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Book Review: The Human Story by James C. Davis

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When I first came across James C. Davis’s The Human Story I was fascinated: the history of the world in less than 500 pages?! That would be quite an accomplishment if it could avoid a mere encyclopaedia-like listing of key events and actually tell a story or hold a narrative. Unfortunately life, and other books, intervened and I never quite got around to reading it.

Until now, of course. After having my first child and taking some time off work, I figured I better dive into some bigger history books before my free time shrinks even more. So, in what seems apropos, I dived in and finished The Human Story while holding my newborn child or watching her sleep. And having read this history of the world I must say that I was pleasantly surprised how interesting and informative it was even for a history buff (M.A.) like me. It was sort of like a quick tour through the centuries; a birds-eye view of history with a few good vignettes used to exemplify larger experiences.

Davis labels his chapters with short pithy statements meant to give a quick idea of the subject: We fill the earth; We found the worldwide faiths; We find each other; Here and there, the people rule; Some of us do well; et cetera. This gives you an idea of the conversational and laid back tone of the work. Davis realizes his job is impossible – there is no way he can really cover the material – so he tries to paint the big picture, dipping into the smaller details only to illustrate the larger pattern.

Since Davis is telling the “human story”, his perspective is global. When he talks about “we” he means humans, not Westerners or Americans. He describes the events from a sort of realistic yet slightly optimistic point of view. As he says in his introduction to the reader: “In spite of all we hear and say, the world has been improving for a good long time.” Davis seems to be saying that for the vast majority of time man has had a pretty rough lot in life and there is no sense in sugar coating it or looking for sinister forces to blame; that is just life. But he also points to the ingenuity and drive man has to improve himself and his place in life.

Those looking for the nitty-gritty details of history will be largely disappointed. This is not that kind of book. But anyone interested in getting a better grasp on the scope of history and its basic structure will find The Human Story useful and enjoyable. In big strokes Davis outlines the migrations of early humans; the growth of the major early civilizations; the push and pull of population growth and famine, war, and pestilence; imperialism and the New Imperialism, the growth of science and technology and their positive and negative consequences; the development of democracy and totalitarianism; and the “brave new world” we seem to be entering in the 21st century.

As he moves along Davis studies smaller and smaller chunks of time, starting out with millennia and ending up talking about decades. In discussing the last 500 years or so, he gives the reader a good overview of the people, places, and ideas that dominated each century. While rulers, politicians, and “great men” are discussed, Davis focuses more on broad historical and social trends than on politics per se. Wars are dealt with, but more as examples of how societies interact and change than as straightforward military history. Davis spends more time on the development of agriculture and the impact of the plague then he does the political development of Europe. Again, it is the “Human” story.

Those looking for controversy will probably find it.

– Although Davis treats Christianity, and other faiths, with respect and views Jesus as a real historical figure his perspective is anything but orthodox. He admits that he views Jesus as an itinerant prophet preaching the end of the world, not as the literal Son of God.

– His descriptions of the conquest of North and South America certainly don’t spare the gruesome details but they also don’t harshly castigate the Europeans as genocidal maniacs as some in the academy might. He also describes the barbarism and violence of the Mayans and the Aztecs. His perspective is neither politically correct nor politically-motivated revisionism.

– His brief discussion of the Cold War leans perilously close, at least in my mind, to moral equivalency. The Soviet Union and the United States were both powerful nations bent on empire for a variety of reasons. To be fair this may have more to do with scope and tone than anything else. And Davis does describe the terrible death and destruction that followed in the wake of Lenin, Stalin, et al.

– If anywhere he falls into advocacy, it is in a section on man’s impact on the environment. He makes an impassioned case that man is in danger of despoiling the entire planet through his selfish and destructive actions; that for the first time man’s ability is bigger than nature. While acknowledging doubters, he views global warming as mostly a man-made phenomenon.

– In the same way he describes Darwinian Evolution as consensus fact and portrays Darwin as an unlikely hero (he was never good in school, etc.)

– Davis ends the book with his vision of what might lay in the future. He sees computers made out of molecules; a flight to Mars and maybe even a colony there; the genetic engineering of children; and medical cloning of humans. His tone here is one of wonder and excitement with no sense of the ethical or moral problems this world might present:

This stereoscopic view should make this clear: in the decades after World War II our species crossed a line. Of course, as individual humans we didn’t change; we look and feel the way we did before. But as a species we achieved a previously undreamed-of mastery of life.

Although to be fair, the final sentence in that chapter is: “If any species does destroy us, it will surely be our own.”

Davis ends the book with a poem he wrote to sum up the story. This is a pretty creative device and it is an effective summary. The last two lines capture his attitude well:

The world’s still cruel, that’s understood,
But once was worse. So far so good.

The Human Story is an ambitious undertaking. To attempt to tell the history of the human race in less than 500 pages is no easy task. As a result there are plenty of criticisms that can be thrown at a work such as this. But most of them come down to “I would have done it differently.” Davis is to be commended for undertaking such a task and carrying it off with such aplomb. If you think history has to be dry, and full of dates and overwhelming detail, this book could change your mind. I would recommend it to anyone interested in history or seeking to gain a better understanding of the past. It might not capture all the details but it certainly provides a broad foundation for later study.

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About Kevin

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    500 words or 500 pages?

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Since he uses both, I suspect the one in the first line is a mistake. Kevin?

  • http://www.collectedmiscellany.com Kevin Holtsberry

    Yes, pages not words! That would really be something. I fixed the error.

  • anonymous

    I found this book to be very biased (Western, white, and Christian bias). His writing on colonialism and “the Age of Discovery” hardly give a moments notice to incredible depths of evil that Europeans engaged in, and the resultant poverty in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. His “historical” on Jesus, does not, unlike Wil Durant’s “Caesar and Christ” (that is a real historian), take into account the POSSIBILITY that Christ did not actually exist. When he discuss Islam and Mohammad, it is like he is telling a fictional story–he says “what Islam teaches about Mohammad.” This is the worst kind of history, candy-light fluffy, reinforces all kinds of stereotypes and shallow understandings. Read “A Splendid Exchange-How Trade Shaped the World” for a much better historical understanding.

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