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Kyle Harper wrote a terrific book about plague etc in the Roman Empire called the Fate of Rome. The plague of Justinian in particular was an absolute shocker. And (cough, cough) here is a podcast I did with him on the subject. https://www.buzzsprout.com/207869/7554679-the-fate-of-rome-with-kyle-harper

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Needs a joke about "stationary bandits" becoming "viral macro-bandits"! :)

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Just 1 out of 17 finalists is female? How much more interesting these books could have been had reviewers looked more closely at authors in the other half of the population.

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"Once societies reached a density threshold to harbor viruses, customs and religions practices evolved to help control the spread. "

I recall hearing that one of the two socio-subconscious reasons behind near-Eastern religions' prohibition against pork is the ease of viral zoonotic transmission from pigs and their capacity as reservoirs while sharing close proximity with humans (the other is association of pork eating to cannibalism, a history all humans share).

Really makes you think about the whole bat soup/pangolin/wet markets/maybe-don't-play-with-viral-protein-coats-for-fun-and-prizes in a new but simultaneously old way.

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I read some of the behavior of governments during the pandemic as more parasitic rather than less, unlike the author. For instance, it's not clear to me that enforced shutdowns of many of the things that were shutdown were really helpful when you compare across European countries or various US states with different policies. Further, when you consider the predicted tax shortfalls in states not actually happening, it seems less like intentionally counteracting the macroparasitic paradigm to counterbalance the microparasitic one. Finally, I would note that the macroparasitic oscillations in the supply chains and things that make it hard, for instance, for me to get to buy materials to build a garage means that the story of the pandemic is only partially over in the way McNeill would analyze such things.

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This does indeed sound like a very 70s book - the general tenor of the times was looking for a gloomy way to forecast the end of civilisation in the near future.

It seems to be somewhat plausible, but there's a bit of a stretch when he makes the analogy between micro- and macro-parasites. Thuggish soldiers beating up sickly farmers to take their crops as taxes may be a beguiling notion, but those soldiers were often recruited from farming villages themselves, so not *everybody* could have been fluke-ridden.

And there are diseases that seem to mysteriously pop up then disappear again, like the sweating sickness in England (bad enough that Thomas Cromwell went to work in the morning while his wife felt a bit under the weather, then he was notified that evening she was dead): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweating_sickness

Or leprosy in mediaeval times, which seems to really have been Hansen's Disease. Nevertheless, enough people got it to have leper hospitals built to quarantine them from the rest of society and for places in Ireland to get names derived from "Lepers Town". Yet somehow the European variant didn't thrive after a few centuries? There's some speculation as to "improved resistance in the population" but that doesn't really explain why leprosy continued in other countries, surely their populations too would become resistant? https://www.livescience.com/37424-history-of-leprosy-bacterium.html

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"The way that Europeans decimated Native Americans with smallpox blankets" -- wait, I thought that was debunked. I mean, they tried, but it didn't work. https://www.history.com/news/colonists-native-americans-smallpox-blankets

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I read the book a decade ago & blogged about it here:


The rats don't spread the plague by being eaten (not that rat is a popular European cuisine), but instead via parasites that suck their blood.

Marvin Harris had a theory about pork taboos in "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches". The Yanomamo reject his theories of an economic reason for why they go to war (they told Napoleon Chagnon they fight over women instead), but his Marxist materialism is preferable to some of the woolier anti-scientific varieties of cultural anthropology one is apt to encounter nowadays.

As for whether our customs actually inhibit the spread of disease, it's worth linking to this again:


"Eventually collaboration- collective acceptance of human rights or wearing masks- is more important than the newest technology"

For COVID-19, vaccines >>>>>>>>>>>>> masks.

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"India has ten times less of a death rate than the United States, to which a Mayo Clinic Professor recently pondered “cross reactive immunity from prior corona virus and other infections” as a main reason."

It's obvious undercounting. There seems to be a sharp break between lower middle income countries and upper middle income countries (around the income level of Peru or Ukraine) in the ability or will to accurately count COVID deaths. It's mostly non-democracies that undercount (for obvious reasons), which suggests a high level of corruption in India.

