Oh, what a tangled web we weave

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This week we took an interesting look at global history. Global history, as it sounds, is large in scope, encompassing the whole history of humanity. The book we read was a collaboration between a father and son, William H. McNeill and J. R. McNeill, called The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. Like last session’s Deep History and the Brain, The Human Web begins far back in the remote past, with the first humans in Africa. From there, the McNeills take us right through to the present day, addressing human history all over the world and at all times. Definitely an ambitious project!

To get a handle on the huge scope of human history, the McNeills use a framework of webs, networks that have linked people since the beginning of time through any number of possible human interactions. These webs, “The exchange and spread of such information, items, and inconveniences, and human responses to them, [are] what shapes history” (4). J.R. makes a clear distinction in an interview for Historically Speaking that these shaping forces of history are not the driving forces: those, as he says, are “the ambitions—individual and collective—of people” (Yerxa).

Here’s the interview and an article by the McNeills which was mostly reprinted as the introduction for The Human Web: http://www.bu.edu/historic/hs/november02.html

It is interesting see where the McNeills think these ambitions have led humanity, and where they think it is going. Before getting to that point in the book’s afterword, however, we are led on a several thousand years’ jaunt through the interactions between people that have shaped history up to this point. As the authors point out in their preface, “This book is written for people who would like to know how the world got to be the way it is but don’t have time to read a shelf or two of history books” (xvii). They do a good job of meeting this goal.

So what exactly is “the way the world is” through the perspective of the human web? There’s no denying we live in an increasingly global society. Also, as the McNeills put it, “Urbanization and population growth stands as the cardinal social change of the last century” (318). Globalization has led to wide inequalities and we have entered an Anthropocene age, where human factors seemingly shape the earth more than natural or geological ones.

I was a little disappointed to read what each author had to say about where human history may be heading. J. R. writes that with humanity’s increased capability for destruction in recent centuries, “the chances of cataclysmic violence seem depressingly good” (323). At least his father has a slightly more optimistic view (just slightly): “My personal hunch is that catastrophes—great and small—are sure to come and human resilience will prove more than we can easily imagine” (326). This seems a fairly obvious takeaway from human history…we haven’t imploded yet, have we? Of course, both McNeills take a surprisingly presentist view of the world situation, as if our own times are the most important and dangerous, a view I tend to take with a grain of salt. William even states, “we live on the crest of a breaking wave. Luck, intelligence, and awkward tolerance may keep the web from breaking. Let’s hope so” (327). Again, if the scope of human history has taught us anything, it’s that humanity fumbles on.

As we discussed in our last class, nobody considers their own times to be part of anything greater; people in the Middle Ages, for example, didn’t think of themselves as in the middle of anything. I would take the eminently optimistic view that there is still a lot of time stretching before us, so yes, it pays to live carefully, but there is no need to imagine an impending global catastrophe just because humanity balances on a web. We’ve been up here for a long time.

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there will always be something you can worry about…

An interesting side note from the interview linked above: the public prefers to read histories on a larger scale, which is why historical writing has lagged popularly with the increase in micro-historical studies. I guess if you want to sell books as a historian, it’s well worth it to consider embracing global history!

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