Book Review

Not many works are able to encompass and sum up history in one place, but The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History does an excellent job at doing this. J.R. McNeill, a well renowned environmental historian, professor, and author decided to do what Stephen Hawking did with the universe, and began compressing the history of humankind into a novel under 200 pages. He could not do it alone though, so he recruited his father, William H. McNeill (also a well-known historian and author) because of the amount of experience he already had under his belt involving human history. Because these authors have a considerable amount of experience working with human history, they are quite credible when it comes to the information presented in this book.

This book, being one intended for high school and college students, does a good job at bringing together mankind’s history while still maintaining a good sense of rhythm. It does not jump from one topic to another without reiterating the book’s thesis, that webs of influence are what connect human beings together and are the primary cause for the constant exchange of information that helps evolve societies. Students in general do not develop high tolerances to lengthy and thorough historical documents, and because this work is constantly reminding the readers of its thesis, it does a good job in keeping the reader’s attention. The idea of webs of influence molding societies has not been touched on very much, but this novel brings it together marvelously. The chapters talk about webs in relation to time periods and human development; The origin of humans (11,000 years ago and before), the development of food production (11,000-3000 BCE), early civilizations in the Old World (3500 BCE-200 CE), the growth of Old World webs (200-1000 CE), “Thickening Webs” (1000-1500 CE), the expansion of the worldwide web (1450-1800 CE), the severing of old chains and development of the ‘New Web’ (1750-1914), and strains on the world that affect the web in modern times (1890 –present). The last chapter is short and is composed of the authors’ reflections and long prospects.

The book itself is laid out in a well-organized manner, with the 8 chapters being broken up into sub-chapters. This makes it easier to read about more specific topics and re-read them as well in case a reader did not fully understand a concept. Additionally, the book is made easy to follow because each chapter ends by restating its thesis, helping keep the reader on track. The McNeills’ did an excellent job in producing an articulate book that is able to take topics like “New Roles for Religion” and “The Marriage of Science and Technology” and somehow connect them. In addition, some parts of the reading were made easier to understand using the visual aids, especially the maps displaying trade routes and changes in country boundaries over time. The structure and organization of the book are one of the reasons why this would not only be a perfect read for high school and college students, but make this book comprehensible to just about any reader.

When discussing the book’s readability and the authors’ styles of writing, it is important to note just how concise and clear the McNeills are. When talking about urban dwellers, it was stated that, “The military advantages of urban dwellers arose from their access to superior (initially bronze) weapons, and their capacity to support specialized warriors, trained to fight in formation and obey a single commander”. Just through this quote one is able to understand through what urban dwellers arose, what their benefits were, and what they were like. Although, one issue with the writing style is the heavy use of complicated terms without a given definition. There were a few instances when I was reading a section and a word was mentioned and I was forced to google it because I did not know what it meant. A quick and easy solution to this would be to have a dictionary handy when reading this book. Finally, when talking about how well the book flowed as a whole, I’d have to say that it flowed quite effectively. Even though sections sometimes went back and forth when talking about certain civilizations, the chapters still moved in chronological order. Also as mentioned before, the chapters all wrapped things up in a nice way by restating the thesis that webs of influence are what connect human beings together and cause societies to evolve. All in all, the McNeills did an excellent job in producing an eloquent book that is easy for readers to understand.

When referring to the major themes in the book and how they’re connected to the ones we learned about in class, I believe that a very important one to touch on is the theme of technology vs. the environment. This theme is essentially the foundation of the class Civilization and the Environment, and places a strong emphasis on the process in which societies develop technologies (tools, ideologies, government systems) to deal with changes in the environment (climate, physical geography, cities). This theme is present throughout this entire book, and one place in particular where this is seen is in the first chapter, The Human Apprenticeship, where it says,

“Human expansion around the world both required and promoted proliferation of new technologies to tap the resources of diverse landscapes. And as human bands began to make use of more elaborate shelter, clothing, and new sorts of tools, weapons, means of transport, and decorations, their impact on the surrounding environment intensified. Overall, fire was by far the most potent device at their disposal for changing landscapes”.

