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Plagues and Peoples (1976)

af William H. McNeill

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1,582198,339 (3.96)46
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.… (mere)
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Engelsk (18)  Hollandsk (1)  Alle sprog (19)
Viser 1-5 af 19 (næste | vis alle)
Both the best and worst book I could’ve picked in the early days of a global pandemic. It’s impressively concise and thorough, running from the first true humans in Africa up to more modern epidemics such as the Spanish flu and polio, and has an intriguing double-pronged thesis: that diseases are one of the last checks on human population growth, and that social hierarchies have a tendency to evolve social parasites (feudal lords, corporate overlords, etc.). It’s very well laid-out and thought-provoking, and most of what I disagreed with were “product of the time” problems rather than logical ones.

(For instance, McNeill seems to believe that all cultures strive towards a Western model and if they don’t achieve that, they “fail”; that the only civilizations in Africa and the New World were the Ancient Egyptians, Inca, Aztecs, and Maya; and that some diseases like syphilis and AIDS have different origins than is now believed. Given how progressive and thorough he seems to be in other ways, and that fact this book came out in the 1970s before genetic analysis was a thing, I don’t think any of that is his fault, really.)

The thesis itself, though, and how McNeill presents it? Pretty impeccable. He’s big on ecological balance, working off the idea that humans ideally have stable relationships with their local disease organisms, and it’s only when things get thrown off-balance that epidemics happen. He talks about disease barriers, like climate or mountain ranges, about the population minimums required for epidemics to start, about the waves of disease that create resistant humans—and about people dying en masse being just a fact of life, and about how having things like measles be childhood diseases is the best-case scenario. So yeah, it gets kind of grim.

Some of his logical chains were really eye-opening, though. His explanation for why indigenous peoples converted so quickly to Christianity has stuck with me, and I’m going to be looking at historical diseases differently from now on in general, but especially the ones in wartime. I also appreciated that he took the time to go into case studies, like with the Black Death, and to pull in facts about politics, religions, trade routes, revolutions, social customs, and all sorts of things to both bolster his argument and recontextualize events. For example, he talks about local beliefs as having arisen as protection against disease. If you live somewhere wild rodents transmit y. pestis and you believe that touching the ones that act sick is unlucky, well, you’re not wrong. And for all that McNeill is Eurocentric in outlook, he spends a lot of time discussing non-Western, mostly Asian, societies and outbreaks, which was also nice to see.

In general, I found this a very interesting book, challenging for its outlook more than its prose, though it has a pretty dense, dry writing style and I did have to reread pages to follow McNeill’s train of thought. It’s not a complete global history—that would be impossible—but it’s definitely valuable for its perspective. It was recommended to me, and I’m passing that on.
9/10

Contains: reasonably in-depth and clinical discussions of civilizations and societies weathering epidemic diseases; a rather mid-century outlook on what constitutes a civilization and the proper organization of society; racial terminology of a similar vintage; some explanations of disease science that were likely accurate 40 years ago but aren’t so now; a frequently cynical and morbid outlook ( )
  NinjaMuse | Jul 26, 2020 |
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).

( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
This had a lot that I'd read in Guns, Germs and Steel, but it was written first. ( )
  mirnanda | Dec 27, 2019 |
Plagues and Peoples is a very good read. It can be a bit academic in its word choice and aims, but if it was one of the first books to claim that disease had a major impact in politics and demography throughout history as McNeil claims, it is truly a seminal work. I had a bit of a feeling like I would have been more blown away by it if I had read it in the seventies, and it perhaps has lost a bit of it’s “wow” factor, but it is a good read despite that. A couple of reviews have compared it to Guns, Germs and Steel, and I couldn’t help to as well. I read Jared Diamond’s work first, and I can’t help that think that Plagues and Peoples was a springboard for his ideas. Diamond’s work is more accessible to a wider audience, but Plagues and Peoples drills down into a specific subject. There are a lot of references to flip to in the back. The book reads fine without flipping back to them, but I enjoyed reading the extra notes. ( )
  renardkitsune | Jul 8, 2018 |
McNeill in this seminal volume offers a very interesting and informative overview of the past interactions and continuing interactions between so-called "macroparasitism"--that is, predation of man upon man--and "microparasitism"--the relation between tribes or nations of men and the organisms in their microenvironment. This may be one of the first books to systematically examine the equilibrium that develops over time as diseases adapt to hosts, and how that microparasitic equilibrium can be disturbed by macroparasitic movements of people, whether through war or trade or expansion. A book that anybody who is interested in medical history should read. ( )
  L_Will | May 14, 2018 |
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William H. McNeillprimær forfatteralle udgaverberegnet
Robertson, ChrisOmslagsdesignermedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet

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(Preace): Readers of a book about epidemic infections, like this one, are sure to wonder why it contains no mention of AIDS.
(Introduction): Nearly twenty years ago, as part of my self-education for writing The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, I was reading about the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Before fully human populations evolved, we must suppose that like other animals our ancestors fitted into an elaborate, self-regulating ecological balance.
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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.

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