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The Human Story    by James C. Davis order for
Human Story
by James C. Davis
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

History of humanity? How do you avoid an abstruse tome, of academic interest only? A history professor at the University of Pennsylvania for over 3 decades, James C. Davis has an engaging way with words, and an ability to present periods of history from an intriguing perspective with new insights for readers. For example, his chapter title for the stirrings of democracy in the early United States and France is 'Here and there, the people rule.' Davis gazes over eons like the rest of us look back on last week, and he keeps it real, by descending from the heights to tell small, individual stories, like that of the 1800s Zuzek family in NE Italy, who suffered 'Many births, many early deaths.'

The author's own viewpoint is that 'In spite of all we hear and say, the world has been improving for a good long time' and he proceeds to take us through eons and the growth and decline of civilizations. It all begins as 'We fill the earth', gather by rivers, and settle down. Davis makes early man human by talking about their self decoration and cave paintings. He shares what still puzzles experts, such as the mystery of the worldwide innovation of farming, and notes when the documentation of history begins. At times he waxes lyrical, as in 'figuring out the history of Egypt ... is like boating down the Nile on a moonless night, with no hint of the life on either bank except rare, mysterious glows of light from dimmed lanterns.'

Davis speaks of Herodotus as the father of history. He shows us the conflict between Athens and Sparta, states as philosophically divergent as East and West in the Cold War. He shares Plato's test for rulers to apply to any public act, 'will it make us better humans than we were before?' Davis takes us into the 'Middle Kingdom' of the Chinese, the 'most inventive folk on earth'. He has some fun with the 'Mandate of Heaven', and paints a thrilling picture of the rise and fall of dynasties, such as the Ming. He speaks of Confucius, quotes great poets like Li Po and Du Fu, and presents the Golden Age of the 1600s - 1700s. I wondered at the might have been of Emperor Yong-lo's 1405 exploration fleet. Why did the Chinese halt this early opportunity for 'far-flung power and influence'?

I always enjoy reading of the conquerors with their 'frontier energy' and nothing to lose - presented here from Cyrus and Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, of whose rule a Persian poet wrote 'Men were like wolves.' But Davis also reminds us of the 'great achievements', like roads and just laws, that often came along with the carnage. After the conquerors, he covers the founding of the worldwide faiths - Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and the youngest, Islam - by 'humble people in forgotten places' who asked and answered vividly 'the most important questions.' Next we hear about the Middle Ages, the Crusades, Marco Polo, Macchiavelli and Thomas More, and the invention of the printing of books.

There is a 'linking of human clusters' through exploration by the Portuguese under Prince Henry, Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, Cook etc.. I enjoyed reading about the forgery that resulted in the naming of America. We hear what happened to an estimated 40 - 100 million Indians and their sophisticated civilizations, in North and South America, after Europeans arrived. And we learn about the acceleration of growth in human population, which previously had 'increased with the speed of a glacier', due to waves of famine, war and plague. We see how mankind's view of the universe evolved through 'giants' from Ptolemy to Newton, and how industrialization began.

Davis covers the empire building nations (including Japan), and the Great Wars. It was interesting to note that though WWI killed 9 million, the influenza epidemic that followed it killed 20 million, and WWII took 60 million lives. The author contrasts the approaches that India and China took to their multitudes, and reminds us that 'Democracy may not always be the fastest road from poverty.' He tells the story of McDonald's international success. He spends time on the Cold War and discusses the rise of 'Islamism', which he defines as 'the rising trend among some Muslim clerics and their crowds of devotees to battle all things new.'

The final chapter, 'We do the unbelievable', has a hopeful tone. It addresses the development of computers and the Internet, space exploration and genetics research, and suggests what is likely to follow. Davis considers that 'in the decades after World War II our species crossed a line ... achieved a previously undreamed-of mastery of life.' The author's epilogue is a poem that ends with this grook-like couplet - 'The world's still cruel, that's understood, / But once was worse. So far so good.' I enjoyed The Human Story very much, will encourage my teen sons to read this accessible account of our time on earth so far, and hope that it continues to be so good.

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