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The Human Web: a Bird's-Eye View of World History.

J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill

W.W. Norton and Company 368 pp. 19.95 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 393 05179 X.

INTERCONNECTEDNESS IS THE THEME of this impressive and thoughtful account of human development, an account that is unusually effective because of its success in coveting regions other than the 'West'. The McNeills, father and son, begin by considering the distinctive character of the human condition: this species alone created a world of symbolic meanings, capable both of exceedingly rapid evolution and also of coordinating the behaviour of large numbers of individuals. Language was the most important breakthrough, although dance, ritual and art were also important. Communication helped early humans to form larger but still cohesive groups and this permitted them to spread across the earth, responding to a large range of environments, not least by developing grain farming, Thereafter, customary rural routines transmitted knowledge and skills from generation to generation in an intensive web of face-to-face communication that was embedded in a more tenuous far-flung web made up of traders, missionaries, professional warriors and skilled artisans.

In turn, the development of urban life within this web helped create variety in circumstances and tensions. The McNeills note parallels. They argue that the civilisations of North and South America, Mesopotamia, and China all began when local elites, enjoying special access to the supernatural, organised large-scale agricultural and artisanal effort to ward off divine displeasure. Priestly management was eventually subordinated to militarised leaders, who extended imperial leadership. The McNeills argue that parallels reflect the degree to which the dense webs of interaction that grew up in favoured locations produced the same kinds of pressures to regulate and defend agricultural societies. There was, however, a major contrast between the Americas and the Old Europe, in that the former did not have the same range of domesticable animals, and thus generated less wealth.

Between 1450 and 1800, the world's separate webs fused, speeding up the transfer of technologies and urbanisation and encouraging the prominence of the sea in defining human communities. As the authors point out, Bolivian miners could put Bavarian ones out of business, while Bengalis smoked Brazilian tobacco. In the nineteenth century, in large part due to technological developments, especially steamships and the telegraph, the pace of intercommunication accelerated, but change brought instability, not least the tension between globalisation and nationalism. This helped determine the history of the last century, although, in addition, population growth accentuated the problems of adjusting to the pressures of big city life. The McNeills argue that, while technology and other forces hastened integration within the web in the twentieth century, politics at times brought disintegration. Thus the First World War and the response to the Depression of the 1930s hit globalisation in the shape of international migration, trade and capital flows, although they revived powerfully after 1945 in the Western world. The conclusions are sobering in that both authors emphasise instability and the likelihood of catastrophes. William McNeill asks how long all the complex flows sustaining us will endure, and, in this, he refers to flows not just of food and energy, but also of meanings, hopes and aspirations.

Much, of course, is missing. Those interested in developments in the arts will be particularly disappointed, but, as a clear and coherent work that engages successfully with both the variety of developments and the value of theory, it is difficult to beat this book.
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Author:Black, Jeremy
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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