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Plagues and Peoples

3.89  ·  Rating Details ·  3,145 Ratings  ·  129 Reviews
McNeill's global history of infectious disease & its effect on the political destinies of men is built on a stunning analogy: the microparasitism of viruses & bacteria--carriers of typhoid, malaria et alia--is intimately bound up with the macroparasitism of human predators, be they Chinese warlords, Roman soldiers or Spanish conquistadors. Epidemological upheavals ...more
Paperback, 377 pages
Published 1976 by Anchor Press/Doubleday (NYC
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Anna Not sad. It was informative and thought-provoking.

Community Reviews

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Becky
Finally finished this book. It took me a while to read it due to personal stuff and the subject matter, but it ended up being one of my favorites (hence the labor of love category). It being a favorite is leading me to believe I have a soft spot for environmental history. Yes the book was much about epidemiology, but the focus was also very much on how certain diseases were possible within certain environments – how they got there, how they survived there, and how those environments were affecte ...more
Briana Patterson
This book was alright. The author knows his stuff and he's very informative. Most of his conclusions are reasonable, and he provides a fresh look at history that his contemporaries have not accounted for.

However, I hold several reservations concerning his guesswork where information was lacking. McNeill readily admits that he's working with limited sources and most of his conclusions are fine, but there are times when I don't agree with his logic. There's also some outdated concepts within his a
...more
Steve
An entertaining, if depressing, book on how history has been shaped by disease and pathogens. If you liked Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, this book is all about the germs, and about more than just the modern era: there are interesting comments on the Black Death and the rise of "childhood diseases" and why the tropics are still to be feared in terms of disease (and why climate change is so worrisome, even though that fear postdates the book by a few decades).

Lauren Brackenbury
This book by William McNeil offers an interesting interpretation of the way that epidemic disease has shaped the course of world history from ancient times to the present day, a topic that the author asserts has been neglected in traditional historical accounts. The book is written in a charmingly old-fashioned style which is pleasant to read, although it is at times a bit tediously wordy and the citations are sparser than I would like.

Nevertheless, here is one passage from the Introduction that
...more
Trista
Nov 18, 2012 Trista rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: airplane
This is what I call an "airplane book" as no one will bother you when you read it because its so alarming. Other great books on this genre (different authors) are "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach (much more readable, this author has a charming sense of humor) and the "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers" by Scott Carney (a very readable author, very much in tune and sympathetic to the subject at h ...more
Laura Jean
Jan 31, 2015 Laura Jean rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I was in undergrad, I created a timeline of events in the ancient world for a class and noticed that plagues seemed to follow the importation of new spices, and religious upheaval (spreading/decimating) seemed to follow plagues. For years in the back of my mind I wondered if anyone else had ever looked at historical events through the lens of disease, and lo and behold, all these years later, I found out someone did--

Plagues and Peoples is a general survey of world history with a particular
...more
Linus Williams
Oct 16, 2016 Linus Williams rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
McNeill in this seminal volume offers a very interesting and informative overview of the past interactions and continuing interactions between so-called "macroparasitism"--that is, predation of man upon man--and "microparasitism"--the relation between tribes or nations of men and the organisms in their microenvironment. This may be one of the first books to systematically examine the equilibrium that develops over time as diseases adapt to hosts, and how that microparasitic equilibrium can be di ...more
Stephanie Marie
Mar 03, 2016 Stephanie Marie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
I had to read this to do a book report for AP world history, and it was definitely a painfully boring waste of time. I skimmed many parts and grew physically tired every time I forced myself to read from it. Plagues and Peoples was so incredibly dull that it took me at least a month to trudge through it, but the book was still informative and resourceful for class work (I couldn't imagine anyone reading this for fun).
Angie
Dec 26, 2008 Angie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Only a historian would know how to beat a dead horse to this extreme. Unfortunately, the redundancy in the first section was enough to kill the interesting stuff...read this only if you have trouble sleeping or it's required reading for a school course.
Richard Reese
Mar 24, 2015 Richard Reese rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Nobody comprehends the universe, because it is almost entirely out of sight. We also can’t see the universe of microorganisms here on Earth, or fully comprehend their powerful influence. Historian William McNeill learned that disease has played a major role in the human journey, and he wrote a fascinating introduction to our intimate companions, the parasites, in Plagues and Peoples.

