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Paperback Plagues and Peoples Book

ISBN: 0385121229

ISBN13: 9780385121224

Plagues and Peoples

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Book Overview

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...

Customer Reviews

4 ratings

One of the best

This is one of a very tiny number of books which I have bought in bulk and distributed to friends and colleagues. Although the prose style can be unnecessarily turgid and academic and will win no prizes, the ideas are so stimulating intellectually that one gradually ceases to notice the style. McNeill's central thesis, both original and plausible, allows one to review the entire history of civilization in a new light and to make testable and almost always correct predictions. Few books have the ability to so change one's view of history. I first read this book many years ago and it has held up well. Read and ponder. It may change your world view.

Mankind - the Parasite and the Host

Plagues and Peoples is an informative and very readable summary of the relationship between mankind and disease. The author consistently views disease as a parasite and describes the history of plagues in terms of a parasite interacting with a host population. The parasite and the host interact and, over time, reach an equilibrium within the population that allows the both the parasite and the host to survive. The most interesting feature of the book is his portrayal of mankind not only as a host, but also as a parasite himself. He uses the term macroparasite to describe human institutions and phenomena that also drain energy and resources from producers. For example, very high taxes or rents, Medieval labor laws and practices, war, and forced migration all drain communities and nations as surely as disease. He provides excellent, while still brief, commentary on the interaction between microparasites and macroparasites and the resultant depopulation of certain areas during certain periods. One might argue that this is not a newly observed correlation, but it has certainly never been explained as clearly and succintly as it is done here. McNeill covers a range of topics. There is, of course, discussion of the plague and mankinds response to it. There us also commentary on leprosy. Why for example, was leprosy, so common in Western Europe and the Middle East in biblical times, to dissapear in the Middle Ages. ( The answer is not what you think. ) Did syphillis originate in the Americas ? If so it may have been the Aztecs' revenge on the conquistadors. Why are there childhood diseases ? McNeill's arguements are somtimes intuitive and are, in some cases, based on limited data, especially when he examines the history of disease in Asia and India. However, he is careful to couch his observations in limited terms and clearly points out the limitations of the data. I found this to be a refreshing break from, for example, Guns, Germs and Steel, where the author used very limited data to draw absolute conclusions.The new introduction ( the book was first publised in 1986 )has an alternate viewpoint on AIDS. He argues that, at the moment, AIDS as an epidemic does not rank among the great killers of mankind such as the plague. He draws some interesting parallels between the current AIDS epidemic and the historical spread of syphillis. I am not sure if I agree with his position, but it was interesting to hear something other than the usual end of the world scenario that often comes out of discussions of AIDS.


I read this book for a history class and loved it. The thesis was interesting, the ideas well-supported, and the examples fascinating. McNeill writes clearly, includes the perfect amount of detail and factual support, and avoids esotericism. His claims, like components of a mathematic or scientific theory, complement one another in a convincing and cohesive fashion such that by the end of the book, one cannot help but be at least partially convinced of the important relationship between paracitism and human civilization throughout history. Plagues and Peoples is truly legitimate, fascinating and innovative. For those who have any interest in history, anthropology, sociology, biology, or a plethora of other fields, as well as for any who merely appreciate interesting analytical thought and are looking for a good read, this book is really one you won't want to miss.

An epidemiological McCluhan

If you've been enjoying the rash of viral/epidemiological titles such as "Hot Zone", "The Coming Plague" or "Deadly Feasts", you'll find a real gem in "Plagues and Peoples". William McNeill, an author with impeccable credentials, is IMHO, the Marshall McCluhan of epidemiological biology. Like McCluhan, he published this work decades before the subject matter became mainstream. He also comes at the topics he investigates with a fresh and brain-stretching approach. McNeill presents a history of mankind where every civilization is surrounded by a disease 'gradient'. These gradients interact with one another as one of the significant factors in inter-cultural dominance and expansion. The conquest of the New World takes on a new look as McNeill describes the impact of the European disease gradient on a defenseless North America. He contrasts this with the impact of the African disease gradient on Europeans. Some of McNeills ideas, such as his analogies between micro-parasites (diseases, bugs, etc.) and macro-parasites (governments, barbarians, raiders, etc.) are still fresh and fascinating. Consider his idea that we accept a government as a low-level parasite so that we minimize the impact of rogue parasites like raiders and such in the same way we allow our bodies to be colonized by benign parasites like E.Coli so that we have fewer niches available to rouge germs like staph and strep. This book is filled with exciting ideas like this. All in all, the book is very readable, adds greatly to any view of history and creates an excellent foundation for the recent titles in this area.
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