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Why did the first civilizations emerge when and where they did? How did Islam become a unifying force in the world of its birth? What enabled the West to project its goods and power around the world from the fifteenth century on? Why was agriculture invented seven times and the steam engine just once?
World-historical questions such as these, the subjects of major works by Jared Diamond, David Landes, and others, are now of great moment as global frictions increase. In a spirited and original contribution to this quickening discussion, two renowned historians, father and son, explore the webs that have drawn humans together in patterns of interaction and exchange, cooperation and competition, since earliest times. Whether small or large, loose or dense, these webs have provided the medium for the movement of ideas, goods, power, and money within and across cultures, societies, and nations. From the thin, localized webs that characterized agricultural communities twelve thousand years ago, through the denser, more interactive metropolitan webs that surrounded ancient Sumer, Athens, and Timbuktu, to the electrified global web that today envelops virtually the entire world in a maelstrom of cooperation and competition, J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill show human webs to be a key component of world history and a revealing framework of analysis. Avoiding any determinism, environmental or cultural, the McNeills give us a synthesizing picture of the big patterns of world history in a rich, open-ended, concise account.
McNeill and McNeill take an interesting approach to a world history narrative. They argue that developing societies, with some exceptions, were more significantly innerconnected(web analogy) than we have believed. Tracing pottery, coined money, and cross historical references in various cultures they argue that cultures did not develop in isolation but interconnected. They had more similarities than differences and the spread of their technological and intellectual advancements lifted each other throughout history.
Its an interesting theory but at time the pre-historical arguments are more forced and speculative than most historians would prefer. Likewise, making a connection from one culture to another over a 100 year period of time is not hard evidence that that technology diffused to them. One other criticism is the lack of detail in the book. The role of people and events is minimized as compared to the role of cultures. That may be expected when the McNeills attempt to capture approximately 15,000 years of world history in 350 pages. Finally, the McNeills take a rather odd and overly long tangent regarding the potential role of music and chant in pre-historic cultures that I found distracting and misplaced in this book. It smacked of material presented at a previous conference or in article form that one of the authors was passionate about including. I just found it aggravating.
On the other hand, if a reader is seeking to get a bird's eye view of world history this may be the book for them. Where some authors may spend 500-700 pages just addressing Ancient History, the McNeills accomplish it in 75. If you want to capture a feel for the flow and development of world civilizations, this is your book. If you are looking for specificity in the narrative as well as an enthusiastic voice, you will probably be disappointed.
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