This quote tells the reader that human expansion developed hand in hand with technology, and it was actually vital to the development of societies that humans take advantage of new technologies to interact with the environment more effectively. A more specific example of this would be the use of fire to start wildfires in Australia to draw out animals. This was a technique used by hunter-gatherers to be more efficient in their hunting endeavors, and it was extremely effective because of Australia’s dry climate. A good estimate of the time period in which this technique was spearheaded was pre-11,000 years ago. Delving in more on this theme of technology vs. the environment, the reader can see it in play in Eurasia around 1000 CE, the greater range brought by improved caravans and ships helped link Northern Europe, Japan, and Korea in a way never done before. A quote from chapter 4 states that, “The enhanced range and carrying capacity of ships and caravans between 200 and 1000 extended and strengthened the Old World Web especially along the oceanic coasts and through the dry belts of Southwest Asia and North Africa”. Here, the challenge of connecting areas of the world that are far from each other is overcome through the technological improvement of long-range transportation. This theme of technology vs the environment is also seen in the class, Civilization and the Environment during the origins of Islam. It was Muhammad (PBUH) who began spreading Islam from 622-632 CE. The Umayyad Empire helped spread it even farther than the middle East however, as it conquered its way through Eastern Europe and North Africa. This came with conflicts of course, but the innovation of the Arabian Saddle helped improve camel cavalry, thus giving the Umayyads a fighting advantage. The idea of webs of influence bringing together different parts of the world is exemplified through this theme as well, because it is through the aid of technology that people improve how they interact with their environment and one another. Webs are strengthened because society has a general tendency to find more efficient ways to do things, and a lot of these improvements helped strengthen ties between different civilizations, whether it is through trade or the spread of religious ideals. All in all, the theme of technology vs. the environment is one that is present in both this book and in the class Civilization and the Environment, and readers are able to truly comprehend the role that this relationship played in the development of mankind. Not only did the McNeills do an excellent job in having a plethora of examples of this theme, but the examples themselves are quite interesting and memorable, and would be excellent for students to truly learn how society today came to be.

The McNeills have done an astounding job in making sure that history is as accurately summed up as possible in The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of History. Not only is this book helpful to students who have the desire to learn about the history of mankind, but it is a useful tool in outlining course material because of how clear and concise it is. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about how societies came to be and to anyone who wishes to teach this to the younger generations.

Works Cited:


Man and the Environment

Humans have proven themselves to be stronger than their environment on multiple occasions shown in the rise of early civilization. Through agriculture, terraforming, trade and animal husbandry humans have been able to shape the environment to become more hospitable to life. We will go over all of these aspects as well as go into detail on specific civilizations and how they overcame problems localized in their areas.


Environment can be classified as many things, particularly flora and fauna. As seen in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, the appearance and taste of modern foods can be traced back to human influences on once natural plant life. Early peoples would seek out the most attractive looking foods for consumption. This led to the propagation of foods that were more desirable to humans. They were sweeter, larger and often grew faster than other plant species. Through a slow process these plants eventually became domesticated as humans started to settle down and move towards a more sedentary, agricultural based lifestyle.



  Another prime example of humans overcoming the environment would be the use of irrigation. Through this process they are able to change previously unfarmable land into useable soil to grow multiple products. Norte Chico is a good example of this with their “three sisters”. They cleverly used three different types of plants in a symbiotic relationship they created to further optimize crop yields. However the influence of nature is not limited to plants but also the domestication of animals.


Animal husbandry is a skill that is traced back to the earliest of civilizations. As groups of people settled down, they domesticated animals and began herding to increase food supply as well as increase labor productions. Other animals who are now common house pets such as dogs and cats were also domesticated by humans. Cats were primarily used to kill rodents as civilizations started to store large amounts of grain. Animals like oxen were used to pull ploughs to help till the soil and were breed to be strong and sturdy. As civilization advanced the decisions of breeding traits became more deliberate. Ultimately humans have dramatically altered the natural progression of many flora and fauna and have thus demonstrated their control over nature. However, in some cases the resources required to survive are not immediately available so instead humans turned to trade to fill the gaps.


The rise of trade networks is one of the distinct achievements of humanity in response to the environment. The existence of these networks is due to the breeding of caravan animals and rise of sea faring vessels  to help transport goods and thus allowed the limitations of civilizations to be overcome. Now they were not limited to what was available to them in their immediate surroundings but instead are able to obtain goods from all over to further stimulate the growth of their civilizations. “The Phoenician cities specialized in naval power and maritime trade to a much greater extent than did the Greek Cities. Phoenician cities, like later Italian city-states, had little capacity to produce their own agricultural goods. Rather, they relied on their ability to purchase food in exchange for goods they that they traded.”1 Here in lies the greatest benefit from the rise of the trade network. Societies could exist in areas that were mostly barren when it came to critical resources. Instead they could rely on being a trade hub to bring food and materials allowing them to grow despite the environmental handicap.

