The Human Condition 
by William McNeill.
Princeton, 81 pp., £4.75, October 1980, 0 691 05317 0
Show More
Show More

Professor McNeill’s little book, The Human Condition, is in the genre of most of his other works – an attempt to grasp the grand sweep of history. Originally delivered as the Brand-Lee Lectures at Clark University, the book is an abstract of ideas developed in his earlier works, in particular Plagues and People (1977).

The Human Condition needs to be understood in terms of Professor McNeill’s views on the purposes of writing history. These views were outlined in The Shape of European History (1974). The purpose he then set himself was to provide an ‘architect’s drawing’ for the ‘proliferating data of European history’. He condemned professional history for its ‘antiquarianism’, its ‘detail’, its failure to ‘generate new and large-scale hypotheses’. He complained that because of this there has been a ‘decline in the role of history in modifying prevailing public rhetoric’ and in ‘facilitating shifts in public sensibility’. Historians, he argued, must clarify their overall view about the past, for ‘assumptions about the past play a central part in defining collective consciousness on public affairs.’ He also lamented the decline, in American universities, of courses in Western civilisation. Historians had not only specialised, but in expanding their scope to include new themes and new parts of the world they had caused confusion and abandoned their central role in the educational system of transmitting ‘some sort of familiarity with the high cultural traditions of Western civilisation to student generations’. He warned that unless historians rethought the ‘shape and proportion of their subject’, they would have less and less to say to the general public that was worth attending to.

More recently, however, his own ambitions have extended to explain, not just the shape of European history, but the shape of world history; and with the necessary modification of perspective, it would appear that all the above strictures on the roles and responsibilities of the European historian also apply to the world historian. The shape of world history is presented in The Human Condition as an interaction between what McNeill calls ‘macroparasitism’ and ‘microparasitism’. Macroparasitism he defines as the exploitative relations among groups and classes of human beings, while microparasitism describes the metabolic activities of minute organisms that compete with human beings for food. McNeill traces the interaction of these two determinants of the human condition over two great stages of human history: the Urban Transmutation and the Commercial Transmutation. The dynamic of change between these stages is provided by invention, for this allowed human members to ‘cross previously unattainable thresholds’. Ultimately, however, even this was stabilised by the force of macro- and microparasitic balances which reasserted their capacity to restrict existence.

What The Human Condition offers is essentially a disease theory of history, in which the dynamics of the transmission of and resistance to disease are seen to parallel and underlie the dynamics of class exploitation and state expansion. The early development of communities of a high population density created a climate for air- and waterborne viruses. But the development of such communities also allowed their populations to develop a resistance to these diseases, which gave them ‘an advantage over isolated disease-inexperienced peoples’. A community needed sufficient wealth to support a warrior class, just as it needed a sufficient population density to support viral infections, and it would have a similar advantage over ‘other less differentiated communities’ – for example, border folk. Just as the adaptation between host and parasite led to the mutual accommodation of immunity to endemic disease, so the rise of imperial command structures based on taxation led to accommodation between ruler and ruled.

Such a balance in both the ecological and the political spheres explains the approximation to a stable state which McNeill finds shortly before the Christian era. This stability was, however, upset by a new series of plagues and epidemics from the second century AD, leading to a thousand years of instability across Eurasia. Conflict also arose between the command system of empire and an emergent price system. After 1000 AD, the balance tipped in favour of market-regulated behaviour, which dominated Europe between the 14th and the 19th centuries. This development did not, however, lead to a choice between guns and butter, for European command structures also enhanced their power by ‘creating more effective armies and navies’. Those states within Europe which gave more scope to private capital prospered relative to others, and the economic power of the central as opposed to the subordinated peripheral regions become self-reinforcing. The central regions exercised their power through the market, where the periphery was subject to greater state and bureaucratic control. The effect of the Industrial Revolution was only to enhance the market power of the centre by creating the new weapon against the periphery of cheap supplies of goods. A conjuncture between this and a period of great weakness among Asian governments established the dominance of the West.

The Human Condition goes forward from history to predict new micro- and macro-parasitic balances in our time. The effect of the great decline in infant mortality, McNeill believes, has met the countervailing force of the emergence of new diseases such as cancer. He also argues that we have been witnessing the end of the domination of market-regulated behaviour. The new dynamic of capitalist organisation has become corporate development and government intervention, and we will now see a new phase of bureaucratic conservatism with the aims of stabilising the power of existing managerial élites. Market behaviour will soon be confined to ‘the interstices of society’, ‘where it belonged in the civilised state systems before 1000 AD’ (perhaps Professor McNeill will tell this to Mrs Thatcher and President-elect Ronald Reagan). The imminence of a new phase of ecological stability may, however, be prevented by new imbalances: the prospect of population decline in some areas, and raw material, particularly fuel, shortages in others.

