William Mcneill suggests a quite unique approach to History that I have never seen from another thirteen philosophers of History I have ever studied. While the most of Historians analyze and explain historical matters with for instance, human reason, or certain scientific laws, Mcneill introduces us another interesting and probable view and approach to History: a naturalistic, specifically biological approach.
In order for us to know why Mcneill, as not a scientist but a Historian takes biological approach to History, I would like to begin with quote from his book “Plagues and People (1998)”: “All animals depend on other living things for food, and human beings are no exception.”
Indeed, it is undeniable that a human being is obviously dependent on other living things and his environment. Before we discuss about human history in terms of civilization, culture, society, politics and those things which are resulted by human’s rational ability that distinguishes a man from an animal as what used to be believed, we must not overlook our entity as a biological being. When we seriously consider ourselves as a biological being which is not much different from an animal in terms of biological matters, then we will realize why we should closely look into our history with a biological view or approach.
When Mcneill talks about biological relationship of human being with other living organisms and environment, he takes “parasitism” as a main concern of that. Chambers Dictionary defines parasitism as a close association between two living organisms in which one (parasite) obtains food and physical protection from the other (host). Mcneill then divides parasitism into two: Microparasitism and Macroparasitism.
Microparasites are tiny organisms that find a source of a food in human tissues suitable for sustaining their own vital processes. Some microparasites provoke acute disease and either kill their host after only a brief period of time, or provoke immunity reactions inside his body that kill them off instead. (Mcneill, 1998)
Macroparasites exhibit similar diversity. Some kill at once, as lions and wolves must do when feeding on human or any other kind of flesh; others allow the host to survive indefinitely. (Mcneill, 1998)
In parasitic relation, balance or equilibrium between parasite and host is the most important matter. If a parasite extracts too much from a host, it endangers a host and host might die. Once a host is killed off, parasite will also die. When a parasite kills the host, it kills itself because when a host dies, there will be no more sources for parasite to get from it. So it is quite important to maintain a balance and equilibrium between a parasite and a host. When a balance is destroyed, then according to Mcneill, it is epidemic. And the relationship remains stable, it is endemic.
Mcneill considers human being as the greatest parasite. His book “Plagues and People (1998)” begins with the chapter “Man the Hunter” What is Mcneill emphasizes is that since the beginning, human being destroys and kills off a number of species in order for him to get what he needs for his life. He is a great parasite. For example, in Agricultural revolution, the first breakthrough of human civilization, ancient people killed a lot of species which are not sources of their foods. Actually that is the civilization, which progresses through killing off other species for their needs. As the result of development of language among men, men could be the strongest predator, or parasites in food chain. And that was the one of the motive power of the development of civilization. Killing hosts is what human being has been doing since the beginning of civilization. Man’s killing off his hosts is according to Mcneill, Macroparasitism. In order for human beings to sustain their lives, they had to rely on their hosts and they extracted things they needed from the hosts. That is civilization and society.
When a man, macroparasite destroys equilibrium and balance in their society by too much extracting from his host, it is epidemic which leads the society unstable and destroyed. Stability of society can be achieved only when the balance between parasite and host is maintained and that is endemic. Likewise, we can bring the biological relationship to understand our society. We may as well put the relationship between certain groups of people into parasitic relationship. For example, in ancient time, kings, priests, aristocrats, and nobles were like parasite which relies on peasant. They extract grains from peasant. If kings and noble group extract too much from peasant, they destroy themselves. That is epidemic. So in order to achieve a stable society, the parasitic relationship should keep its balance and equilibrium so that it will remain endemic.
I would agree with Mcneill’s idea. I believe a man is a part of nature so cannot live without nature and other living organisms. In fact, a man is ruling and controlling all the environments and living organisms as the greatest predator. However, our relationship to nature is indeed parasitic because we extract things from the nature and if we extract too much from it, it will die and we will die according to the rule of parasitism. That is why there must be balance in our relationship with other things. Therefore, what a human being has been learning throughout is how to cope and deal with his environment and how to maintain the balance and equilibrium with his hosts.
Equilibrium and Balance
When we maintain equilibrium in our society, we know the population grows. With growth in population, the people need to achieve balance among them and to their environment. According to Mcneill, the balance is achieved through three mechanisms: Disease, War and Famine.
First, as population grows, there may be more hosts for parasite, a disease. In large population, a disease will emerge to achieve that equilibrium. It kills off some of that growth in population. Second, increase in population of a certain group tempts a group to conquer other group and it leads to a war. It is a sort of macroparasitism. Third, when a large number of people extract too much from soil and plants the relationship of people to soil and to plant will be epidemic. It brings famine. Through these three mechanisms, the population pressure will be relieved. Therefore, it would achieve again the balance in parasitic relationship of human to his environment.
Among three mechanisms, disease is the most emphasized factor that has been affecting on human civilization and History. Indeed, human history is full of struggle of mankind to cope with epidemic parasite, diseases. The advent of disease has always made great impact in human civilizations. It has brought not only epidemic result but also great innovation such as quarantine in Italy. Every time when mankind meet a new disease which it cannot cope with, a disease brings great changes in human society no matter it is whether epidemic or endemic.
So it is obviously reliable to say human civilization thrives in the balance of their parasitic relationship and sometimes declines because of extreme unbalance resulted by epidemic parasitism. It can be found anywhere among men themselves, between man and plague, microparasite, and in other relationship with any other living things and environment. Therefore, I would like to say again that what we, human beings are learning throughout history is how to achieve balance with our hosts, and parasites. As a biological being, the key of our lives and civilization is found by biological approach to our history.
McNeill, W.H. (1998). Plagues and peoples. New York: Anchor Books.
Staloff, D. (1995) The search for a meaningful past philosophies, theories, and
interpretations [Audiobook]. The Teaching Company.
Parasitism Chambers Dictionary (1996). Edinburgh: Chambers
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Position Paper #14 William Henry Mcneill