All critters eat. Hosts provide food, and parasites consume it. Large-bodied parasites, like wolves, are macro-par
...more
Katarina
Oct 28, 2011 Katarina rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Academics, Historians
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with Plagues and Peoples. I had expected discussion of exactly what cultural ramifications disease epidemics have had throughout history. The movement of disease and the large-scale changes that forced upon populations throughout history was discussed in great detail, but the CULTURAL impact of all this was not the focus. Instead, McNeill took a very empirical, scientific view of history, and chose to look at it as a series of events and interactions between or ...more
GoldGato
Aug 07, 2012 GoldGato rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Civilized diseases. This is the book that first alerted me to the way some germs and viruses have altered human history, much as pigeons have become a part of our daily environment. As we have developed the previously virgin landscape of the world, we have unwittingly unleashed the microbes intent on destroying us. Tit-for-tat. Throw in the 'peoples' element, such as Roman legionnaires turning on their own communities or Mongols burning villages and their occupants into ashes, and one wonders wh ...more
Alex Zakharov
Feb 13, 2017 Alex Zakharov rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Written back in ’76 the view expressed in the book is only more pertinent today when we have no dearth of theories explaining macro-level human state development and history (J. Diamond, I. Morris, F. Fukuyama, D. Landes, D.Acemoglue, J. Henrich). McNeill asserts that for most of history human intelligence was completely blind when it came to microbiology and as a result to this day we underestimate the effects that pathogens have had on development of human societies. His sets out to correct th ...more
Lee Drake
Feb 25, 2007 Lee Drake rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: archaeology
This work seemlessly unites archaeology, history, and microbial biology by looking at how infectious diseases have caused our history. The deepest implications are reserved for our future, but the resolution of the past is brought into clarity as well. McNeil points to the sucess of Muhammed and Alexander the Great and argues that they owe more to diseases ravaging the conquered rather than the military prowess of the conquerer. Simple facts such as the density of cities and the rates of infecti ...more
Sandra Strange
If you think we control the world, think again. This book traces the influence of diseases on history. It's compelling reading. It's interesting that this is a part of history rarely studied, except for some mention of the Black Plague, in college classes, though again and again disease interrupts the plans and course of men.
Erik Graff
Jan 04, 2010 Erik Graff rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: James Irwin
Shelves: history
This is an interdisciplinary work, an epidemiological history of humanity. For me, it represented an entirely new perspective whereby the political events emphasized in standard histories were radically relativized. Indeed, when one compares the devastations and distruptions caused by human agencies to that, say, of rats, the rodents have often come across as more influential than homo sapiens.
Jenn
Apr 08, 2015 Jenn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Detailed and thoughtful. I would've liked to see some of the theories expounded upon and expanded to include a more recent history of epidemics within the past forty years.
Tim Martin
Aug 30, 2012 Tim Martin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, history, reviewed
_Plagues and Peoples_ by William H. McNeill is an absolutely brilliant work of history; though originally published in 1977 it is still insightful and influential. Just as Brian Fagan in _The Long Summer_ viewed human history through the prism of climatic change, McNeill in this work showed how the world got to be the way it is in large part thanks to disease. How the various communities of humans in the world came to an accommodation with those infectious diseases that were able to reach epidem ...more
Andrew Degruccio
May 14, 2017 Andrew Degruccio rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An important understanding of the relationship of infectious disease and human history. Dense theoretical writing, but brings it together well such that the reader leaves with a good understanding of the subject matter.
Willy C
Sep 07, 2016 Willy C rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, favorites
One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read. It is a bit dated, and from recent reviews I've read, some of the more speculative parts of it have not held up all that well, but the general thesis of the work has apparently gained traction (according a UChicago book review I link at the end.) It's the 'Germ' of Jared Diamond's work.

