“Plagues and Peoples” by William H. McNeil presents an alternate argument about the mechanisms that shaped our society. He argues that plagues and epidemics, often overlooked by critical historians as exaggerated events, had fundamental effects on the development of society.
William H McNeil begins by presenting an interesting view on parasitism by creating and exploring subdivisions in this classification. Microparasites refer, as expected, to infectious pathogens that cause disease. He describes the way of life in some human communities as an example of modulated macroparitism, where a conqueror became a parasite on those who produced food. New diseases and new epidemics arose and increased in prevalence as human behavior changed and transportation increased. Thus pathogens evolved along with the progress of mankind.
William McNeil makes several other interesting postulations. He elaborates on the role that smallpox and measles played in not only eliminating Aztec populations but also their culture and civilization. He moreover proposes that the endemic disease found in sub-tropic India protected their culture from becoming engulfed in the Aryan culture. This he suggests resulted in the hierarchal parallel caste system typified in modern day India.
A major criticism of “Plagues and Peoples” is that there is a lack of factual information. Although William McNeil puts forth many interesting interpretations and theories they are not often backed with facts or data. While there has been significant research into the effect of disease in the Western World and China, this is not the case for areas such as the Middle East and Africa. Often, as he admits himself, there is little information about these areas and it is unlikely that further relevant data will emerge.
This however, does not detract from the importance of the book. This alternate viewpoint on human history provides a framework for further research and investigation. Although many of his theories for the development of Civilization may prove incomplete or inaccurate, William McNeil has opened our eyes to an entirely distinct historical perspective