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J.R. McNeill & William H. McNeill: The Human Web:
a birds-eye view of human history
(Norton: 2003)

“The general direction of history has been toward greater & greater social cooperation - both voluntary and compelled - driven by the realities of social competition. Over time, cooperating groups of every sort tended to grow in size to the point where their internal cohesion, their ability to communicate and conform, weakened and broke down.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.6)

Most historians have always been distrustful of macrohistory. To those trained in the analysis of minutiae, there appears something almost indecent in the preferences of those who work from secondary sources and cover vast reaches of time and space. On the other hand, macrohistory, when accessible, has always found it easy to attract a broader readership...albeit, this also supplies a further excuse for those who wish to denigrate the form.

Such distrust, however, is misplaced. History is a broad church, and macrohistorians, quite simply, are doing something very different from those who delve into specific times and places. A comparison with cartography is entirely apt here, as in both disciplines many features can only be resolved at the right scale. Macrohistory which seeks patterns appropriate to its scales is thus entirely complementary to its traditional counterpart, and we would be much poorer if historians ceased working in this area - however dubious some of the methodologies in this realm have been in the past.

William H. McNeill is undoubtedly the doyen of living macro-historians. Following after the tendentious excesses of Spengler & Toynbee, his The Rise of the West (1963) served to rehabilitate a genre (and discipline) that was badly in need of reform. Furthermore, it was also - contra the title - surprisingly non-Eurocentric in its assumptions and arguments, and is still well worth reading today...particularly with the addition of the introduction he composed for it in 1991 - a veritable model of scholarly objectivity about one’s own work. Here, he joins his son, a distinguished environmental historian, to offer us the best short world history we are likely to get, built around the growing scale and scope of human interconnectedness - a powerful model for integrating diverse evidence and theories into a coherent narrative:


“Webs...large or small, tightly or loosely integrated, were all zones of comparatively low transport and information costs. in which it was comparatively easy to learn about conditions elsewhere, to travel, and to exchange goods, ideas, and, inadvertantly, infections....All this meant that societies within the webs were richer, more powerful, and more hierarchical than those elsewhere.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.162)

Over the years, William McNeill has pioneered the integration of factors such as disease and military technology/organization into macrohistory - a field previously noted for its overemphasis upon “idealistic” factors. However, he also has extremely interesting points to make on the latter, particularly in the area of religious forms & their social effects - many of which are repeated here in this, the most accessible of the books he has worked on:


“Animism...in effect, expanded the code of manners that defined interpersonal relations within the band to embrace the whole wide world, including, not least, relations with neighboring bands. It also cushioned collisions with the natural world by making all that happened seem readily intelligible and - within limits - ritually curable as well....[It] was and remains the most emotionally accessible worldview that humankind has ever created. Since it is shared by surviving hunters and gatherers in all parts of the earth, animism was probably part of the cultural baggage that that humans carried with them during their global expansion.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.18)

While my model for these reviews is to attempt a summary via quotation, plus a personal overview & assessment through commentary, some books defeat this, as their strengths cannot be summarized properly in that they do not reduce to a basic set of arguments. This is one such. To be sure, the argument about interconnection structures and clarifies the evidence, but - like all history - the wealth is in the individual working-out of contingent and unrepeatable patterns, while the strength is in the way these interlock in our understandings as explainable, even if not predictable. Thus, all I can do here is to sample from the McNeills’ rich offering, whilst suggesting how it ties things together.


“By about two millenia after their emergence, agricultural villages had spread like a rash across Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas and become the frame within which the majority of humankind lived and died.... In effect, sedentary villages replaced roving bands of hunters and gatherers as the basic cells of human society.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.39)

“If tropical gardening antedated grainfields by thousands of years, as seems likely, it remained comparatively insignificant for human history as a whole. That is because tropical gardeners leave roots and fruits where they grow until ready for consumption.... Without storage, massive and regular transfer of food from farmers to city folk was impractical, inhibiting social and occupational differentiation.”
(McNeill & McNeill, pp.34-5)

And, whilst the McNeills stress the importance of differentiation/hierarchy in the creation of new forms of complexity, their attitude to same is distinctly jaundiced, clearly following on from William McNeill’s earlier characterization of military elites as human “macroparasites”, complementary in action to those of our bacterial and viral burdens. On the other hand, as the beneficiaries of millennia of specialization, it would be hypocritical to deny that it has delivered beneficial side-effects, even if these were hardly intended by our “superiors”. This is a fine line to walk, but The Human Web traverses it skilfully...


“Until cities arose, face-to-face communication within small communities carried almost all the important messages governing human behavior. Encounters with strangers and neighbors were only occasional, and seldom brought anything new to local attention that required or invited changes in existing habits.... Gossip, discussion, dance and ritual lost none of their power over local community life when cities and civilizations arose. So local communities remained fundamental.... All the same, their autonomy eroded. Messages from outside compelled attention, often imposing compulsory labor, or payment of rents and taxes. With such burdens came stories of the wonders of urban living.... [As well]...connections between local elites and urban centers...drove the expansion of civilization to new ground, because local cheiftans often chose to set their followers to work producing some sort of raw material that city folk wanted. In return, they got city-made luxuries and used them to exhibit their own power and importance.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.42)

One of the major advantages of documenting networks - rather than their nodes - is that this approach forces us to consider both sides of relationships, instead of merely the most powerful and/or well-documented. The following summary quotation in particular shows how a general pattern can be clearly perceived from a macrohistorical perspective, that would otherwise be obscured by the overwhelming dominance of urban literate elites in our sources.


