TITLE: Plagues and Peoples
AUTHOR: William Hardy McNeill
DATE PUBLISHED: 1998, first published 1976
"Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact--political, demographic, ecological, and psychological--of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe, the history of disease is the history of humankind. With the identification of AIDS in the early 1980s, another chapter has been added to this chronicle of events, which William McNeill explores in his new introduction to this updated editon.
Thought-provoking, well-researched, and compulsively readable, Plagues and Peoples is that rare book that is as fascinating as it is scholarly, as intriguing as it is enlightening. "A brilliantly conceptualized and challenging achievement" (Kirkus Reviews), it is essential reading, offering a new perspective on human history."
This is an interesting and somewhat scholarly look at how people and diseases have interacted and evolved together over time, from "man the hunter" to "the ecological impact of medical science and organization since 1700". McNeil examines macroparisitic and microparisitic effects on the growth of civilizations, focusing primarily on diseases and how epidemics have effected world history, the course of civilization and human evolution.
I found the sections where the author discusses the "living conditions" of diseases particularly interesting: how a specific disease inhabited a certain enviornment, how it arrived and survived in that environment, and how those environments may have been altered by human impacts such as agricultural activities, population growth (or lack thereof), how the disease spread to other areas etc. McNeill's comparison between human micro-parasites (bacteria, worms, viruses) and our macro-parasites (governments, armies ,raiders, plunderers) was a particularly thought-provoking and novel (to me) aspect of the book.
The book was originally published in 1976, so some details are a bit dated, but this doesn't detract from the overall thesis. The writing style is also a bit "old-fashioned" if that sort of thing bothers you. The author does, however, make use of historical sources that include as much of the globe as possible, so the spread between and effects of epidemics on Europe as well as of China, India, the Middle-East, the America's and Africa are discussed where possible (allowing for existing source material on these regions).
This is an interesting, fundamental and thought-provoking book about the interactions of humans and diseases and the course of human history.