McNeill complements this theory of ecological and political balance with a theory of cultural innovation. The main driving-wheel of historical change, setting off new waves of mutation in the political and ecological spheres, was the interaction and confrontation of different patterns of culture. ‘Strong cultures’ were those incorporating men of diverse cultural backgrounds and were usually located in areas hospitable to diverse occupational exploitation and at the nodes of transport and communications systems. Diverse and complex civilised societies with ‘mutual friction points’ are more likely to promote cultural innovation and social change, and will furthermore be likely to cluster in time and place. It is this plus the ecological balance which leads to the emergence of the metropolitan centre.

To amplify the skeletal shape of The Human Condition, to peer beyond its vast generalisations, the reader may wish to refer back to some of Professor McNeill’s earlier works: Plagues and People (1977), The Shape of European History, Venice, the Hinge of Europe 1081-1797(1974) and Europe’s Steppe Frontier (1964). Plagues and People, the main source for The Human Condition, traces the history of epidemics from primitive man to the present day, and develops a relationship between the spread of disease and territorial expansion. McNeill does in this book acknowledge the hypothetical character of many of his assertions, and even pleads an inadequacy of research, historians having generally neglected the role of infectious disease in history. However, he does not himself propose to do the research: he prefers to present the ‘speculation and guesswork to shape such research by experts’. Such speculation has led him to some quite incredible disease theories of culture. The fragility of the Indian empire is explained by the parasitic effects of disease, the caste system interpreted as a response to an ‘epidemiological stand-off’ and the transcendentalism of Indian religions regarded as fitting the ‘circumstances of a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden peasantry’. It may be that specialisation and the expansion of the historian’s interests to new parts of the world have, as Professor McNeill puts it, ‘created confusion’, but precisely these two developments in historiography have made nonsense of such simplistic 19th-century ethnocentric attitudes as those which Professor McNeill would now resurrect as part of his cosmic historical vision.

The theories of bureaucratic power and ideas about frontier regions in The Human Condition are abstracted from Europe’s Steppe Frontier and The Shape of European History. McNeill’s comparative study of the incorporation of the various areas of Rumania, Hungary and the Ukraine into the Ottoman, Austrian and Russian Empires raises important questions about the role of border regions, as well as about the different characteristics of bureaucracy and command economy in the various European empires. His study of the westernmost portion of the Eurasian steppe identifies a distinctive geographical, economic and cultural gradient, but one which accommodated great diversity within the region. Grasslands broken by hills and forests supported varieties of pastoral and agrarian economy supplemented by mining. Population density in these areas fluctuated because of the peculiar disease configuration of the frontier. McNeill proceeds to trace the variety of ways in which steppe nomadry and raiding horsemen gave way to standing armies, permanent settlements and the advance of agriculture. The taming and conquest of the steppe by the three great agricultural empires which bordered on it – the Hapsburg, the Russian and the Ottoman – provide him with the elements of a defined comparative history; and the story of imperial endeavour in a traditionally unstable region and against a resiliently non-assimilated people is a fascinating one. He argues that the struggle to incorporate the various areas of Rumania, Hungary and the Ukraine into the three great empires was accomplished with more or less success according to the characteristics of the different imperial bureaucracies. The greater success of the Russian and Austrian Empires in particular can be attributed to their ability to make colonisation and agricultural advance an economically self-sustaining operation. The greater fiscal authority, the close connections between military and civil bureaucracies which encouraged settlement and secular attitudes to the advance of state power in both empires, but especially in Russia, accounted for their success over the Turks in Pontic Europe during the last half of the 18th century.

McNeill identified a historical problem of considerable significance and interest in the peculiar economic and political development of the border region, and this theme, as well as his interest in bureaucracies, has also been complemented by his other interest in the cultural role of southern and eastern Europe. In Venice, the Hinge of Europe, he found his prime example of the significance of cultural diversity and interaction as the motor-power for historical change over the breadth of Europe.

In these earlier works, he has given us a glimpse of the potential historical importance of all these themes. But The Human Condition does not give us any further illumination. Its macropolitics is too simplistic even to merit the status of a model. Its utterly tautological demonstration of the parasitic relationship between ruler and ruled abandons the really interesting question raised by McNeill himself in Europe’s Steppe Frontier of the different forms of ruling-class power exercised in varying degrees through fiscal and military authority, secular and religious attitudes, and civil and military bureaucracy. And it ignores the struggle between ruler and ruled over the control and distribution of the surplus – a struggle which should raise questions for the historian about the social identity of the ‘dark and deaf peasantry’ and other oppressed peoples.

It is regrettable that Professor McNeill has disdained the pursuit of scholarship required to develop the significant themes present in his earlier lectures and writings. The Human Condition, like its immediate predecessor Plagues and People, would seem to indicate that the price of his olympian disavowal of mundane research has been a descent into meta-vacuity.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences