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The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393051797
ISBN-10: 039305179X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The spread of agriculture, the growth of world religions and the rise of European civilization to world dominance are some of the themes explored in this engrossing addition to the distinctive McNeill brand of broad-brush macro-history. The motor of history this time is the growing "web" of interactions-weaving together hunter-gatherer bands, then civilizations and finally the whole world-by which people, goods, diseases and ideas spread. As it binds ever more people ever more tightly, the web both brings them into conflict and lets them share and build on each other's achievements; thus Columbus's extension of the web to the Americas led to conquest but also to the exchange of New World potatoes and maize for Old World horses and smallpox. The father-son historian duo also revisit ideas from William's previous books, discussing the co-evolution of humans and microbes, the uneasy symbiosis between warrior elites and the farmers they protect and exploit, and the social solidarity imparted by group singing and dancing. More ecological than humanistic, the McNeill outlook sees conflict and cooperation as twin outcomes of the struggle for survival that drives developments in technology, political organization, social habits and even religious beliefs. This approach can be reductionist (Europe's vibrant civil society is said to spring from its use of mold-board plows); and as impersonal historical meta-agents go, the trendy "web" conceit is less substantive and fertile than other McNeill brainstorms. Still, this concise and beautifully written synthesis brims with revealing insights that make history comprehensible and enthralling. 25 illus., maps.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

J.R. and father William, both history professors, unravel the various webs that have connected humans through time.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039305179X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393051797
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #386,246 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
W.H. McNeill has written several of the top 20 works for specialists and general audience on general history. This work is a breathtaking overview of world history seen in the context of environment.
People who rightly were thrilled by Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" should go on and enjoy this rare treat: lucid and easy to understand, based on a wealth of erudition connected with plain sense, a new vision.
Young readers might get ideas about a change of courses. As a university professor I immediately took this book up as reading matter for my students - mostly engineers and lawyers at present.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Human Web is an excellent summary of human history. It is indeed a bird's eye view in that it looks at the broad overall sweep of human affairs and doesn't bog down in unnecessary detail. The major theme is the construction and expansion of human webs, or interconnections that tie cultures and civilizations together ever more tightly. If space voyagers ever arrived on Earth (and could read a human language) this book would be one of the first things I hope we hand them to help them understand us.
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Format: Paperback
If you need to try to survive from our history by reading only one book, here's one of the better, perhaps even the best, alternative. I'm a student of history myself, and I can only say that, due to my experience, it's very difficult to beat J.R. and William McNeill. The task of creating a general view from the whole world history is very difficult, but the McNeills have managed extremely well and written this very readable and colorful analysis of our history. This is a rare success book with challenging thoughts not just for students and advanced historians, but also for any literate blue-collar lad, waitress or "hockey-mom".

When Human Web was translated into Finnish (in 2005), immediately four main history and social science departments took it as their entrance examinations book. And not just the schools of history in Turku and Tampere and the subject of social and economical history in Helsinki, but also the Finland's most respected school for world politics in Helsinki had it as their main entrance examination book - and most of them still have.

Human Web is a book written with an impressing academical knowledge on a very clear and readable way avoiding any frustrating jargon. All this makes it a very pleasant, refreshing and exceptional reading experience for anyone.
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Format: Paperback
The Human Web, by a distinguished father-son team of historians, is a remarkable book. McNeill and McNeill endeavor to cover all of human history in 327 pages. Their analytical framework focues on the gradual emergence of regional "webs" of economic and cultural exchange, and consequently emphasizes demographic and economic themes over political, religious, and intellectual ones. Their treatment of politics and religion is sound but often cursory; what really excites the McNeills is how particular technologies moved around and how quickly particular populations grew. While I thought that the McNeills sometimes gave short shrift to the ways in which ideas can motivate people, I found their depiction of the emergence of a world-wide "human web" extremely compelling.

No one could accuse the McNeills of being timid in their approach to historical analysis. What delighted me most about this book were the bold international comparisons--"Travelers may notice that people in those parts of Europe where cooperative moldboard plowing once prevailed still obey rules, form queues, and in general trust one another more than do the inhabitants of lands where separate families cultivated their fields independently and often distrusted their neighbors because of boundary disputes or the like" (142)--and the stark statistics that contextualize key events--"World War II killed about 3 percent of the world's 1940 population" (298). I take each of these statements with a grain of salt-- we don't know exactly how many people died in World War II, though 60 million is a reasonable estimate, and it's unlikely that historical farming patterns fully account for differences in national character, which in any case is constantly in flux. But what powerful ideas!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Cultural cheerleaders constantly shout about how lucky we are to live in an age of miracles, a utopia of technology and progress. Everything is just great (if you cram most of reality under the bed).

But the folks who rip off their blinders know better. They can perceive huge and growing crises that cannot be well addressed via the pursuit of shopping and entertainment. They can see that it’s time to learn, to think, and to change. Understanding how we got into this bog of predicaments requires learning, lots of learning. For this, we need our superheroes, the historians.

William McNeill, and his son John, heard the calls for help, and came to the rescue. William once tried to boil the human journey down to one book, but it was 829 pages, too big for general readers. John’s vision was human history in 200 pages, and he teamed up with his father to write it. The finished product was 350 pages, and titled The Human Web.

The book slices human history into time blocks, and provides snapshots of the world during each period. It’s not a sleep-inducing recital of kings, empires, wars, and dates. It’s about trends — in technology, weaponry, religion, worldviews, and environmental impacts. The McNeills framed their discussion based on a model of webs, which are networks of communication and trade. Throughout the book, they take readers on an interesting promenade through the ages. Let’s take a peek at a few of their topics.

For most of the human journey, our hunter-gatherer phase, webs were small nomadic clans. They weren’t completely isolated. For example, the freakishly powerful new technology of bows and arrows made it much easier to deplete game and enemies.
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