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Just wanted to bring these word choice problems to your attention:

"Through statistical analysis of the modern spread of measles, McNeill claims that the minimum population size to keep a virus going is about half a million people. Coincidentally, the world’s oldest civilization, the ancient Sumeria population was approximately half a million."

Coincidentally -> incidentally

"Once agricultural city states started to pop up, humanity stumbled between avoiding too much microprasitic malay and macroparsitic violence. "

Malay -> malaise

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> Around 600 BC extensive farming started in the Yellow River Valley. It took enormous collective engineering effort to build canals, irrigation systems, and flood controls to turn the vast flood plain into a productive carpet of rice paddies. Chronic warfare ended around 200 BC with consolidation of power in the Han Dynasty.

Reading this, one could get the impression that the Han were the first to unite that region. But they weren't; before the Han was the Warring States Period, but before that was the Zhou Dynasty (whom Confucius served), founded in 1046 BC. And before Zhou came at least one less well-documented dynasty.

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>For a virus to spread prolifically it will need, more or less, an ever growing population of hosts that have not had the virus. McNeill calls infectious viral diseases that pass directly from human to human the “diseases of civilization par excellence; the peculiar hallmark and epidemiological burden of cities and of countryside in contact with cities.”

>Probably all viruses transferred to humans from animal herds.

...I think the issue here is rather obvious. Viruses long predate civilization, and indeed humanity.

Also IIRC there's debate about whether the tsetse fly's modern range is due to massive expansion in the 1800s. (Though the general case would really be to compare parasite quantity in Africa vs. tropical Asia vs. South America, as to whether it was co-evolution with humans or just climate. The review seems to imply the former for the Africa section, but then talks about microparasites blocking Chinese southward expansion in Asia....)

More generally, the review talks about a convincing narrative but fails to explain what that narrative is. "Diseases have played a massive role in history" is certainly true, but nowadays at least seems barely controversial, especially when it comes to epidemic plagues. I mean - "Guns, Germs, and Steel", one part out of three.... McNeill attacks Diamond for an overly simple explanation in geography (though Diamond applies this simple explanation to a specific problem, rather than purporting to explain everything), but in a way that seems to deny the possibility of explanations at all. It's kind of a general attitude, where "it's more complicated than that" is *always* brought up as an objection - I mean, it's always true, but not always a valid objection (though sometimes it is; some simplifications are in fact less accurate than random chance).

Anyway. If McNeill's narrative is instead that history can be described as a competition between microparasites (disease) and macroparasites (government) to exploit humans, then I have to ask whether this was meant as a lens to look at history through, or as a statement with concrete implications. The former wouldn't need the evidence McNeill misses, but feels somewhat arbitrary (are we sure government is more like a lion than a virus?). In the latter case, what are those implications?

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This really could have done with a round of spell check. The second-to-last paragraph of "Macroparasitism" alone has three misspelled '-parasitic' words.

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There seems to be a lot of problems the book's basic history.

For example, classical Chinese civilisation did emerge in the North around the yellow river... But that civilization very quickly moved south. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang in 220 BC conquered all the way down to the modern borders of Vietnam. He was succeeded by the Han dynasty. And the Han dynasty did have control over the entire Yangtze river. When it broke up to form the 3 kingdoms of Wu, Wei, and Shu... Wu and Shu had control of the Yangtze and it's tributaries up to modern day Sichuan.

Even there, in Sichuan itself, the history of agricultural civilization goes back to at least 1200 BC. The author wouldn't know this as most of the discovery happened in 1986, but he sanxingdui site in Sichuan dates back to 1200 BC and shows very advanced civilization.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanxingdui

I say that not fault the author for not knowing about a site discovered a decade after he published, but because, as this reviewer points out, he's telling a "just so" story that gets shredded by a random piece of actual data.

(Also, it has been well accepted and established by both Western and Chinese historians that Han Chinese civilization in the form of the characters and the language spread to most of modern East China by the Han dynasty. I would be very surprised if the author found a Chinese history book in 1960 whatever that suggested otherwise. Furthermore, the Yellow river area is known for its grain production while the Yangtze and south China is where rice is mostly grown)

He does get a good dig on Diamond, but it's not much of one. Guns, germs, and steel is about geographic determinism. Diamond tells a story where geography determines the course of civilization until the 14th 15th century and then he sort of makes some hazy explanations for the next 600 years. However, reading Diamond's book makes the answer obvious. The 14th -15th century was when technology and governing structures got powerful enough to routinely overcome geography. diamond doesn't say this, but it's kind of obvious when he spends his final chapter marvelling at how geography has lost its predictive power and the Europeans are moving potatoes from Peru to Europe. That McNeil says governments, especially those of the last 500 years can overcome geography, isn't that much of a blow to the guns germs and steel thesis.

