopewell, and Inuit sites and cultures, and to show the expansion of the emerging world web at its edges. “Thickening webs” are described as transforming the earlier “metropolitan webs” in a maze of ways in the period between 1000 and 1500 CE. As part of this process of thickening we are given a dazzling but also somewhat overwhelming series of historical agents that caused change, including rural markets, the use of the mold-board plow, the spread of Arabic numerals, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the growth of Genoese stock companies, privatization of arms manufacture, growth of universities, and the “subcontracting [of] organized violence.” “Creeping digitalization” also becomes a part of this web formation, as “Europeans imposed an arithmetical filter upon ordinary experience,” bringing a new precision to a whole range of phenomena—“time, place, pitch, profit.”

Despite the immense array of specific details that they cite, the McNeills’ main purpose is to show how a limited number of “empires” gradually forced the rest of the world into a “single community” with decreasing diversification. The reason for the decrease in diversity was that “best practice norms” came to prevail owing to the lower costs of transport and information provided within the web. Starting around 1750 there was the “fossil fuels revolution”—for example, the use of coal—which was for the McNeills parallel in impact to the transition to settled agriculture some twelve millennia earlier. Modern technology both expanded the world web and tightened it up, as the United States swiftly seized on the potentials of steam power and railways. So was the stage set for our own age. Between 1890 and 1920 the links of the cosmopolitan web were shortened thanks to the telephone, radio, and automobiles. The world shrank still further after 1940 with commercial aviation and television, and it reached new levels of condensation with the post-1960 world web of networked computers.

So strong had the cosmopolitan web become that it endured despite the immense dislocations in the world economy between 1914 and 1940, the renewed belief in the need for economic autarky coupled with territorial expansionism, and the dictatorial systems of government that came with them. From the early 1940s onward the cosmopolitan web (or globalization, as the phenomenon also came to be termed) had renewed energy. For the next sixty years, according to the McNeills’ argument, “the cosmopolitan web encompassed the habitable globe, all the world’s peoples and ecosystems, in a swirl of kaleidoscopic interaction.” Despite the “ethnic frictions” and “growing inequalities” that were part of this resurgence, the web “helped humankind as a whole to expand its niche on earth.”


At the close of their book, each author writes his own brief personal conclusion. To J.R. McNeill, the story of the human web illustrates the ways in which “human history…shows an evolution toward complex structures.” The human story has evolved through three sequential periods: first, a time of “simple sameness”; second, a period of diversity; third, the period of “complex sameness” of which we are now a part. Rather surprisingly, J.R. McNeill suddenly introduces a kind of external providence into the story, in the whimsical form of an “editorial board of life on earth.” Humankind has been granted a place on this board, we are told, thanks to its new-found capacity (with all its awesome and disturbing implications about our futures) to decide “which species survive and which do not.”

For William McNeill, the heart of the story remains the way human beings have “used symbols to create webs that communicated agreed-upon meanings.” The human species has shown a unique ability to deploy such a “capacious web of communications,” beyond even that of “termites or ants.” Yet, he argues, the human conformity to “larger evolutionary patterns” can be seen from the “exact and surprising parallels” with what we now know of the history of “direct bacterial genetic exchange.” In the deep past, he writes,

bacteria first formed innumerable living cells in the earth’s oceans, and sporadically exchanged genetic material by direct contact of one to another in much the same way that early human bands exchanged information by meeting and mingling together on festival occasions. Time and again, direct bacterial genetic exchange had the effect of permitting cells to propagate useful mutations and so adapt to altering environmental circumstances.

From bacteria McNeill expands the discussion to the biosphere:

Today, the web propagates change, complexity, specialization, and power far faster than ever before. But the human web was always one in quite the same way that the biosphere was always one….

“Such parallels are comforting,” McNeill adds, since they convince him “that the human terrestrial career is natural, however exceptional it may be.” McNeill’s final thoughts are on the crises that confront us all, as the once comforting rhythms of rural life and labor “are in full retreat” while “urbanization swells.” Somehow we need to create “differently constructed primary communities” that will be able “to counteract the tangled anonymity of urban life” and yet still find their place within the cosmopolitan web. Failure to achieve that goal might lead to “collapse of the existing web, which would bring radical impoverishment [and] catastrophic die-off.” In face-to-face communities, primary communication with shared meanings and values made life worth living for “even the humblest and least fortunate.” Such primary communities are now both necessary and threatened:

Either the gap between cities and villages will somehow be bridged by renegotiating the terms of symbiosis, and/or differently constructed primary communities will arise to counteract the tangled anonymity of urban life. Religious sects and congregations are the principal candidates for this role. But communities of belief must somehow insulate themselves from unbelievers, and that introduces frictions, or active hostilities, into the cosmopolitan web.

