A History of the World in Eight Plagues

The fall of Neanderthal and the rise of homo sapiens; the fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity; the fall of Ghenghis Khan and the rise of Ming dynasty; the Age of Exploration and the splinter of the Catholic Church, the rise of capitalism, the fate of the American Revolution and where slavery took root and did not.

We only see history as a story about people, but tiny microbes are far more important. That’s the take by academic Jonathan Kennedy‘s 2023 book Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues. (After On Savage Shores, this is the second book in a row I’ve read by authors from southwest England).

For most of human history we didn’t know the microscopic level so we didn’t understand the role it played. Fewer than 1,300 of our ancestors may have lived at one time a million years ago, in part because of climate and disease, according to research released this summer. The effects of the microscopic world are bigger than we’ve yet realized.

This book picks up from an influential 1976 book called Plagues and People. It’s insightful and challenging and presents a new way to see the world. I recommend it. Below I share my notes from the book for future research.

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Homo Deus: notes on Yuval Noah Harrari 2017 book

Advancements in artificial intelligence could bring about a world in which humans are secondary to self-learning algorithms.

That’s one of the big themes in the 2017 book Homo Deus, a followup by historian and popular intellectual Yuval Noah Harrari on his 2014 book Sapiens. Even more than his first, Homo Deus has been criticized for its wide-sweeping generalizations and his science generalizations. Harrari is one of the chief architects of a kind of techno-pessism so I still find his approach helpful to follow.

He’s a great storyteller, and beyond any debunked science, he engages with concepts I found interesting. I’m sharing notes here for myself. The book is worth reading if only to grasp a view on the treacherous waters some fear are coming due to technical advancements.

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Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind

Our species, Homo sapiens, first grew powerful by banding together through myth-making. That self-deception is our strength and our curse.

That is something like the thesis of Sapiens, a kind of pop anthropology anthology that has — like all books that generalize heady issues — caught both praise and derision. Written by Yuval Noah Harari, it was first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. I was gifted a copy by a collaborator of mine, Deborah Diamond and I read it in a couple weeks. I’m sharing here some of what I got from reading it.

Public intellectuals seem to face a harrowing choice. Either dive deeply into their subject matter to influence their peers but risk their ideas remaining obscure, or focus on translating and synthesizing for a broader audience, and attract scorn from those deeper situated in the academic. Harari is squarely in the latter category, garnering a 2018 New York Times profile focused on the adulation he’s received from tech executives, despite his criticism of their work.

Like a breakout hit in linguistics that I read, I approach these books with neither extreme. I find them fun, discover ideas to dive deeper into and often get inspiration. That was my experience with Harari’s book — even though I found myself ignoring extended passages of his extrapolation. I enjoyed it.

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