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"What if Seeing Like a State misses what the Hebrews missed? Farming grains indeed allowed a storable and quantifiable good to be taxed, but the blood fluke made it so it was easy to take away from the sickly farmers."

James C. Scott does have a book on this era, called Against the Grain. There seems to be significant overlap between this book and Plagues and People. I don't know if Scott was aware of McNeill when writing it.

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Why don't you copy-edit these?

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I always wondered if recently canceled New York Times epidemics reporter Donald McNeil was related to the author of "Plagues and Peoples," but William H. McNeill has an extra "l" at the end of his name.

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"Many parasitic worms and protozoa in Africa do not provoke immune reactions. When too many humans get together they spread these parasites more and suddenly the population drops again."

That's more or less the theme of John Reader's 1990s book "Africa: Biography of a Continent:" urbanization was difficult to make work in sub-Saharan Africa because of the germ burden when humans lived densely.

I'd like to see a strong critical analysis of Reader's book.

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My impression is that "Plagues and Peoples" made a major impact on high end thought when it was published 45 years ago, forcing Big Picture thinkers to contemplate much more rigorously the role of disease in history than they had tended to before.

On the other hand, 1976 was a long time ago, and even more is known about such topics today. Highly influential books tend to render themselves out of date by encouraging subsequent writers to delve even deeper.

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On the contrary I'm pretty sure McNeill didn't feel 'jealous' of Diamond's success. He was 80 when Germs Guns and Steel was published and his 'Rise of the West' was THE textbook on the subject for decades. Regardless, lot of historians with specific knowledge of Diamond's 'examples' have criticized him for starting with his generalizations and then cherry picking.

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One thing that seems to be clearly wrong with McNeill's analysis is the view that raiding other groups was a systematic feature of civilisation. Anyone who has studied social anthropology knows that raiding takes place even at hunter-gatherer levels of development. I'd postulate it might predate humanity even, since chimpanzees also have inter-group raiding. I can't help but see the shadow of the noble savage here.

Note that raiding in less agricultural or civilised (used here solely in the sense if city-based) societies tends to be much more destructive and more likely to obliterate other groups though, so you might argue that the development of fields and walls helped innoculate against end-of-culture violence.

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I don't think categorizing governments as macro parasites works. It does work if you think that the introduction of governments caused human welfare to go down, but that claim is rather dubious given the increase in lifespan, medical knowledge, child survival rates etc. While biological parasites don't tend to help us, governments create the structures that give us roads, homeless shelters, scientific institutions etc. From a non-anarchistic point of view, governments seem more mutualistic than parasitic (assuming you view governments as an inherently separate entity from human collectives to begin with).

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This book seems to combine two of my least favorite things - finding one factor in history and making it the only factor, and finding a metaphor and stretching it way, WAY past the breaking point while pretending to reveal something important by doing it.

Also, good grief: "India’s caste system is a relic of living in a high disease gradient area and cohabitating between city folk, farmers, and others. The ‘untouchables’ makes a lot of sense in that framework."

The purpose of a caste system is to create an institutional framework to maintain the power of the people in power - there's not really a mystery here.

And further: We have a word for lions and tigers and bear, and it's not "parasites." It's "predators".

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Don't get me wrong, this book sounds interesting... but is it anything more than a "just-so" story ?

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I have to admit I couldn't quite shake the feeling, while reading this review, that this book was a case of "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Calling apex predators "macroparasites" is defensible, but very strange. Arguing that civilisations are shaped by diseases and parasitism is also defensible, but also seems like a strange narration and not obviously superior to its inverse ("diseases and parasitism are shaped by civilisations", which of course also features in both book and review) and economic theory. Calling government an "immune system" is defensible, but I'm not sure what insight it's supposed to convey.

