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An Emerging Consensus about World History?

William H. McNeill,
University of Chicago, Illinois

    Every scale of history requires teachers to leave things out. Only so can the past become manageable, meaningful, and interesting. But how to choose what to include and what to skip over? For national history the question is fairly easy: politics is what defines a nation, so acts of the national government take precedence; and social, economic, and cultural history can be fitted into the political narrative that holds everything else together. Detailed choices of what to include and exclude and how to evaluate the political record may still be difficult, but the basic frame and pattern of the national past remains political simply because that is what makes it an object of historical integration.
    Courses in Western Civilization, which became standard supplements to national history in American schools and colleges in the 1930's, were constructed on a different basis. Not politics but elite culture was taken to be what defined Western civilization, since ideas and art were what lived on across the centuries among the various peoples who shared that civilization. Exact choices of what ideas and what art to pay attention to remained problematic, but since arbiters of taste had already fixed upon an array of 'classic' authors and artists, sampling and summaries could be embodied in courses and textbooks without much difficulty. And since it is easy to excite the young by looking at famous works of art and by reading passages from famous authors who dealt with religious, political, and social questions still alive in American society, Western Civilization courses were and still are very successful.
    After World War II, when the course of public affairs made it obvious that Americans shared the world not just with Western Europeans but also with the four-fifths of humankind who are not heirs of Western civilization, the need for teaching world history became obvious. But how? What to leave out? Neither politics nor any single elite culture spanned the whole wide world. A new principle was needed for selecting and ordering the overwhelming body of information clamoring for attention. Finding it took half a century, but perhaps a new consensus is beginning to emerge among a handful of world historians as the new millennium dawns around us.
    That principle may be described as ecological: asking what it was, in successive ages, that was conducive to human survival and the expansion of our collective control and management of the world around us. And what, from time to time, acted in the opposite direction, depopulating some localities and disabling or diminishing various local civilized societies.
    From such an angle, energy flows captured and exploited by humans for their own purposes becomes fundamental--the basis for everything else human societies do. And population growth and decay serves as a rough index of the ups and downs of human ecological success. But what drove the overall, expansive process? The answer several historians seem to be converging on is this: we owe our success to a unique capacity to communicate with one another, establishing agreed-upon meanings that are readily susceptible to change but always shape everyday behavior and sustain cooperation, both willing and coerced, among ever larger numbers of persons.
    If this is true, we can hope to understand our unique history within the world as a whole by concentrating on the web of communication that sustains every social group, but also seeps across all linguistic and cultural boundaries of the entire globe. Intensified communication through voice and gesture presumably set in among hunting and foraging bands of emergent Homo sapiens and accelerated when fully articulate language allowed our ancestors to create a world of agreed-upon meanings to guide their everyday behavior, thereby inaugurating what David Christian calls "collective learning." For whenever experience fell short of expectation, people were provoked to adjust their ideas, alter behaviors accordingly, and every so often they did get better results.
    Changeable behavior, therefore, became chronic; and whenever something new really worked, it tended to spread far and wide among neighbors and neighbors' neighbors thanks to face to face encounters. To begin with, these occurred mainly on festival occasions when small local groups came together for dance and song and to arrange exogamous marriages. But strangers also met whenever isolated wanderers showed up. Most often such wanderers were restless young men who found difficulty achieving adult status at home because of land shortages or other reasons, but sometimes they had new skills or ideas to impart to strangers they encountered. Later on, organized raid and trade extended and intensified contacts among strangers, and in more and more parts of the earth this sufficed to set an autocatalytic process of historical change in motion. The rise of cities and civilizations resulted; and since strangers chronically mingled together in cities, the effect was to intensify social frictions and accelerate the pace of change. Thereafter transport and communication sporadically extended their range and carrying capacity, eventually locking local civilizations into a single global network. That network in turn became tighter and tighter down to our own time when such novelties as TV, internet, and e-mail are actively at work altering human consciousness and affecting human behaviors everywhere in ways we can only surmise.
