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Book Review


A Short History of Big History

Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (1962), NY: Penguin, 1995

Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800 (1967-1979) English translation, 3 volumes, NY: Harper, 1979-1982

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, NY: Broadway Books, 2003

David Christian, This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2009

Michael Cook, A Brief History of the Human Race, NY: Norton, 2003

Alfred W. Crosby, Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy, NY: Norton, 2006

James C. Davis, The Human Story: Our History, from the Stone Age to Today, NY: HarperCollins, 2004

Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, NY: Swerve Editions/Zone Books, 1997, pb, 2000

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Humankind: A Brief History, NY: Oxford U.P., 2004

Robert McNeill & William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History, NY: Norton, 2003


     A review posted on the Forbes Magazine business book site of The Human Story: Our History, from the Stone Age to Today by James C. Davis starts out "Has there ever been a history of the world as readable as this?" Well, yes, there has. This one is ingratiating and, more importantly, trustworthy and reasonably sound historiographically (though Forbes readers may be dismayed to find out how imperturbably Davis approves of the public ownership and control of capital.) On the other hand, The Human Story has plenty of competition from at least a dozen short, synthetic world histories that have tumbled into print rather suddenly since the turn of the millennium. The genre now has a name, "Big History," to distinguish it from what the French have called "histoire événementielle" or history centered on events. Some examples, like Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race (NY: Norton, 2003) are more challenging than Davis's, and some, like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (NY: Broadway Books, 2003), are even more readable. Interestingly, all of the examples I've seen recognize much the same short—and rather Eurocentric—list of the epochs of change adumbrated by Adam Ferguson in his own universal history (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, London, 1767): thousands of years of hunting and gathering, the invention of agriculture, cities and civilization, states and empires, trans-cultural religions and cosmopolitan trade, the Columbian Exchange, and the progress of Western science and liberalism. Ferguson foresaw somewhat the next three epochs, the Industrial Revolution, political revolutions, the rise of Western imperialism and of democracy (liberal or social); but he had to leave two big changes to his successors: Western imperialism's decline, and the great wars of the 20th century.

     For the analytic historian, the problem is to explain the change from epoch to epoch, or to find new themes entirely, like the account of the most recent millennium by Mexican-born professor of film studies and philosophy Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997, pb, 2000). It is actually three accounts, separately labeled "geological," "biological" and "linguistic" history, each spare of reference and nearly free of narrative, but exciting. Couched in the new scientific vocabulary of nonlinear dynamics and emergent self-organization that has been building up since the decay of the old sociology in the 70s, it offers a genuinely new way to understand history and deserves more readers than it got almost a decade ago.

     For the narrative historian, however—and the history teacher—the problem is how to thread a narrative through those fixed points historians recognize as epochal with stories that are both vivid and exemplary. The shorter the account, and the longer the time period, the harder it is to choose those stories and the more complicated it is to tell them, so what good is a short history, except to impatient readers? You won't get all of history from it, no matter what the title or intention. The thing is, unfortunately, that there's no way you'll ever get it all. A review is almost always shorter than the thing it reviews, but logic requires that every history of the world be shorter than all the world's history. Any history book is a finite representation of an uncountable infinity, as even the shortest of line segments comprises an infinite number of points. Even the history of you for one day has incidents enough to fill a library and any history is characterized more by how it leaves things out than by what it leaves in.

     James Davis's stories are familiar, though he keeps an eye on the latest scholarship. (Local pride however, prompts him to locate the invention of the electronic computer at his own University of Pennsylvania rather than at England's Bletchley Park.) By contrast, for A Brief History of the Human Race (Norton, 2003) Michael Cook chose unexpected story-epitomes, one for each epoch in human cultural development, using, for example, the byzantine kinship system of the Aranda people (anthropologists have dubbed it "moiety alternation") as his posthole for our first two million years of hunting and gathering.

     William H. McNeill's The Rise of the West (Chicago, 1963) is nearly as long as Kissinger's memoirs, and surely the grandest of old-fashioned "grand narrative." The title tells it all. No one should miss it.

     Another narrative, written with William by his son Robert, is a lot shorter, but its theme, The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History (Norton, 2003), is not about the rise or fall of anyone or any culture; it's the changing scope and complexity of the interactions among us humans. The newer book is far more analytical—and less of a story—than the old, and it is also much less "occidentocentric"; but it has moral grandeur of its own, since it proposes that the most important thing we humans do is to know and interact with each other, and that the webs of interaction have become ineluctably broader and tighter since Homo sapiens sapiens appeared about 150,000 years ago. It's a very interesting book to revisit after the June demonstrations in Iran, occurring on the 20th anniversary of the similar events in China, both of which were, and continue to be, profoundly shaped by the means used to inform their nations and the world that they happened.

