Plagues And People / William H. McNeill

In this book, William McNeill dives deeply into epidemiologically informed research to trace the impact of plagues upon the course of human history. Starting with our pre- and proto-human ancestors, he pieces together the evidence to present a likely scenario of how microparasites have been among us from earliest days. But it is only when man the hunter moved from small family groups to city states that these parasites were able to spread across the globe. McNeill focuses primarily on the civilized regions of Eurasia, discussing the importance of trade, war, and migration in carrying microparasites into virgin territory. Their spread, from areas where they were endemic into regions where immunity had yet to be conferred, resulted in devastating plagues and major losses of lives. This led to a plunge in population numbers and often caused the collapse of empires. In a later chapter, he explores the impact of the medical sciences and governments on helping to readjust the equation in the human’s favor. McNeill is a meticulous researcher, and the evidence he presents is comprehensive. Without a doubt, it is a book that prompted much excitement in the scientific community when first published in 1976. But for the casual reader, his dry presentation and bombardment of facts and figures might be off-putting. The book was written a number of years before the AIDS pandemic swept across the globe. But in the author’s concluding remarks, he suggests the likelihood of such an unknown parasite emerging, with lethal consequences. As his book shows, microparasites have continued to mutate into new strains, and we will need to be ever vigilant. While Plagues and People is not an easy read, it presents proof that, while humans might believe they are at the top of the food chain, we too are constantly being hunted by these formidable microparasites.

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