“I conclude,” McNeill writes, “that we live on the crest of a breaking wave.”

Such passages of personal reflection, coming at the book’s closing, made me realize how much I had missed them earlier on. The McNeills give serious consideration to many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the most important components of world history without ever really letting us know what they themselves think about the events unfolding, except insofar as they have contributed to the broader theme of the developing densities of the webs over long periods of time. People are mentioned frequently, but there is little or no sense of their emotions and their yearnings. Case studies, even brief ones, are rare. When they do appear, as with Hong Xiuquan in China, the leader of the Taiping rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century, or Simon Kimbangu, the anticolonialist prophet in the Belgian Congo during the 1920s, they have clearly been selected because they illuminate one particular aspect of web development. In both men the effects of personal scholarly failure were combined with the arousing power of a love of Jesus. And both were reacting to the effects of foreign imperialism.

At other times, when terrible events take place, the authors treat them with the same composure as everyday events in ordinary lives. Perhaps such an approach is an inevitable result of the “bird’s-eye view” of the book’s subtitle, for I assume the implications of the term are that such a view is one that is both all-encompassing yet distant, spared from the complexities of personal character. Perhaps, too, we are living in an age of people who are suspicious of emotion in their history books and are still chasing after the grail of pure objectivity. Still, it would have been interesting to know how the McNeills saw the destruction of the Twin Towers in the perspective of their theory of the thickening of the world’s webs.

Obviously in our current climate there can be no fixed rules about how much one should connect one’s global narrative to the present, or how much one’s views of the future should color the views one takes of the past. But it was not always so. For around twelve hundred years, from the period just after Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 down to the publication of Walter Ralegh’s The History of the World in 1614, there seems to have been a general agreement in the West about the rules for writing histories of the world. As conceived by both Saint Augustine and Odorosius in the years immediately following the sack of Rome, such histories should commence with God’s creation of the universe, proceed with the Fall, and move thence in a linear chronological progression toward the ultimate purpose and closure of human history in the Second Coming and the Last Judgment.

Walter Ralegh followed this traditional sequencing in his own History of the World, commencing with the creation and the time of Adam and Eve, before proceeding through the four civilizations of Sumer, Persia, Greece, and Rome. But anxious to fill in some of the space between the fall of Rome and his own time, while “omitting that of the Germaines, which had neither greatnesse nor continuance,” he included a brief discussion of the two new “empires” that had emerged in the intervening years, which he took to be those of the “Turke” and the “Spaniard.”

Ralegh was struck with a certain symmetry in this choice, the Turk being clearly pledged to “roote out the Christian Religion altogether” and to “joyne all Europe to Asia,” while the Spaniard, who of all Europeans had “spred his wings farre over his nest,” was now hoping to join “the rest of all Europe to Spaine.” Ralegh, developing his own balance-of-power analysis, was hopeful that just as the Turks were being checked by the Persians, so were the Spaniards being effectively checked by the combined powers of England, France, and the Netherlands.4

An experienced courtier, the former favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but since 1603 imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James I on a charge of treason, Ralegh had come to learn that “who-so-ever in writing a moderne Historie, shall follow truth too neare the heeles, it may happily strike out his teethe.”5 But even that hard-bought knowledge did not prevent Ralegh from writing his piercing indictments of the many cases of mindless cruelty practiced by the kings of England, and from giving detailed analyses of the evildoers of the distant past in such a way that they could be seen all too clearly to apply to the rulers of the present as well.

Just after the end of World War I, H.G. Wells also felt it correct to end his history of the world with an indictment of those who had caused the war, and of those who by lethargy, stupidity, or misplaced patriotism had failed to act to prevent it. His experience had taught him that after the tank and the bomb-dropping airplane nothing would be the same again, and the people needed to know this truth. As Wells wrote:

The old distinction maintained in civilized warfare between the civilian and combatant population disappeared. Everyone who grew food, or who sewed a garment, everyone who felled a tree or repaired a house, every railway station and every warehouse was held to be fair game for destruction.6

That was the legacy for the future of a conflict that, “terrible and enormous as it was, ended nothing, began nothing and settled nothing.” In his warning to mankind Wells went farther than William McNeill does when he writes that we are on the crest of a breaking wave. The war the world had just narrowly survived was, at best, Wells wrote, “an acute and frightful reminder that we were living foolishly and confusedly without much plan or foresight in a dangerous and unsympathetic universe.” It is dispiriting to think that the web has had eighty years to tighten since then.

This Issue

October 9, 2003