It might just be my own limited cognition (quite likely, in fact), but I didn't come away from this review (and assume I would not come away from the book) thinking that this way of framing civilisational change ("microparasites and viruses being one of the ‘fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.’") is a particularly helpful model.

Mind, at the very least, it *is* an interesting excursion. On a meta level it's a great data point that sometimes several different models can be used to map the same (or at least comparable) phenomena.

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The link posted in "William H. McNeill versus Jared Diamond" is not to W. H. McNeill's New York Review of Books review of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (which Diamond did reply to, that link is OK), but to a review by J. R. McNeil, son of W. H., and a worthy big history/ecological historian in his own right. The quotation "Not bad for an amateur" is McNeill fils, not McNeill pere.

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I'll have to look this one up. I read and liked The Rise of the West some decades ago.

One incidental thing that struck me. I've never known how seriously to take Diamond's business about "domesticable" species, because he didn't seem to have any definition of "domesticable" other than just "was domesticated". He asserted that zebras, for instance, were not domesticable but never seemed to say why, which made me wonder why it's not just as good a theory to say that the Eurasians who domesticated the horse were just cleverer than the Africans who failed to domesticate the zebra. So it intrigues me that McNeill does not raise that question and seems to take Diamond's assertion as unimpeachable and in fact praiseworthy, something that previous historians either didn't notice or didn't appreciate. I wish I had a clearer idea of why that is.

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"McNeill claims that the minimum population size to keep a virus going is about half a million people."

I'd like to know where that number comes from.

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What an exciting review of an obviously exciting book!

..and a nice food-for-thought reflection at the end:

“This model is enticing because it seems, in McNeill’s narrative, persistent since the dawn of humanity. It also seems a bit Marxist. Like any overarching model of reality, it will overfit and underfit. Regardless, models can be useful or at least beautiful.»

The author refers to David Schmachtenberger’s system theory here… ok, but why cross the river to find water? The social sciences already have old systems theories of their own, and not only Marx.

To elaborate, the narrative in the review reminds me of the US sociologist Arthur Stinchcombe’s (1933-2018) “general functionalist model”, which is a very simple and therefore very beautiful model. I can’t visualise it in the comment’s section, but here is how it goes:

[Box 1: Disturbance/s] (arrow: negatively influences) [Box 2: Homeostatic variable.] (arrow: triggers) [Box 3: Correction mechanism.] (feedback arrow to box 2: positively influences homeostatic variable/restores equilibrium).

If you are an economist, the homeostatic variable is the relationship between supply/demand in equilibrium. “Disturbances” is anything that induces a change in demand (new tastes) or in supply (new gizmos being invented). The “correction mechanism” is competition between economic entrepreneurs, falling over each other to exploit the new market opportunities, through which [a new] equilibrium is reached/restored.

If you are a political scientist, the homeostatic variable is the survivability of ordinary people in their everyday lives, including their need in this regard for some degree of predictability concerning their future. “Disturbances” is everything that upsets an existing equilibrium. For modern-day classical sociologists, often summed up under the umbrella term “Modernization”. (Or if you have Marxist leanings, under the umbrella term “changes in the relationship between productive forces and the modes of production”.) The “correction mechanism” is competition between exiting and aspiring political elites (Schumpeterian political entrepreneurs), falling over each other to use popular dissatisfaction as a means to conquer or remain in power. Peacefully, if this political competition is effectively regulated (as in effective democracies); violently if this is not the case (revolutions and the like).

It seems to me that McNeill’s grand narrative can be fitted into the same model without Procrustean stretching. As above, the homeostatic variable is a social equilibrium characterized by a sufficient degree of “survivability of ordinary people in their everyday lives, including their need in this regard for some degree of predictability concerning their future”. (“Sufficient” here meaning: sufficient to at least keep the population at reproduction level.) Microparasites represent “disturbances”. Darwinian-style selection of various institutional-cultural societal complexes represents the “correction mechanism”. (The correction mechanism is Darwinian: Some such societal complexes allow the population to at least reproduce; those that don’t, are gradually weeded out of existence.) And the various (surviving) institutional-cultural societal complexes that materialize, and dominate various historical epochs and geographical areas, represent [new/restored] social equilibriums.

