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Libraries & Culture 40.4 (2005) 568-569



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The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of World History. By J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. xvii, 350 pp. $27.95 (cloth); $15.00 (paper). ISBN 0-393-05179-X; 0-393-92568-4.

One of the gratifying developments in the historical profession in the past two decades has been the reestablishment of world history as a worthwhile field of study, writing, and teaching. The expansion of traditional concern for Western civilization, the interaction of other cultures within the worldwide human story, and the accelerated interest in globalization, along with the insights of the historical, natural, and physical sciences—all have produced a movement that is gaining increasing momentum. William McNeill, author of the widely used volume The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press, 1963) and more than a dozen other monographs on aspects of world history, hinted at the themes in the present volume in his retrospective essay in the 1991 reprinting of the above-mentioned classic. Now he is joined by his son, a distinguished environmental historian, and together they survey fourteen millennia of human history in describing and explaining the relationships of human groups within their natural and cultural contexts.

The thesis of the work is that webs of influence linking human beings in relationships are central to human development, since they continually involve the communication of ideas and information. This affects future human behavior that, in turn, fuels the "ambition to alter one's condition to match one's hopes" (4). The authors believe that the "first worldwide web" began as a loose network about 12,000 years ago. An introduction explains the characteristics of webs—combinations of cooperation and competition, development of communication for mutual survival, growing influence upon history, and the effect of human development on the earth's own history. Eight chapters then develop and support the thesis that a worldwide web is not a new concept but a reality that has cyclically evolved with human history. They deal with the earliest period of human development (up to 11,000 B.C.E.), the growth of food production (11,000–3,000 B.C.E.), Old World civilizations (3500 B.C.e.–200 C.E.), the growth of Old World webs and America (200–1000 C.E.), "Thickening Webs" (1000–1500), the extension of a worldwide web (1450–1800), foundations for the modern world (1750–1914), and modern strains affecting the web (1890 to the present). A final brief chapter provides informed personal reflections on long-range prospects by each of the authors.

The substantive chapters are well outlined, with useful headings and subheadings, and are broken into digestible subsections. Furthermore, they each finish neatly with a succinct conclusion that keeps one on track when surveying such a vast array of concepts so quickly. Fifteen maps and five tables enhance the text. An extensive ten-page bibliographic essay of further readings reviews current studies for each of the chapters. A reasonable index concludes the work.

The work is a unique blending of socioeconomic, cultural, and physical elements that integrates trends in agriculture, migration, urbanization, climate, and industrialization—to name a few of the many variables considered. Together they illustrate how regional and national influences contribute to the web by interweaving one culture with another. Although libraries receive virtually no mention as such, readers of this journal will appreciate the authors' general emphasis on communication and specific coverage of literacy, printing, universities, and information technology in a work of such sweeping scope.

Two sections in particular illustrate this. "Information and Communication" treats the printing press as a means of spreading religious and cultural ideas throughout [End Page 568] the world. Likewise, "Electrification and the Cosmopolitan Web" deals with telecommunications, computers, and the Internet in the twentieth century. However, in his reflective conclusion William McNeill writes: "The central argument of this book is that throughout their history humans used symbols to create webs that communicated agreed-upon...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-3033
Print ISSN
2164-8034
Pages
pp. 568-569
Launched on MUSE
2005-12-20
Open Access
No
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