Book of

Plagues and Peoples, by William H. McNeill

The original rollerskate tour of the impact of disease on world history. One of the books that has influenced my thinking the most.

I first read Plagues and Peoples in 1977, IIRC. I read it for a population biology course where I wrote a joint review of P&P and one of C. D. Darlington’s books, probably The Evolution of Man and Society. My conclusion at the time was that to me as a scientist it was embarrassing how bad the biologist (Darlington) was at history, and how good the historian (McNeill) was at biology. Darlington’s racism was not only flaming but flagrantly stupid — he was one of the scientists who gave group selection a bad name.

McNeill was the one to get historians to start to pay attention to disease gradients, in particular the crucial role Old World diseases played in the conquest of the New World. The book has lots of other insights I wish I’d seen followed up more, such as:

1. Human populations are constrained by both microparasites (diseases) and macroparasites, which are the upper classes. How much the macroparasites can get (to make “civilization”) is partly a function of how much the microparasites leave them.

2. India’s complex and enduring caste system may be a way of keeping disease pools from different culture groups (somewhat) separated, in an environment (high population density, tropical climate) where microparasites can be expected to do exceptionally well.

3. For thousands of years, the history of both Europe and China was shaped by wave after wave of immigrants (or invaders) from central Eurasia. After the Mongols, the dynamic seemed to shift so that central Eurasia was comparatively depopulated, pressed by immigrants from east and west. McNeill wondered if bubonic plague hit even harder in central Eurasia than it did in China and Europe, permanently depressing the population.

4. Sub-Saharan Africa is up the disease gradient from everybody. Although McNeill doesn’t make the explicit connection, I saw this as an instance of Vavilov’s Rule: a species is most diverse *and* its parasites are most diverse near its center of origin.

One of the things that impressed me on first reading P&P was how many novel diseases seemed to come from Africa. I was also impressed by how important venereal diseases had been in the past, especially the history of syphilis in Europe.

At that time (the late 70s), I was also seeing a particularly free-wheeling sexual culture develop among gay men, one that was much less squeamish about the possibility of picking up diseases from strange partners than I tended to be (and much more trusting that “oh, the doctor will fix it with a shot” than I was, too). “Damn,” I thought, “this is a perfect setup for some new disease to come out of Africa, spread through sexual contact, and show up in the gay population first because they’re having so much sex. But who would listen to me?”

So, yeah. When AIDS showed up — and I remember reading the first reports as I scanned journals in my first real job — I was *horrified*, but I wasn’t *surprised*. Because of McNeill, I felt like I’d seen it coming, as though I’d *predicted* it — but only in my own head, not where it would do any good. It took until the mid-80s, when I read some of Randy Shilts‘ coverage, to realize that people far better qualified than I had been screaming as the gay community headed toward the STD cliff in the late 70s, and they couldn’t stop it, either. So I got my head out of my ass and volunteered at the Philadelphia AIDS Hotline for a bunch of years, answering phones, crunching data, and on the Board of Directors. It was better than cursing the darkness, though I did that, too.

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