     If Big History is best when it's small, we have a lot of contenders. René Sédillot's History of the World in 240 Pages (Paris: Fayard, 1949, translation, New American Library paperback, 1951) was that short. David Fromkin's The Way of the World (NY: Knopf, 1998) was 18 pages shorter, but like Sédillot, Fromkin made—Eurocentrically—a centerpiece of Alexander the Great. Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Humankind: A Brief History (Oxford University Press, 2004) would have set a new record at 177 pages—if it were indeed a history of our kind, but it isn't. Fernández-Armesto's sly mis-title heads not a history of us but a history of the ways we have tried (and failed) to define what "us" is. Retitled The Concept of Humankind, instead, or perhaps Humanness, it is revealed as a brilliant historical review of possibly the oldest question in the canon of philosophical ethics, worried over by every Western thinker since Gilgamesh (and that's just the West). In its author's estimation it is only "an outline sketch which may help inspire further work"; but in fact, Fernández-Armesto has taken this vast topic and boldly organized it around the criteria most often proposed to define humanness (tool-making, intelligence, emotion, culture, consciousness) together with the contested boundaries between the human and the non-human Other (animals, primates, hominids, species, races, genders, infants and infirm, and machines who think).

     Fernández-Armesto knows how to deploy the details, even in a short book. He not only considers the definitions of humanity proposed in Gilgamesh, but also in the Maya epic Popol Vuh, and he comes eventually to the views of, among others, Confucius, Aristotle, Mo Ti, Mahavira, the Upanishad sages, Augustine, Columbus, Las Casas, Pope Paul III, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Descartes, William Dampier, Swift, the baron de Lahontan, Voltaire, Rousseau, Lord Monboddo, Arthur de Gobineau, Darwin, Francis Galton, Wolfgang Köhler, Margaret Mead, Himmler, Sartre, Alan Turing, Desmond Morris, Chomsky, Edward O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, Erik Trinkaus, Don Johanson, Peter Singer, John Gray, Susan Greenfield, Justin Stagl, and the U.S. Supreme Court. I cite them in chronological order, for effect; but Fernández-Armesto has them firmly organized in relation to the issues. It is yet another swiftly written, sweeping challenge to historiographic orthodoxies by this half-Spanish English schoolteacher turned charismatic professor who seems to write at least one such challenge every year (including his own Millennium, in 1995, and a new World History textbook in 2007). Was it his teenage reading of Oswald Spengler's Nietzschean Decline of the West (2 volumes, 1918-1923), another grand world history, that predisposed him to audacity? The Decline of the West is a book he now calls "rubbish," but still admires because "it is great rubbish."1 Doubtless Spengler's contemporary, H. G. Wells (The Outline of History, 2 volumes, George Newnes, 1919), or even Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History, 12 volumes, Oxford University Press, 1934-1961) would have offered less rubbish and hence less inspiration?

     By contrast to the elder McNeill, David Christian's This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2009), previously reviewed here, is the shortest of all (unless Marx's 1848 Communist Manifesto counts as a universal history). There are only 109 pages of text, including the valuable Appendix on historical periodization plus the "Prequel" on the pre-human universe, and excluding the 28 pages of preface, resource list, author profile and publisher's advertisements. The book's great advantage, besides its length, is to bring the key investigations of the key epochs up to date in a prose that appeals to the novice and the common reader. Those epochs are much the same as Ferguson's of 1767: first, the Paleolithic epoch of hunter-gatherers; second, the epoch of the farmers, dominating the world (and "civilizing" it with cities and letters) from the Neolithic (about 10,000 B.C.E.) to the Medieval (sometime after 1,000 C.E).; and third, the "Moderns," making over the world with the new economies of large-scale (industrial) production, beginning in China with a false start in the 11th century, and continuing in the West with an irreversible leap forward after about 1750 which has lasted until the present and promises to go on a while longer. The orders of importance are as uncompromisingly material as Marx's—no religious Axial Age here, no Fall or Providence or crucial redemption of mankind, not even a breakthrough in intercommunal communications or a record of artistic and scientific achievement. "Erst kommt das Fressen," as Berthold Brecht put the materialist position, "First comes feeding; after that, morals." And if Jared Diamond should argue, as he did in Discover in May, 1987, that the Neolithic revolution was "The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race," (available free on-line2) because it unbalanced our relationship to the environment and limited our health, our leisure, our security and our potential happiness, the materialist is at a loss for arguments to make against him.

