Book Review

The Human Web: A bird’s Eye View of World History. By J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. xvii, 350pp. ISBN 0-393-05179-X; 0-393-92568-4.

One’s journey of learning history must start somewhere. One of the ways to do so is to start by learning about world history. This field of history does not bog the student down with a multitude of dates and names but rather highlights the larger concepts that have helped shape the history of mankind and the world. This is what J. R. McNeill & William H. McNeill have do very eloquently in their book The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History.

William H. McNeill has done extensive work in the field of environmental history and J. R. McNeill was is professor of History at Chicago University and a leading figure in the field of World History. This father-son pair has teamed up to combine their specialties into a history textbook in a way that is quite unique to the field of history.

The main argument posed by the two authors of this book is that human history has been determined and shaped by the “connection” between the people of the time. The term “web” is the choice name given to these connections. This leads one to speculate that the audience that the McNeill’s where going for with this book is most likely younger, and familiar with the World Wide Web/Internet. This choice of term in a clever tool chosen by the authors as a new way of illustrating to readers and students about the interconnectedness of past people and the affects these connections had on the course of history.

The authors lay their book out in a chronological order. Broken down into nine sections. Each of which covers a separate time period. I The Human Apprenticeship (covers human history up to 11,000 years ago) This section covers the hunter-gatherer period of human history. II Shifting to Food Production (11,000 – 3,000 years ago) This is a period of cultural change as domestication of plants and animals allowed humans to transition from hunter gathers to a sedentary lifestyle. III Webs and Civilizations in the Old World (3,500 B.C.E. – 200 C.E) This chapter pertains to the first civilizations and the formation of the Old World Web. IV The Growth of the Webs in the Old World and America (200 – 1000 C.E.) Expansion of the web facilitated trade and the proliferation of religion. V Thickening Webs (1000 -1500 C.E) The Old World Wed was shaped by the formation of dominant empires primarily the Mongols of Central Asia and China, The Islamic Empire of Southwest Asia and The Christians of Europe. VI Spinning the World Web (1450 – 1800 C.E.) This period dealt with increased globalization, through exploration and conquest, and increased power held by fewer states. VII Breaking Old Chains, Tightening the New Web (1750 – 1914) Looks at the affects that the industrial revolution, changes in political structure, and increased connection capabilities had on history and the environment. VII Strains on the Web: The World Since 1890, This chapter explores the influence of mass communication, Increased urbanization, Wars on a global scale, and decolonization. IX Big Pictures and Long Prospects.

Within these major sections of the book, which cover the development and changing of the webs in human history, the author’s cover several important themes that aided in the devolvement of the webs and where a direct consequence of the connections of the webs. These include: trade, Religion, disease, technology, militarization & conquest, natural resources, language, and climate change. Of these subtopics the ones that seemed to draw the authors’ attention more than the others were trade and religion.

As laid out by the authors it may be unfair to categorize trade as it’s own subtheme since the proliferation of trade subsequently spread the other subtopics listed above between coexisting civilizations. The religion of Islam spread throughout Asia and across the Indian Ocean to costal cities. Trade also facilitated the transport of goods and technologies of the day. We can see this in the technologies that were developed in China such as silk, the printing press, and gun powered all eventually making its way from eastern China across the continent to Europe. Trade also had a hand in the spread of disease throughout the Old World Web especially the plague, which was carried along the Silk Road between the civilizations of China and Rome.

The major topics of the text are broken down chronologically, but the subthemes or topics discussed within the chapters do not always follow a chronological order. In Chapter 5, Thickening webs, in the section Christens thickening web the authors discuss how the relative freedom of the people allow for economics & technological growth citing the a limited stock company that conquered the island of Chios in 1346. Then on the following page the authors say that until 1300 the emperor of Germany and the Pope laid claim on all of Latin Christendom, which was a time of “endless violence and rivalry” as local rulers contested such claims. The non-chronological order of the discussion does make it hard at times to clearly tell “when” the authors are talking about for a particular civilization. While this form of writing is necessary because in the real world events don’t truly happen one after another, there is a build up before the actual event. Even so, I feel that the authors do take some liberties in order to tie historical events and changes together and to make them fit into their “web” thesis.

Another aspect of the authors’ overall work that needs to be addressed in part as an issue with the work and also in just the limitations it poses to the potential audience for which the text will be useful is the lack of citation and reference material included with the book. This is not to say that there are not a plethora of footnotes included in the book and the inclusion of the further readings section located at the end of the book is a nice addition for one who’s interest may be stimulated by the author’s work, but overall this book contents are laid out within its pages as fact with practically no citations included. One glaring example is when the authors are describing the growth of the Islamic empire from its beginnings in Persia in the 600s CE, across northern Africa and up into Spain. The authors include a footnote pertaining to the development saddles for camels, which helped spur trade through the Islamic world. A few pages later the authors are concluding the chapter by talking about the scope of which the Old World Web covered and stated that around 1,000 CE the web included and connected 200 million people . This statement is presented as fact with no sourcing or explanation of methodology for estimating the population of the time. These two examples help to illustrate the inconsistency of which citing and sourcing is done within the text. I will concede that the shear amount of information presented within a world history text such as this, which is presented as an overview would be nearly impossible to be completed if every fact presented was also to be cited, but the lack of sourcing does limit the audience to whom this text will be useful.

While one can criticize the finer points of this text overall I believe that the McNeills have done a very good job in putting together a history book that combines both of their individual skill sets. The text does leave something to be desired for the more advanced students of history, with its lack of reference works and its moments that leave the reader looking for more details the authors thought not worth exploring deeper, but as a text for a beginner student or laymen who is interested in history this book will suit them perfectly. The reader will be very thankful that the Internet and Wikipedia exist and are easily accessible.

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