Plagues and Peoples

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Plagues and Peoples stands as another significant contribution of William H. McNeill to a world view of history. McNeill, who is Robert A. Milliken Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago, established his reputation as an authority on the totality of man’s past in his celebrated book, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963). Indeed, in Plagues and Peoples, McNeill uses the conceptual framework of The Rise of the West in referring to man’s beginnings as a hunter, to the development of distinct but not entirely unrelated centers of civilization in Eurasia, and to the ultimate diffusion of civilization on a worldwide scale.

Having presented a sweeping picture of human history in The Rise of the West, McNeill attempts in his latest study to fit the nature of disease experience into that picture. The objective, then, of Plagues and Peoples is to explore the impact which infectious disease has had on mankind in ancient and modern times. As a world historian, McNeill examines the effect of indigenous disease on the ancient civilizations located in the Middle East, India, China, and the Mediterranean, and the disasters which resulted, where corroborating evidence exists, when these civilizations exchanged their diseases. Major disease exchanges of more recent history, including those which led to the introduction of the bubonic plague from the Mongol Empire into Europe and numerous diseases from Europe and Africa into the New World, comprise a major portion of the book. The closing chapter discusses the response of modern medicine to infectious disease. Throughout his study, McNeill makes parallel reference to what he calls microparasites and macroparasites. The microparasites are the foreign organisms within the body that cause disease. Macroparasites are human beings who in their various activities as builders of cities, oppressors of the poor, or military conquerors make possible those conditions in which microparasites can grow and spread the diseases associated with them from one people or civilization to another. Conceding that many of his suggestions are tentative, McNeill regards his book as a starting point for scholarly investigation by experts in numerous languages. Meantime, the author looks upon his study as a means of drawing to the attention of ordinary readers the existence of important gaps in older ideas about the story of man’s past.

Working within the framework he established in The Rise of the West, McNeill devotes the first two chapters of Plagues and Peoples to the relationship between disease and the origin and diffusion of human populations throughout much of the world. He speculates that Homo sapiens, who may have first evolved in Africa about 100,000 B.C., was originally a hunter, a macroparasite, who lived on the flesh of large game animals while killing off rival humanoid forms. Once early man moved from his original tropical environment with its numerous diseases and infections and began to push into the temperate zones, his health and vitality improved considerably. Consequently, by 10,000 B.C., human hunting groups occupied all the major land masses of the earth except Antarctica. By this same time, however, the large herds of game animals had long since begun to die out and man, in order to survive, was obliged to domesticate plants and animals, thereby laying the foundations of sedentary societies. Man was attracted, in particular, to the rich soil of the major river valleys in the Middle East (the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates), India (the Indus and Ganges), and China (the Yellow River), and later to the Mediterranean coastlands. McNeill points out that in these densely populated areas, the transmission of disease parasites from person to person increased considerably with the passage of time as the sedentary communities in these four areas grew into civilizations. Hence, by about 500 B.C., each of the major civilized regions of Eurasia had developed its own unique variety of infections, person-to-person diseases. Within each region, the people built up an immunity to the diseases indigenous to it. McNeill thus attributes the territorial expansion of civilized peoples, in part, to the spread of their indigenous diseases to neighbors in adjacent sparsely populated areas who were unaccustomed to and unable to withstand such a vast array of infections.

McNeill contends—on the basis of very fragmentary and questionable evidence—that shortly after the beginning of the Christian era, the four divergent civilized disease pools, as he calls them, began to converge. The cause of this convergence was the increased trade between the Roman Empire, India, the Middle East, and...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)