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I'm not sure "ecological balance" has any meaning. If there aren't enough parasites afflicting humans, will the yellowstone supervolcano erupt?

I'm going to try to steelman McNeill:

P1: People in higher-disease areas needed to reproduce more to compensate for deaths from disease

P2: Reproducing more costs more food (as any veteran Civ player knows)

P3: Agriculture in higher-disease areas produced more food per farmer than agriculture in lower-disease areas.

P4: The more a government can extract from its subjects without killing them, the bigger and fancier it gets.

It seems like this argument can't get anywhere without some quantitative data about the relative magnitude of P3 versus (P1+P2). And none is given.

"The way that Europeans decimated Native Americans with smallpox blankets"

The only documented case of Europeans trying to spread smallpox was the siege of fort pitt, in which case it was pretty inept and redundant with natural routes of transmission (also self defense during a siege). In return, Europe got Syphilis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_syphilis#Columbian_theory

"Guns, Germs, and Steel"

counterpoint (trigger warning: 3 hour long ranty video by a mad genius who is somewhere in between civic nationalism and white nationalism): bitchute.com/video/qvaxPH3ftUQ

Jared Diamond doesn't doesn't look hard for potentially domesticable crops and animals, so he's sort of assuming everything is domesticable iff it was historically domesticated. He ignores modern evidence of the domesticability of zebras and llamas, and evidence that that European wheat had lower yields than a lot of other crops around the world. Diamond very rarely cites sources for anything, and even if he were right about big geographical differences causing the rise of civilization, that wouldn't say much about differential selective pressures that could have led to hereditary differences.

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I enjoyed the review, but I was perplexed by the "Marxist" remark. Let's be honest enough to say that systems theory, while seemingly explaining everything, is not fine-grained enough to give is a workable picture of capital "R" reality because capital "R" reality is further obscured by invisible feedback loops within feedback loops and finally by our limited consciousness. The Marxist comment was unnecessary and takes away from an otherwise insightful review--it shows more your own bias than the book's.

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>too much microprasitic malay and macroparsitic violence.

2 spelling errors

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I object to the constant assumption that all governments are parasitic. It's a useful metaphor, but not useful enough to make up for the damage done by supporting the "all managers and middlemen are parasites" meme.

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I read this book when it first came out in the 1970s, and I was pretty impressed with it. It was part of a movement in the 1960s and 1970s to put more emphasis on material culture as opposed to the stuff that was traditionally chronicled. A lot of history tends to be political, so it focuses on cultural issues and movements, leaders and villains. For a long time, that was the only kind of history available.

In the 1960s European historians started studying old records to track the prices of goods and labor, estimate populations and demographics. American historians were digging up plantations in the south to figure out how the slaves who built them lived. Archeologists were taking a systems approach to understanding ancient civilizations. In Egypt, they started studying work camps to see how the workers who built the pyramids lived. History wasn't just about the elite. There were all sorts of people out there, the dark matter and dark energy of history. Abel's widow had a name.

The sciences have a hierarchy as Mary Somerville espoused. The laws of biology have to obey the laws of chemistry, and the laws of chemistry have to obey the laws of physics. The laws of history were subject to the constraints of biology, chemistry and physics. Plagues and Peoples was applying a biological lens. Sick people can't work as hard. They are less likely to reproduce and more likely to die.

Modern historians have adopted all sorts of techniques to build a more complete picture. There is genetic evidence that can link peoples through space and time and mark disruptions in society. There is remote sensing to detect large scale patterns of development. Chemical analysis can detect trace markers and determine ancient diets and processes. History isn't just about old documents. A big change was took place in the 1960s and 1970s, and this book was a part of that transformation.

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Brief review-of-the-review:

I've seen enough Monocausal Pop Social Science to roll my eyes at the book's thesis, but I appreciated the clear and fair treatment the reviewer gave it. And the review ran with the book's framing in a way I found illuminating if misguided. (Surely between the anarchist "states are macroparasites" framing and the Marxist "states are macroorganisms" framing there's some room for states to be morally neutral!) I didn't find the Diamond debate directly relevant and nothing about the review moved me to vote for it, but given how it was selected I was pleasantly surprised by the quality.

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