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The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-first Century.

David Fromkin The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-first Century. Knopf, 253 pages, $25

Here, in a brisk but never breathless telling, is the story of man--how he came to be, how he made the world, and how he has remade it to suit his changing self, over and over again. It's the story of who we are, where we have been, and, in its concluding, speculative chapters, where we may be going. The teller is David Fromkin, a professor of international relations, history, and law at Boston University, and a sometimes contributor to these pages. He's an optimist, a believer in progress, an unashamed champion of Western ideals. He's sane. He's trustworthy. He's eminently intelligible. He applies his broad brush with measured, confident, upward-leading strokes. He is, in short, a refreshing, even necessary, antidote to all those fevered end-time fantasists whose only plausible scenario for man is to send him, banging and whimpering and unredeemed, over the edge and into the abyss.

Fromkin organizes his universal history into eight chapters, each documenting one of the "giant steps" we took on the long road to the present. Four steps were taken in the deepest human past: we evolved into homo sapiens, developing the "traits of mind, heart, and body" that separated us from our hominid ancestors; we discovered agriculture, domesticated animals, and built the first cities; we developed a conscience, instituting law, religion, and philosophy; we created great empires, especially in Europe. Four further steps were taken in our own millennium: Europe "achieved rationality," developed its "distinctive mentality" and revolutionized science, technology, and industry. Two, Europe discovered the world, and conquered it with culture. Three, beginning in the eighteenth century, science, technology, and industry made marvelous leaps forward and we of the West became moderns. Finally, led by its freshest invention, the United States of America, the West moved steadily toward democratic government, decolonization, and world law.

"Ancient history" writes Fromkin, "is the story of how the human race experimented, invented civilizations, and then created more and more of them. Modern history is a tale of elimination rounds, with the number of civilizations contracting until only one"--Western, or American, civilization --"remained." The story of the near future --the subject of Fromkin's final four chapters--will be that of mankind's stuggle "to adapt to the requirements ... and cope with the consequences of the functioning ... of the sole surviving civilization."

Is the glue that binds this global civilization together strong enough to hold? And now that the Americans have remade the world in their own image, will "the ideas and the principles the United States has championed survive the strains and challenges of reality"? Yes, Fromkin smiles, "the world is in luck." The United States desires permanent peace; its ways of insuring peace are swift, effective, and just; and "continuing American leadership, like it or not, seems to be what the world has got" The smile is triumphant, but it's not completely untroubled; it's the smile of Noah, the world his ark. "We're all in the same boat" Fromkin writes. "It may be a seaworthy boat; but it would be less worrisome if there were more than one."

Editor's note: We wish to call our readers' attention to the publication of The Primate's Dream: Literature, Race, and Ethnicity in America by James W. Tuttleton (Ivan R. Dee, $27.50). Portions of the volume first appeared in The New Criterion.

Christopher Carduff reviews books regularly for The New Criterion.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Carduff, Christopher
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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