Book Review

Globalization has become a massive subject in both the economic and political arena. Differing cultures have become more and more interdependent through things such as increased international trade as well as the development of social media. As this interconnection increases, it is important to understand the causes of its development and how it has already shaped history. The history and environmental impact of this expansion of human interconnectivity is beautifully articulated in The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History would be highly beneficial to any classroom or reader who is interested in world history as it pertains to the environment.

It is written by J.R. McNeill and his late father, William H. McNeill. J.R. is a professor of world history, environmental history, and international history at Georgetown and has written multiple books on both world history and the environment.  His father William, a renowned historical author, was a professor of history at The University of Chicago from 1947 until his death in 2016. He published over 20 books and is best known for his works: The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963) and Plagues and People. His work also earned him the National Humanities Medal which was presented to him by President Obama in 2010. As one can see, these authors are highly credentialed and their work on this book lives up to their reputation.

J.R. and William McNeill begin the work with an introduction to the idea of a “web” which they define as “a set of connections that link people to one another [such as] chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic competition, [and] military competition” (3).  The thesis of the work is that “the exchange of… information, items, and inconveniences, and human responses to them [within the web], is what shapes history” (4). To support this thesis, the work is split into eight chapters each dealing with a certain timeframe. This efficiently breaks up each time frame and expansion of the human web to be much easier to understand as it is able to break down the concept into smaller, more comprehensible arguments. The structure of each chapter is also quite helpful as it begins by building upon the ideas expressed at the end of the previous chapter but then builds upon it

“The Human Apprenticeship” covers the evolution of early hominids like Homo erectus and the development of tools such as the hand-axe as well as the early social structures of hunter gatherer groups (0.2 mya – 11,000 b.c.).  “Shifting to Food Production, 1100-3500 b.c.” is devoted to the rise of agriculture and the shift from nomadic to sedentary life and the resulting societal changes It produced. Next, it covers the creation of the first great civilizations in “Webs and Civilizations in the Old World, 3500 b.c. – 200 c.e.” such as ancient Sumer, the Indus River Valley civilization, and the Roman empire. This also covered the development of trade and an expanding web between civilizations such as the development of trade amongst the Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The fourth chapter, “The Growth of Webs in The Old World and the Americas, 200-1000 c.e.” covers the consolidation of the web developed by the trade and interconnection of the old world empires including the development of the silk road and greater trade between the east and the west through both the silk road through Central Asia and the spice trade throughout the Indian and Southeast Asian Oceans. Building upon the fourth chapter, “Thickening Webs, 1000-1500” details the growth of these webs from 1100 to 1500 which encompassed the age of discovery as well as the first contact between Europe and the New World which begins the entrance into a singular human web. The McNeills move on to further their development of the human web with “Spinning the Worldwide Web, 1450-1800”. In this chapter, they deal with the consolidation of this global human web through the age of exploration and conquests of the new world as well as the creation of vast empires such as the British and the French. Building upon the foundation of this web of empires, the authors examine the impacts of the solidification of this global web from the economic explosion of the Industrial Revolution, to the boom in population, the development of modern politics, and the beginning of the First World War in “Breaking Old Chains, Tightening the New Web (1750-1914). But after the solidification of the web, the McNeills examine the stressors put upon it by the development of new technology such as better communications and transfer of scientific knowledge and the effects of urbanization in “Strains on the Web: The World Since 1890”. It also examines the partial collapse of the web from the Second World War and its resurgence after the creation of the Bretton Woods system which created institutions such as the IMF, the UN, and WTO so as to unite the free world against communism. In the final chapter, “Big Pictures and Long Prospects”, the McNeills end with an advisement that as this web becomes more and more interconnected, it must become more cognizant of its own actions and how they affect the future.

The composition of the work is very readable and is written in terms that people who aren’t historians could understand. It is well organized, with each topic divided into subtopics which can be easily found within the table of contents. This efficiently breaks up each time frame and expansion of the human web to be much easier to understand as it is able to break down the concept into smaller, more comprehensible arguments. The structure of each chapter is also quite helpful as it begins by building upon the ideas expressed at the end of the previous chapter but then builds upon it to further substantiate the thesis. It also supplies extensive evidence to support its arguments without going to the point of losing the reader’s interest. Another feature which drastically helps the reader is the inclusion of multiple maps and charts to supplement the evidence provided. This allows the reader to visualize the concepts introduced by the reading and keeps more visual learners interested.

As a resource for teaching or for recreational reading, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History, is a fantastic option. It is easily readable for almost any audience, supplies multitudes of relevant evidence, and maintains a structure that is both informative yet entertaining.

 

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