Book Review

The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History by J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill takes a broad look at human history from its very beginnings to the modern era. The authors are both professors of history, although with slightly different specializations. J. R. McNeill specializes in environmental history and his father William H. McNeill focuses on the history of Western Civilization. Their book does not limit itself to just environmental history and Western civilization, however. It might seem as though the authors may not be qualified to write about Asian and American history, but the book is so broad and general that this worry may be unnecessary.

The book seems to be written for the casual reader, someone who is not a historian. There is not a focus on small details, which at times is good but at other times leaves the reader looking for more. One example of this is when the authors write about the benefits of urbanization on page 50, “Except where mountains or marshes obstructed external attack, local groups of farmers could not match the organized violence that pastoralists and urban-based professional soldiers routinely exerted.” This is typical of the very general statements in the book that do not include specific examples to support the claim. In the authors’ defense, the book is meant to be a broad overview of history and providing specific examples for every claim would make the book excessively long.

Another example of the lack of detail in the book can be taken from its coverage on the empire of Alexander the Great (382-336 BC), which is limited to a few paragraphs. In class, more detail was given, for example Alexander’s education with Aristotle and how he founded new cities. An even more striking example of this comes from the book’s treatment of the arrival of Hernán Cortés to South America. The book’s coverage of the topic is limited to “The Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés, with a few hundred men, the help of Aztec enemies, and a raging epidemic of smallpox, brought down the Aztec empire in 1519-21.” In class, much more detail was provided. For example, more detail was given about his translator La Malinche and how he took Moctezuma prisoner.

The authors introduce the idea of webs that connect the world. This is a major theme of the book, and the authors devote considerable time into explaining how this idea of webs works. Their idea of webs is outlined in the introduction, where they say that a web “is a set of connections that link people to one another.” They go on to give examples of these connections, which include “chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition.” Each chapter in the book supports this idea of webs, and the end of each section and chapter conclusions summarize how the content relates to the idea of webs.

The Human Web starts with a look at the early history of humans and their move out of Africa. The next section of the book is about the development of agriculture 11,000-3,000 years ago. Next, the authors tackle early civilizations from 3500 BC to AD 200. In the next section, the authors explain how webs were formed from AD 200 to 1000. The next chapter focuses on how these webs grew stronger, tying the world more together between 1000 to 1500. In the next chapter, which deals with the time period from 1450 to 1800, the authors show how “the peoples of the earth increasingly formed a single community.” The following chapter looks at the world from 1750 to 1914, and the one after that takes the dates from 1890. The last chapter gives the authors’ opinions on “big pictures and long prospects.”

One of the major themes of the course was how the environment and history are intertwined. As an environmental historian, J. R. McNeill brings some of these themes into the book. For example, in the chapter “Thickening Webs,” the authors write about how colder temperatures in Europe led to crop failures and famine. These ideas were thoroughly explored in class, and generally covered in the book, although not in as much detail as in class. For example, details of the medieval climate anomaly like the volcanic eruptions that helped to cause it are absent from the book.

The organization of the book is mainly chronological. The chapters in the book are ordered chronologically. Within each chapter, the subsections are organized geographically and topically. The sections are generally short, which makes it easy to pick up the book and read a few sections and put it down again. The short sections show that the authors took the saying about how to eat an elephant to heart when they wrote a book on such a broad topic. The summaries and concluding statements at the ends of each section and chapter are helpful to orient the reader back to the main ideas.

The writing style is easy to follow and read, not overly academic and filled with unfamiliar jargon. The lack of detailed examples may make it hard to use this book as a primary textbook for a class. Other sources are needed to supplement the material from this book if writing assignments are to be given. One thing the book lacks is citations in the form of footnotes. This may be because the authors only give general information and not citation is needed, but they would be helpful for future reading. Another shortcoming of the book is the lack of diagrams like timelines. These would be useful to put the information that is presented into perspective.

To sum up, The Human Web is a good book for general reading for someone interested in seeing the big picture in world history. It gives an overview of human history and focuses on a few broad themes, especially the idea of webs that connect people. The book does not give too many details of historical events, which may be good for the casual reader, but makes it hard to recommend the book for use as a textbook. If the book is to be used as a textbook, supplemental reading is required to fill in some details. Overall, the book is well organized and written and easy to follow.

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