“As contrasting pastoral, agricultural, and urban ways of life defined themselves throughout  western Eurasia after 3500 B.C.E., trading and raiding connected each with the others...and governed political and military affairs for millennia. City dwellers and herdsmen were comparatively few but nonetheless enjoyed systematic military advantages over the village majority. Pastoralists specialized in protecting their flocks and herds. This inculcated military habits, since repelling human raiders was always more difficult than keeping animal predators at bay. In addition, pastoralists’ mobility made it possible to assemble raiding forces quickly whenever worthwhile targets beckoned. Farmers’ stored grain was a perennial target, though negotiated peaceable exchanges of animal products for grain and luxuries from urban workshops was always an alternative. The military advantages of urban dwellers arose from their access to superior (originally bronze) weapons, and their capacity to support specialized warriors.... Overall, farming villages bore the brunt.... In effect, herders together with professional soldiers and rulers of agrarian states established an informal but effective market in protection costs.... After about 2500 B.C.E. this sort of protection market subordinated peasants and sustained urban civilizations across subsequent millennia almost until the present.”
(McNeill & McNeill, pp.49-50)

Another key advantage of the macrohistorical perspective is that it is the natural standpoint from which to conduct broad comparative enquiries. And, although these are ruled out of bounds by the current pieties of cultural relativism, this does not make them disappear...instead, it allows crudely schematic popular understandings to reign unchecked in all but the most rigorous academic forums - hardly a useful outcome. Similarly, “postmodern” critiques of theories of origins can be more sensibly replaced by macrohistorical models that take for granted a lack of neat beginnings & the crucial importance of continuing processes in all “originating” events.


“China evolved quite differently from Mesopotamia and Egypt. First of all, the ritual-political-military relationships that created Chinese civilization emerged gradually from older, well-developed villages, [in which] the authority of local leaders probably rested initially on their monopoly of ritual access to powerful ancestral spirits....[And] when population growth and increasing wealth soon combined to intensify warfare...elite families, accustomed to managing relations with the spirits, organized the labor needed to erect walls, and directed their defense as well. With spiritual and political-military leadership in the same hands, the polarity between priests and kings, characteristic of Mesopotamia, never arose in China.... [Moreover] since it was local village elites that coalesced to support imperial government in China, ancestral spirits and the lineages descended from them remained far more prominent in Chinese society and politics than in the Nile-Indus corridor.”
(McNeill & McNeill, pp.54-5)

“Rice has the enormous advantage of yielding far more abundantly than the grains of Southwest Asia. Modern harvest to seed ratios for rice are as much as 100:1 even when using traditional methods, wherasin medieval Europe a yield of 6:1 for wheat was exceptionally high. On the other hand, rice cultivation was (or became) more laborious...especially after farmers started to grow water-loving rice on higher, uneven ground.... Consequently, when rice farming became basic to Chinese and other East Asian societies, incessant work in the fields shaped family relations and larger social structures along different lines from what prevailed elsewhere.”
(McNeill & McNeill, pp.32-3)

As did the advent of the mouldboad plow (and large plow teams) in Northwestern Europe. While critics of “big” history argue that such approaches are too prone to gloss over important differences, they also forget that overarching patterns such as these are only visible from a broadly comparative standpoint. As I said earlier, neither approach to history - properly viewed - is dispensible....


“The Greeks...in effect, combined the advantages of tribal and village solidarity with the skills and wealth of urban civilization.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.72)

“The breakup of the Roman and Han empires, together with epidemics and violence accompanying subsequent invasions, severely damaged urban and agricultural populations both in the far east and in the far west.... But what happened in North China and Mediterranean Europe was excptional. Nearer the center of the Old World Web, in India and Southwest Asia, this was a time of economic and cultural efflorescence...exporting manufactures, skills, and knowledge just as civilized centers had always done. Shifting military balances between steppe raiders and civilized defenders go far to explain...this: the Parthians in Iran invented effective local defences against steppe attacks, thereby diverting steppe raiders toward less well defended frontiers to the east and to the west.... Its military achievement was simple, but also costly.... Dispersed armoured cavalrymen were unruly subjects.”
(McNeill & McNeill, pp.83-4)

Hence feudalism, the dispersal of power & the incessant competition at all levels that (eventually) begot the modern world. But the factors that led to European hegemony were many & varied, including several that are rarely considered by non-experts. For example, better guns were crucial, and feudal-style distributed military competition was clearly important in their development. But, so too were several other factors:


“The Mongols carried gunpowder with them westward, and their Turko-Mongol sucessors took to guns readily. In southern India, the first recorded use of guns in battle dates from 1358, just twelve years after the battle of Crecy introduced them to European battlefields. But Muslim gunfounders failed to keep up with their European counterparts because, among Muslims, private mineral rights were never secure in law or in practice. This, combined with limitations of overland transport, meant that mining and metallurgy failed to develop on anything like the European scale.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.131)

To my mind, at least, the most impressive aspect of The Human Web is the way in which it unites information from “materialist” and “idealist” approaches in a clear & sensible manner, rendering - as it were - their dues to both Caesar & God without privileging either...and yet not neglecting their inextricably interwoven nature. In consequence, wherever you look in the text, you find sensible and coherent discussions of some of the most fraught issues around.