Trade not only helped those who were unable to produce their own food but also allowed large empires like China to add surplus to their food stocks allowing them to further expand the frontier. “Once trade began, it grew by expanding to other goods, and it led to general prosperity. It also led to some expansion of grain production and trade in order to feed the various officials and armies sent to the western borders…”2 Surplus food is critical to many civilizations due to warfare. When large armies are sent out to wage war, plundering conquered lands may not always be enough; supply caravans are a critical part of the process as well as having large amounts of food surplus when besieging large cities. All of this became possible as civilizations began to trade valuable materials in exchange for food.


The development and maintenance of the most famous trade network, the Silk Road, was done by the Mongols. Through the Pax Mongolica they created a safety that was unprecedented on the Silk Road. Merchants could travel unmolested allowing trade to flourish.  These people of the steppe were able to rise to power due to their utilizing their limited resources to overcome the barren terrain that surrounded them. The Mongols’ ability to ride for many days despite the lack of water around them came from their use of horses. “Marco Polo reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that  a  horseman  could,  by nourishing  himself  on  his  horse’s  blood,  ‘ride  quite  ten  days’  marches  without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.”3 Another staple of the Mongolian diet, due to their lack of agricultural skills and infertile environment, was mare’s milk. The use of their horses milk to create cheese, yogurt, and their most important drink fermented mare’s milk. “If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.”4 This very much encapsulates the Mongol culture as well as drives home how critical their horses were to overcoming their environment.

Counter arguments to humans control over the environment are sometimes made with regards to shift in weather patterns upsetting the certain civilizations. Yes, weather shifts have caused humans to struggle however they have proven their ability to overcome this and much more to shape the environment to their needs. With the idea of unfavorable lands, humans have been able to adjust the land to their needs. As discussed in The The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History, “Wherever humans arrived they altered landscapes by their activities, especially by their use of fire.”5Slash and burn techniques were critical to creating useable farmland. Along with this cold conditions did not necessarily mean that humans were unable to survive without food stores. Inuit peoples in the Arctic coastlines were able to thrive due to their whaling techniques. “Whale meat was preserved by freezing and the frozen meat was stored underground”, and “Whale blubber yielded oil for cooking and for lamps that made the winter darkness tolerable.”6 Continuing on to the topic of nature’s destructive force, humans were capable of handling this as well.


Although flooding may have destroyed early civilizations there did exists other ones in Asia that were able to control the floods and dam rivers to limit the damage. In ancient Yao (2297 B.C.) channels and canals were dug to drain the floods.7 Furthermore, yes, as humans moved to a sedentary lifestyle diseases, such as plague, started to become rampant, however populations that survived passed down their traits to offspring. This would propagate immunity as time would go on and then herd immunity would mitigate the destruction caused by such things. It may appear at first glance the immediate destruction caused by the environment would indicate human’s lack of control, but given time they were able to quickly tame and overcome the obstacles.


In conclusion, it is clear that humans control their environment in a very direct manner. By influencing the growth of flora and fauna they are able to create stable food and labor sources. If resources are not immediately they branch out through trade to fill in the holes of their resource network. Weather, although often an obstacle, can be overcome by changing the very terrain they live on to circumvent issues such as flooding and drought.


1. Thomas D. Hall, Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997, 164

2. Thomas D. Hal, 165

3. Morris Rossabi, “All the Khan’s Horses”, The Mongols in World History, (1994): 2

4. Morris Rossabi, “All the Khan’s Horses”, The Mongols in World History, (1994): 2

5.  J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (New York:  W.W. Norton Company, 2003), 19.

6. McNeill and McNeill, 21.

7.  Charles Gould, Mythical Monsters,

Argument Posts

For argument posts, students were asked to respond to one of six prompts:

  1. Geography and location are the most important factors in a civilization’s development.
  2. Water is the most important factor in a civilization’s development.
  3. Humans are stronger than the environment, and change it more.
  4. Urbanization is a good thing for people.
  5. Trade is necessary for complex civilizations.
  6. The center is more important than the periphery.

The assignment began with two “first responses” of 1-3 paragraphs, each of which had to take a different stance on the prompt–one agreeing, one disagreeing, etc.

The following week, students then rebutted each argument from the view of the other.

The third week, they continued their arguments, building on what they had already written.

They then took these two sets of pieces and combined them into coherent arguments to be read as one piece

After comments, they revised one of these drafts into the posts on this blog.