     The second shortest of all the new books of Big History, at 166 pages plus notes, is Alfred Crosby's Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (Norton, 2006). World History teachers like me have been salivating for a book like it, a pocket-size, entertainingly anecdotal, but magisterially comprehensive survey, by the dean of our environmental historians, of the million-year history behind the key policy question of our time: the acquisition and use of energy—energy without which power of any kind at all simply ceases to exist. It begins with Paleolithic cooking and ends with nuclear fusion. Read widely, especially in high school, it has a chance to remedy the pathetic ignorance of most Americans, until recently the least thrifty, and least thoughtful, energy users on the planet. On the other hand, what's the point of remedying ignorance, if we can't hope to survive more than a century? To try to inform posterity may be no more than a touching nod to the expiring liberal faith of historians like Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), the former high-school teacher whose short magisterial summary, A History of Civilizations (1962), was rejected as a textbook by the French Ministry of Education because it told too few stories and cast its net too wide. Braudel's Capitalism and Material Life, also known as Civilization and Capitalism, founded the so-called "World Systems" school of world history and remains the great masterpiece of the French Annales, or "long duration" school of historiography, of which Big History is the direct and legitimate heir.

     Of course, the "importance" of any events cannot really be judged without invoking faith. That so many values are ultimately religious is why so many world histories, like those of Sima Qian, Augustine, ibn Khaldun, Walter Raleigh, Bishop Bossuet, Voltaire, Hegel and Marx, have come out of militant faiths, from Confucianism and Islam to Enlightenment liberalism and militant Socialism. In another important sense, all histories are religious, especially world histories, since any shaping view of the meaning of it all must stem from the otherwise unprovable moral values of the historian and to a lesser extent the values of his or her audience. Davis, for example, with a bow to Judaism, devotes an entire chapter to the biblical history of the children of Israel; then justifies it not as the key to God's plan for humanity, but as the basis of Western religious history.

     Is world history, then, to be a record of the triumphs of the true religion? Is it to be a celebration of the most memorable human individuals—like Antony (Marcus), Anthony (Susan B.), and Hitler? Is it the agonistic record of competitions of nation-states for an imperial crown—or of their successful defiance of an imperial tyranny? Is it the tale of how we got more and more republics and political democracy—or the no less "whiggish" history of how we got markets that were more and more free, putting both democracy and equality aside to raise the standard of living? Is it the quest for ways of understanding and anticipating change in human society—or changes in the planetary ecosystem and its energy budget? Is it no more than the story of how humans got to know each other better, as the younger McNeill proposes? Or is it, as the brave materialists contend, merely the history of our survival as a species, as meaningless before our emergence as it will be after our extinction?

     In fact world history is more relevant than perhaps it should be for the millions in several different religions who seem to think that the world is going to end soon, suddenly, and in some way that will make history's meaning clear—and their enemies miserable. Almost all of these providential prophets, in turn, confine themselves to a constricted little universe held to have begun not fourteen billion years ago, but six thousand, created by a god severely limited by human imagination to a week in October, 4004 B.C.E., which is about 6,000 years after the invention of agriculture in the Middle East and two million years after genus Homo arose in Africa. World historians are quietly grateful that the date of this creation coincides rather neatly with the beginning of our cultural universe—civilization—when the world's first cities were rising in southern Iraq.

     "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world," wrote Salman Rushdie in one of the thick magic-realist novels that have yoked world history with fiction in the last 30 years [Rushdie, Midnight's Children (1981), Knopf/Everyman, p136]. But the democratic concept of historical importance is based on the number of people affected, viz., the journalists' "How many died?" Then mere numbers must be multiplied by the emotional and temporal depth of the effect. Wars are important less because of the numbers of the dead, than because of their long-term effects on the much larger numbers of their survivors and descendants. On the other hand, although all human lives since our African genesis have made a contribution, genetic and cultural, to each life lived after them, modern history (since about 1400) is more important simply because there are thousands of times more human lives, accompanied (after prehistory) by ever increasing numbers of surviving artifacts of their existence. The world indeed shrinks, but it shrinks because so many more human beings have existed in the most recent two centuries than in the entire two thousand millennia that led up to them.

     Large or small as the world may seem, says the American writer Richard Russo, who sets big novels in a small town in Maine, "small-mindedness is a human quality, not a geographical one."3 But stretching for large-mindedness is a worthy goal. Besides, our times are so haunted by apocalypse that readers probably need the promise offered us by histories of the largest possible past that history will continue into the longest possible future.

William R. Everdell is Book Review Editor for World History Connected and teaches world history at St. Ann's School in New York City. He can be contacted at



1 Interview with Neil Scott in The Mind's Construction Quarterly (2004) @ Accessed September 1, 2009.

2 See or search the title. Accessed September 1, 2009.

3 Richard Russo (author of the 2002 novel, Empire Falls), in Bruce Weber, "Richard Russo, Happily at Home in Winesburg East," New York Times (July 2, 2004), B33.


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