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Book Review


Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe.  The World: A Brief History (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008). 796 pp. $80.00

     There has been an evolution in world history texts from the popular multi-authored volumes that were loosely connected collections of separate histories of major societies and regions to the more integrated global texts of recent years organized around clear themes.   Fernandez-Armesto's The World: A History, published last year, represents this trend. Rather than breaking up the narrative into geographical and regional compartments, the author presents his history into ten distinct periods, each embracing the peoples around the globe. These ten historical periods are subdivided into thirty chapters based on themes rather than on individual societies and regions. Furthermore, it is organized around two major themes: human interactions with each other and with nature.  In the tradition of McNeill and Bentley, it places great importance on cross-cultural exchanges as engines of historical change. The author states that "cultures that exchange information and articles were relatively robust," while those that were more isolated found it more difficult to flourish and often "fail." (264) An ancillary theme is the tendency of societies to diverge as they become separated from each other and converge as they establish contact. The author finds two grand patterns in world history: an overall tendency toward divergence after the end of the ice age and a move back toward convergence during the last five centuries. The second major theme—humans interacting with nature—reflects the growing awareness and interest in environmental issues, as well as a concern for understanding the role of physical geography on societies

     The World: A Brief History is the abridged version of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's The World: A History.  There is little difference in organization and features from the earlier version.  It is still divided in the same ten parts divided chronologically and subdivided thematically rather into 30 chapters. Each chapter is divided into the same subheadings. And each chapter contains the same features: focus questions, an in-depth analysis of a specific cultural artifact, and a section at the end, "In Perspective," that raises fundamental questions about that topic covered in the chapter.  Key terms are in bold type, and the excellent maps and charts, perhaps the best of any world history textbook, are all included.  Only the ten primary source document sections have been omitted. 

     The term brief is misleading, since at 796 pages it is still a quite comprehensive text and only a modest reduction for the original 1056 pages. This reduction has been made mainly by more concise writing, shortening each topic by eliminating what the author feels is less essential material.  In most cases his judgment is correct.  For example, in the first chapter under the subheading "Migration, Population, and Social Change" a lengthy discussion on fire is omitted, interesting but not essential to the topic.  In the second chapter, a section on the Australian aborigines and their rejection of agriculture is absent, but the author's excellent explanation of the varieties of agriculture and the theories for how farming got started remain intact.  Teachers of world history will find fewer materials to supply anecdotes for their lectures but its tighter focus on the main topics make it a better textbook.  

     Every chapter is still filled with astute observations, excellent explanations of major historical developments, novel  interpretations and unexpected links and connections. One of the most interesting sections is his discussion of the Axial Age; here the earlier longer version with its thoughtful and sometimes provocative statements is missed. But it still highlights the extraordinary achievement of the thinkers who have laid down the enduring patterns of thought that still shape our world today.  His comparative ecological approach provides useful insights, such as his analysis of why the Sahel failed to play the same role in Africa as the steppelands did in Eurasia. In an examination of the of the  Mississippian, Southwest, Mayan and Norse Greenlander societies their problems in expanding into new ecological niches is contrasted with the more successful efforts of various Eurasian peoples during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and with the Inuit. There is a good account of the expansion of agriculture and intensive human exploitation of the environment in recent centuries, and of the accompanying surge in demographic growth.

     Throughout the book Fernandez-Armesto  tries to approach familiar topics from a new, more global angle.  His study of the Enlightenment traces its East Asian and Middle Eastern influences, and his discussion of science includes the early spread of scientific thought in Asia.   He sets the rise of modern science, a largely European story, into global context by pointing out non-Western influences on its development, and by showing how early scientific inquiry spread to Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and to the centers of scientific study that opened  in Indonesia and India during the nineteenth century. Always searching for broad global patterns, his study of nineteenth century imperialism includes the expansion within the frontiers of what he calls the New Europes, including the U.S. and Canada. In another example of this global approach the two world wars are viewed as two converging conflicts: a civil war within East Asia between China and Japan and another civil war within Europe. For the modern centuries the author gives special emphasis on the role of science in marking a break with the past and increasingly driving the pace and nature of change until by the twentieth century it "set the agenda for the world." (694)  Another theme for the modern period is the enhanced power and role of the modern state. As the book enters contemporary history, the author finds that the recent retreat of the state from economic planning and regulating cross border trade has resulted in accelerating economic and cultural globalization.  The concluding chapter, appropriately enough, deals with environmental changes and challenges. The twentieth century, the author states, has been "particularly destructive of nature." (772)

     The new abridged version makes some of the limitations of this text more apparent as well. The units of analysis vary. In common with many writers of world histories, Fernandez-Armesto is not sure how to define or classify various types of societies. The terms societies, cultures, communities and civilizations overlap and are sometimes interchangeable. The last he defines vaguely as "a way of life based on radically modifying the environment." (31) Nor has he quite solved the problem of how to place Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas in a Eurasian-centered periodization. The author's chronological scheme before 1500 makes some sense for Eurasia but the attempts to fit developments in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas into these time periods and their themes seem forced. Some familiar topics are given cursory or unusual treatment. World Wars I and II, for example, are treated briefly and lumped with the Cold War.  No doubt teachers may be bothered by some of his sweeping statements such as that the "social history of twentieth century is largely a story of failed utopian projects." (749)

     Despite some novel approaches and provocative statements, The World: A Brief History remains conventional enough in its organization and treatment of the major topics of world history to serve as a college level textbook. While trying to survey the globe in each section Fernandez-Armesto recognizes that some societies need to be given greater treatment because they have had a greater impact on shaping global history. The author conventionally marches across the rise of major agricultural based societies starting with the ancient river valley civilizations.  Fernandez-Armesto is also fairly traditional in assigning the great oceanic voyages in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century as epoch-making, inaugurating a new phase of global interactions.  And he offers a standard explanation for the rise of the West, as well as a fairly standard account of the Industrial Revolution (although he does not use the term) and of Western Imperialism and its impact. More concise and a little less expensive than the previous version, it may be more suitable as a textbook. Whether or not it is adopted as a text, it is worth examining. Few world textbooks are as much fun and as stimulating to read.


Michael J. Seth
James Madison University


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