“Hinduism was not a missionary faith.... The revalidation of innumerable local cults and forms of worship that Hinduism sanctioned, treating any and every local divinity as another embodiment of ultimate spiritual reality...lacked the doctrinal cohesion of religions based on a limited canon of sacred texts. In short, endorsement of radically diverse and logically incompatible paths to salvation fitted well within the caste system of Indian society, but not elsewhere.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.105)

“Even though the caloric yeild per acre of both maize and potatoes almost matches paddy rice, and far exceeds what wheat and barley can provide, America, like sub-Saharan Africa, lagged behind Eurasia in developing new sources of power over nature and new ways of coordinating human effort. Eurasia had the advantages of greater size, far more numerous domesticable species and, above all, a more capacious communications web embracing its much larger population.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.36)

“The slave trade’s effect on Africa was mainly indirect.... Even in Angola, where the impact was probably greatest, five to ten times more people died from natural causes every year than were enslaved. Angolans ran a lifetime risk of enslavement about five times greater than the one Americans currently run of death from traffic accidents.... Yet the full impact was substantial. Politically, the slave trade encouraged the creation and expansion of states...promoting warlord-entrepreneurs.... It also quickened the commercialization of African societies, and...socially, it proved divisive.”
(McNeill & McNeill, pp. 170-1)

“With or without printing, the changing world of information and ideas presented vigorous challenges to received orthodoxies everywhere.... The most successful ideas were those most compatible with...greater social fluidity, with the uncertainties of the market, and with the rise of towns and cities. These ideas, on the whole, esteemed experience and observation above tradition and authority.... And, on the whole, they were moralistic.... In some ways, the religious and intellectual tumult of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries was a reprise of the era in which the world’s great religions first took hold. Then, too, increasing urbanism had driven people to consider religions that offered moral guidelines, that claimed to be universal, and that promised smoother relations with people outside their immediate community.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.181)

By putting the Christian Reformation in its global context, the McNeill’s - again - show how European “exceptionalism” is far more heavily qualified than most non-historians would assume. Moreover, they also take the care to explain the alternatives to that “exceptionalism” properly, rather than simply viewing them from our current vantage point.


“The Ottomans...used artillery, built artillery fortresses, and created perhaps the world’s best logistical apparatus. The famous Janissary corps used firearms to great effect, but they did not adopt regular drill. Their navy remained a galley navy. Their financial system relied on booty (seizure) and taxation, and never allowed banking to thrive, although they often extorted forced loans from their subjects. They had full access to information about every component of the military revolution in Europe, from fighting experience, from renegades, and from books. They made informed, deliberate choices when not creating a navy of sailing ships and avoiding drill.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.196)

To sum up, The Human Web is a marvellous achievement...well-written, clear, and amazingly concise for such a detail-packed book. The use of the Web as a metaphor is not over-worked but, rather, provides the crucial structuring approach that allows the McNeill’s to integrate the entirety of human history into a narrative that makes compelling sense. And, although I have only been able to touch upon some of its high points here, they should at least have indicated the quality and accessibility of the work. And...should this prove to be William McNeill’s final substantial publication, he will go out on a high note, which amply deserves the widest readership...


“The first people to make [fossil fuels] central to to their economy were the Dutch, who burned peat to heat their homes and fuel industries such as brewing, brickmaking, sugar refining, or glassmaking (but not metalurgy, for which a peat flame was not hot enough).... This gave the Netherlands a unique advantage (until coal) in energy-intensive industries. To a considerable extent, the prosperity of the Dutch in their Golden Age (ca. 1580-1700) depended on low energy costs.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.230)

“Since in the past the anonymity, rootlessness, and conspicuous sinfulness of urban life regularly provoked religious quests for meaning, belonging, and morality, the contemporary rush to the cities implies a very turbulent and fertile time for religion in the century ahead.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.272)

“Urbanization and population growth stands as the cardinal social change of the last century. For 5,000 years or more the typical human experience was village life, and human ideologies, institutions, and customs all evolved primarily in that setting, although the majority of cultural challenges and changes came from the cities. Now the majority human experience is that of city life, with its anonymity and impersonal character. Past eras of urbanization, all slow and circumscribed compared to the modern one, put great pressure on reigning religions, ideologies, and worldviews as well as on standing political structures. Among the acute challenges of our time, it seems sure, is the process of social, moral, and ecological adjustment to life in the big city.”
(McNeill & McNeill, p.318)



John Henry Calvinist