The system of the world by William H. McNeill

In the post below on book recommendations I forgot to mention William H. McNeill and John Robert McNeill’s The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. It’s arguably been one of the most influential works that has percolated in my mind throughout the years. It’s less than 400 pages, and illustrates in broad sketches that history has been through many random shocks, but that there are broad patterns that one can discern.

The elder McNeill is most famous for The Rise of the West and Plagues and Peoples. To a great extent he was Jared Diamond before there ever was Jared Diamond.

Unfortunately I did not notice that McNeill died last summer. From his obituary:

Refuting Francis Fukuyama’s premise in “The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992 that the American model of a liberal, capitalist democracy had become the paradigm for governance, Professor McNeill wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “I do not believe that human nature is uniform and unchanging. Rather, whatever penchants and capabilities we inherit with our genes are so malleable that their expression takes infinitely diverse forms.”

“When Asian models of social and economic efficiency seem to be gaining ground every day, and when millions of Muslims are at pains to sustain the differences, great and small, that distinguish them from Americans,” he continued, “it is hard to believe that all the world is destined to imitate us.”

3 thoughts on “The system of the world by William H. McNeill

  1. Let me begin by stating that William Mcneill was a very important person in my life. He was my teacher when I was an undergraduate.

    To call him a Jared Diamond is an insult to his memory. Diamond is a second rate thinker whose materialist determinism flattens everything and turns men into mindless meat automatons acting out history due to forces they could neither understand nor control.

    McNeill was a humanist who insisted on that men living in every time and every place were free to to enact their world, that they borrowed practices and institutions from each other, and that students of history must pay careful and respectful attention to what men actually did and said.

  2. I didn’t get a chance to contribute to the book list thread, so I will here. You were curious about works related to the Austronesian peoples. I recommend Patrick Vinton Kirch’s books, especially A Shark Going Inland is my Chief, a general overview, and How Chiefs Became Kings, which defends the thesis that old Hawaii had reached the state level by the time of European contact.

    I also thought of Islamic Gunpowder Empires by Streusand, which I learned about from you.

  3. And for social history, I recommend Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, about early modern Europe. It’s a book that explains a tremendous amount of things in the world, from why we use forks to the nature of political correctness. It’d be nice if someone wrote a newer, less dense version of the book though…

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