McNeill argues that disease has played a central role in human history, and that many events attributed to political disturbances or famines should be supplemented
...more
Shelly Matthys
Not an easy read. Scholarly, thought provoking.
Jenny
Aug 24, 2012 Jenny rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Published in 1977, Plagues and Peoples seems an old, non-popularized Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. However, the scope of McNeill's book is, granted, much smaller than that of Diamond's, who purports to explain the trajectory of the human race. I found Plagues and Peoples in a used-book store, and was excited, upon reading it, to find how well it fit into my knowledge-base and interests. The basic premise is familiar from such authors as Diamond and the vehement pre-Columbian population ...more
Dennis Boccippio
By Goodreads' count, it's taken me 14 months to take this book off my half-read shelf and finish reading it, so don't expect a stellar review...

On the upside, those portions of the book which focus primarily on disease (less than you might think) and its corollary impacts on human history are fairly well done and thought-provoking; this is the case for the second half of the book (the Mongols, plague and forward). McNeill claims his intent is to earn disease a place alongside other factors in sh
...more
Brandon
A solid and seminal work in the field of epidemiological History. McNeil explores the relationship between diseases and the course of human history. The book is broken into sections looking at different time periods and how disease impacts changed throughout history and informed historical outcomes. These include: prehistory, the black death and the mongols, the Columbian exchange, and the impact of modern medicine.

This book is perhaps the most important work in epidemiological history ever wri
...more
Chuck
Aug 31, 2015 Chuck rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Plagues and Peoples" by William Hardy McNeill discusses the role of plagues in human history and experience. Many historic disasters and surprises can be associated with plagues. Lack of good medical understanding, medical terminology, and statistics prevent us from fully understanding how plagues affected much of human history. However, from anecdotal evidence MacNeill demonstrates that it likely had a significant effect in many cases.

MacNeill is particularly powerful when discusses why certai
...more
Everhopeful
Oct 21, 2010 Everhopeful rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
In all honesty, I'm rather surprised to see this getting the number of good reviews that it has here! I'm reading it for a Cultural Geography class with the intent to critique it at the end of the semester. If there are additional over-blown words the author can find to make a single sentence more complicated and flowery, he certainly finds it! As for the research and support to his arguments, I'm on page 110 or so and so far he's thrown the FACT that this is based on guesswork far more than any ...more
Dan
Feb 04, 2012 Dan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
This was one of the most compelling books I have ever read. In particular, I admired the sourcing and the boldness of some of the claims; I much prefer scholars putting their necks out on the line with bold, properly caveated arguments, rather than seeing them retreat into timid, easier intellectual spaces. McNeil clearly prefers the former.

At the core of the book, McNeil argues that we should view humans as one species among many in the competition and struggle for survival, facing other macrop
...more
Rachel Kieran
I love the subject matter, and the depth of his thinking about three intersection of epidemiology and world history. there is a big mind at work here. it did take me a good while to get through, as his writing style is heavy, more challenging at some points than others, but not easily engaging. but it is well worth the read, and worth taking time to consider where we stand today in the in-between of micro- and macro-parasitology.
Donna
Apr 04, 2014 Donna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: treadmill-reads
Well worth the effort to read. Historian William McNeill's 1977 work preceded and probably served as a foundation for Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." While its focus is the effects of disease on human history, it does so in the context of ecological relations and in terms of both microparasitic and macroparasitic threats and effects. My personal reading of the past year has been heavily weighted by history and historical fiction. This book deepens my understanding of how the lives of in ...more
Jeremy Mccool
Apr 12, 2012 Jeremy Mccool rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although I have some philosophical difficulties with the arguments presented through this book, I believe McNeill's insights into human history--epochs and eras as dominated by plagues and diseases and not by human triumph--are very fascinating. I read this book with vigor, and although some of the imagery is a bit graphic, the narrative does have quite a bit of explanatory power. The base argument is that disease and the business of death have been responsible for the course human history has t ...more
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aka William William Hardy McNeill is a Canadian-American world historian and author, particularly noted for his writings on Western civilization. He is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago where he has taught since 1947.
More about William Hardy McNeill...

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