    Throughout world history, cooperation and conflict simultaneously prevailed within and between innumerable human groups. The rise and dissolution of such groups--i.e., the political history of humankind--is far too multifarious to provide a basis for world history courses. The same is true of the innumerable forms of art and ideas that different societies elaborated and passed on across the centuries. Still, thresholds of human accomplishment are apparent and worth emphasizing. Such changes, for example, as the ways human communities entered into symbiosis with domesticated plants and animals--a process that changed both parties profoundly, and in Eurasia and Africa diversified human society by permitting pastoralists to live on open grasslands and to begin to interact with settled villagers through raid and trade.
    Subsequent landmarks in this always awkward relationship between pastoralists and farmers deserve attention, too. Notable among these was the invention of war chariots and then of cavalry tactics that expanded the power of Eurasian horse nomads. These tactics were then reversed by the eventual invention of reliable hand guns that destroyed nomad military power. These changes occurred first in Eurasia, then in Africa, and even in North America, where the rise of horse nomadry occurred only when Plains Indians learned from Spaniards in Mexico how to ride and shoot from horseback.
    Then, beginning about 100 BCE slender but persistent caravan linkages between China and western Asia were inaugurated. Thereafter, they were never broken off for long until railways and automobiles came along. But goods and ideas that passed along the caravan routes of Central Asia were soon supplemented by lethal epidemics spreading along the same routes. Heavy die-off especially in China and Europe ensued, and decaying public order soon reinforced population losses. The collapse of the west Roman and Han Empires registered this set-back at the two extremities of Eurasia. Like the heavy loss of life that took place in the 14th century, when bubonic plague spread along the same pathways, the epidemics of the second to sixth century CE were probably the greatest checks that human societies suffered before imported diseases began to decimate native Americans and other previously isolated peoples after 1500. Surely, therefore, these devastating lethal epidemics (along with a few examples of more local ecological disasters) and the social devolution that followed in their wake also deserve the attention of world history teachers.
    On the opposite side of the historical ledger, we ought also to recognize the acceleration of invention and economic expansion that shipping brought to Indian Ocean and Mediterranean shores, undergirding classical Greek, Roman, and Indian history. Then beginning about 200 BCE, camel caravans capable of crossing desert terrain linked much of Asia and part of Africa far more closely than before. The innovations that camel caravans disseminated--new crops, new ideas, and much else--in turn supported the cultural and technical flowering of the first centuries of the Muslim era. This was followed by an even stronger surge of invention and cultural creativity in China beginning about 1000 CE--gunpowder, printing, porcelain, silk production, etc.--when cheap canal transport and the collection of taxes in money compelled millions of peasants to enter the market, selling and buying specialized commodities. Then in the time of the Mongol Empire, Chinese accomplishments were at least partly disseminated across most of the Old World--along with bubonic plague.
    These successive intensifications of the Old World's interactive web were then followed by the incorporation of the Americas and other previously isolated lands into the expanded vortex of technical and cultural change we call modernity. In the Modern Era, the pace of change only increased. In Europe, natural science began to change minds and affect practical technologies even before tapping fossil fuels on a wholesale scale (first coal, then oil and gas) launched a spectacular expansion of industrial production and a no less spectacular acceleration of transport and communication beginning in the 18th century. An unparalleled population surge among disease-experienced populations of Eurasia (and crippling die-offs elsewhere) accompanied this resort to fossil fuels in what was at first only a small part of Europe. Between them, these twin increases in human power and numbers still dominate our world.
    Overall, we remain caught in an on-going process of accelerating change: who can foresee the consequences? The temporary ascendancy of western Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries is obvious; their retreat before newly powerful American and Russian states and societies and the rise of Japan, then of China and India in the twentieth century are equally apparent. Throughout, communication and local responses to novelties of every kind affected and often distressed human lives everywhere. But we human beings have always had to cope with change, and by doing so became the ecologically dominant species we are. We may even be said to have specialized in changeable behavior so as to get whatever it is that we want. And, as specialists in change, we can perhaps even hope to survive the enormous and obvious perils ahead--political, ecological, and social.
    In the meanwhile, courses in world history constructed around these notions about what mattered most in times past can help to prepare our children to live more wisely (and modestly?) in the world they will inherit, and perhaps can actively interest them by showing how humankind's amazing adventure in times past arose from common everyday experiences and innumerable successful responses to disappointed expectations.

Further Reading:

David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

William McNeill and John McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of World History (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003)


Biographical Note: William H. McNeill is the Robert A. Milikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, Illinois.


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