Bill McNeill - patron of Big History

Bill McNeill - patron of Big History

Bill McNeill - patron of Big History


Image: William H. McNeill CC BY-SA 3.0 Berkshire Publishing (image cropped)

Big History pioneer David Christian pays tribute to the late William H. McNeill, a great man and a great patron of Big History.

Bill McNeill was born in October 1917 in Vancouver, and died in Connecticut on July 8 2016.  He almost made it to the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution.  I heard the sad news of his death just before the 3rdIBHA conference in Amsterdam and was glad that we were able to arrange a special session at the conference to commemorate his achievements in world history and his support for big history.

McNeill spent most of his career at the University of Chicago, where he was also an undergraduate.  He served in the army between 1941 and 1946, including a period in Greece during its civil war.  He worked, briefly, with Arnold Toynbee.  But, though inspired by the breadth of Toynbee's vision, his own work took a different direction as he rejected Toynbee's somewhat essentialist view of distinct and separate civilizations.  McNeill argued, in contrast, that the crucial forces in human history arose not within the distinctive cultures of distinct civilizations, but in the swapping of ideas and influences between different human communities. It was the sharing of ideas, technologies, even diseases that drove the most significant changes in human history.

His pioneering world history, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, was published in 1963 and was an immediate success.  The English historian, Trevor-Roper, who had written scathing reviews of Toynbee's work, described McNeill's book in a New York Times review as: "the most learned and the most intelligent [and also] the most stimulating and fascinating book that has ever set out to recount and explain the whole history of mankind."  The Rise of the West gave a new legitimacy to the young field of world history and remains one of world history's founding documents.  Several later books, including a pioneering history of the role of disease in human history, Plagues and Peoples (1976), and a history of power relations, The Pursuit of Power (1982), developed ideas first introduced in The Rise of the West.  But they also embedded human history within the history of the biosphere, showing the crucial role of bacteria and viruses in human history, and exploring the idea of states as 'macroparasites'.  In 2003, with his son, the environmental historian, John McNeill, McNeill wrote The Human Web, a history of humanity that focused on the importance of evolving and expanding webs of connections between different human communities.  In 1996, he received the Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands, and in 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal in the USA.

I should confess that I refused to read The Rise of the West for many years because its title suggested a profoundly Eurocentric approach to world history.  McNeill himself admitted in the preface to a revised edition published in 1991, that the book was more Eurocentric than he would have wished, and in particular that it overlooked the fundamental historical role of China.  Nevertheless, the book really was a history of humanity, and when I finally read it I was deeply impressed by its rigor, its breadth and the coherence and elegance of its core arguments.  It was one of those books that made me proud to be a historian.  He managed something extraordinarily difficult: to keep sight of the underlying unity of human history without ever giving a sense that he was over-generalizing or ignoring the crucial details of particular histories and eras.  Shaping his argument were theoretical ideas that combined simplicity with profundity and depth.  The very simple idea that contacts between strangers created much of the synergy of human history was developed with delicacy, subtlety and power.  McNeill's combination of intellectual ambition, rich scholarship, and nuanced argumentation made him, for me as for many historians of my generation, something of an intellectual hero.

Many of his ideas have worked their way into accounts of big history, including my own.  The idea that collective learning is what distinguishes humans from all other species was already prefigured in McNeill's idea of the power of contacts between strangers.  The idea that states represent a new tropic level was already present in The Pursuit of Power.  And McNeill was one of the few historians who took seriously the idea that it is important to try to engage, somehow, with the whole of history.

When I began working on a manuscript on big history (which became Maps of Time), Heidi Roupp, then President of the World History Association, encouraged me to send it to McNeill.  Though daunted, I took her advice, and was surprised to find that McNeill was interested and excited by the big history project of constructing a coherent history that placed human history within the history of the universe. He eventually wrote a preface to my book that conveyed that sense of excitement, arguing that big history could bring together disparate disciplines with something of the power of the great syntheses of Newton and Darwin.

Since then I have realized that he always saw big history as a natural next step after his own attempts to construct a coherent history of humanity.  In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by his enthusiasm for big history.  He was a great admirer of Fred Spier's early work on big history, and in 1996, he donated half of the prize money from the Erasmus prize to the support of the University of Amsterdam's Big History course, established by Joop Goudsblom.  Indeed, McNeill's own work already contained the seeds of big history.  He had long argued that: "History has to look at the whole world."  And he had always understood the extent to which human history was embedded in the history of the biosphere.  In a 1998 essay, 'History and the Scientific Worldview', published in History and Theory, he wrote:

"Human beings, it appears, do indeed belong in the universe and share its unstable, evolving character. ... [W]hat happens among human beings and what happens among the stars looks to be part of a grand, evolving story featuring spontaneous emergence of complexity that generates new sorts of behavior at every level of organization from the minutest quarks and leptons to the galaxies, from long carbon chains to living organisms and the biosphere, and from the biosphere to the symbolic universes of meaning within which human beings  live and labor, ..."

His son, John McNeill, has told me that Big History was one of his major interests in his final years, and "he wished he'd thought of it himself ..."  To another correspondent, Philip Day, McNeill wrote: "It [big history] is the wave of the future for history in general in my opinion and if I were younger I would teach it too."

For all these reasons, Bill was generous in his support of the fledgling discipline of big history and of scholars such as myself and others in the big history community.  Many of us made the pilgrimage to his home in Colebrook in his final years and he was always a generous and welcoming host.  I am immensely grateful to him for his support, and feel that William McNeill must count as one of the founders and patrons of our young discipline.  I'm sure all supporters of big history will remember him with admiration and gratitude.

This story was originally published in Origins, the bulletin of the International Big History Association Volume VI Number 8 and was republished here with permission.

You can read more tributes to William H. McNeill by John McNeill and Fred Spier in this edition.

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