HIST 5104 – McNeill ^2’s Web
An excerpt of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion states (“Walter” 2013): “Oh! What a tangled web we weave When we first practice to deceive!” Beyond “the tangled web,” deception, according to Encarta Dictionary, has been defined as “the practice of deliberately making somebody believe things that are not true.” Perhaps “deception” draws to Shakespeare’s MacBeth, “the play that dramatizes the corrosive psychological and political effects produced when evil is chosen as the way to fulfil the ambition for power (“MacBeth” 2013).” On the other side of the continuum from evil to good, ambition too can play a positive role as a determinate that “drives history (McNeill and McNeill 2002; McNeill and McNeill 2003 p. 4).” Is not the comprehensive The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (McNeill and McNeill 2003) a work of ambition? The elder McNeill, “widely considered to be the dean of world historians (McNeil and McNeill 2002),” appears motivated by “progress” and “prehistory (Yerxa 2002):”
- Progress was one of the great ideas of the Western world, and I was brought up with all that. I distinctly remember the week in which I encountered Toynbee as a second-year graduate student at Cornell. I suddenly realized that the history I had been taught had been confined to ancient Greece and Rome and the Western world, and the rest of the world only joined history when Europeans conquered it.
- You leave out prehistory; you leave out all the non-literate populations; and you concentrate in effect on a very small number of people, often a very skewed sample of the upper classes, the clerics, the literate. So clearly I consider the obsession with written sources to be an absurdity if you’re trying to understand what happened.
McNeill and his son have developed a comprehensive historical (plural) “webs” (McNeill and McNeill 2003 p. 4) framework that responds to interest in “the long-term development of the economic, political, social, and ecological connections that characterize the modern world (Wilson 2004).” The silky metaphor “is a set of connections that link people to one another (McNeill and McNeill 2002; Wilson 2004)” that paints a “the thesis of the work” by conveying “relationships are central to human development, since they continually involve the communication of ideas and information. This affects future human behavior that…fuels the “ambition to alter one’s condition to match one’s hopes (Davis 2005).”” The “career of …webs,” which presently form “a unitary maelstrom of cooperation and competition,” comprise of first worldwide, metropolitan and cosmopolitan categories (McNeill and McNeill 2003 pp. 4-5). The current web is considered to be a “modern” starting “with the telegraph” becoming “increasingly electrified (McNeill and McNeill 2002), inspiring a visual of the “radioactive” bitten Peter Parker who would become “Spider-Man (“Spider-Man” 2013).” Unlike a web to induce nutrients to a spider (“Spider” 2013), this “career” framework permits free exchange of “diseases and weeds” across time. These “webs of communication and interaction,” in form of a “human response,” swap and extend “information, items, and inconveniences” to “shape history (McNeill and McNeill 2002).”
With language as “the most important breakthrough,” communication can be transmitted in other forms including “dance, ritual, and art” and enabled humans to form into “larger and larger…cohesive and coordinated” groups (McNeill and McNeill 2003 p. 23) where “settlement…permitted far faster population growth (McNeill and McNeill 2003 p. 28). In comparison with the “web,” water would appear to be deemed a complex metaphor throughout the framework (and The Human Web text for that matter) starting with its impact on agriculture and “engineering had to be perpetually maintained.” “Running water” was mandated “by complex local agreements to regulate access (McNeill and McNeill 2003 pp. 32-33). Dating back 4,000 years ago, The Code of Hammurabi has been considered as one of the seminal documents to outline fundamental regulations on the use of water in conjunction with (productivity and) agricultural techniques. Many of these tenets remain adopted today into legal establishments across the globe (Phelps 2007).
Utilizing running water to harness power (through massive wheels that rotated the shafts for wheat flour grinders) dates back two thousand years ago to the Greeks, a concept that inspired a revolution in the 18th century where thousands of towns and cities across the globe were located around small hydropower sites (“Small” 2001). Literally, the increasing power of water inspired Mark Twain’s quote “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” The quote underscores the potential of a vital resource to generate (for the most part) conflict amongst individuals and small communities as opposed to between self-governing bodies (Phelps 2007). Across the U.S., hydropower projects current deliver to the nation 81 percent of the renewable electricity generation and about ten (10) percent of the total electricity (“Small” 2001). Revisiting to the “framework” and its “long-term development,” water through hydropower speaks to “economic, political, social and ecological connections.” Water, as a metaphor, could represent “flows not just of food and energy but also of meanings, hopes, and aspirations, uniting and dividing humankind more forcefully than ever before.” Perhaps fitting in a modern time where communication technology now can stand in for personal contact, the elder McNeill, prefacing with an apocalyptic vain that points to examples such as “repeated epidemics (McNeill and McNeill 2003 p. 173),” expresses the “need” for “face-to-face, primary communities for long-range survival: communities, like those our predecessors belonged to, within which shared meanings, shared values, and shared goals made life worth living for everyone, even the humblest and least fortunate (McNeill and McNeill 2003 p. 326).”
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Yerxa, D. A. (2002). “An Interview with J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill.” Historically Speaking, 4(2), 13-15.