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 Students in general do not develop high tolerances to lengthy and thorough historical documents, and because this work is constantly reminding the readers of its thesis, it does a good job in keeping the reader’s attention.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.

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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.

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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:

https://ay16.moodle.umn.edu/mod/resource/view.php?id=1470479