In “A Brief History of the Human Race” (2003) Princeton professor Michael Cook covers the last 10,000 years in 384 pages. He gives Australia, Africa, India and China whole chapters of their own. He even places Egypt in Africa.
I am not writing history to make anybody feel good, nor am I writing it to make anybody feel bad. But it’s true that I did enjoy cutting Western Europe down to size until the point at which it does get important. It’s really quite late in world history maybe even the 15th century when Western Europe starts to match up to the rest of the world.
Let’s look at the table of contents to see what we can find out.
The chapters and their page lengths:
- 16 The Palaeolitic Background
- 19 The Neolithic Revolution
- 17 The Emergence of Civilization
- 20 Australia
- 24 The Americas
- 26 Africa
- 22 The Ancient Near East
- 28 India
- 30 China
- 29 The Ancient Mediterranean World
- 33 Western Europe
- 28 Islamic Civilization
- 30 The European Expansion
- 29 The Modern World
- 6 Conclusion
I will assume the first three chapters and last two apply to the world in general. That is not quite true – “The Modern World” seems to be mainly about the West, for example – but at this stage I just want a quick idea of what is going on without going through the chapters themselves.
So how balanced are the regional chapters?
Pages per billion people (2011):
- 884.2 Australia
- 25.7 The Americas
- 25.4 Africa
- 94.8 The Ancient Near East
- 22.6 India
- 22.3 China
- 43.1 The Ancient Mediterranean World
- 79.8 Western Europe
- 17.3 Islamic Civilization
- 17.9 The European Expansion
Generally balanced except for Australia, which is off the chart, and the history of Western civilization, which gets two to four times more pages than it should based on its present size.
The West, the Muslim World, India and China each have about 1.5 billion people, give or take 300 million.
Some regions are arguably more important in history than you would suspect from their present size. We can get a rough idea of that by looking at how many years a given region had the largest city in the world.
Pages per century with the largest city in the world:
- 3.7 Africa
- 2.0 The Ancient Near East
- 2.7 China
- 2.9 The Ancient Mediterranean World
- 7.0 Islamic Civilization
- 30.0 The European Expansion
Here Cook seems to favour not so much Western history as history closer to his own time.
But there are regions he covers even during times when they did not have the largest city:
- The Americas
- Western Europe
The first three are necessary if Cook wants to cover the whole world to some degree. But not the fourth.
The chapter on Western Europe is overkill when the European Expansion already gets 30 pages. For comparison, according to the index, the Austronesian Expansion gets three pages, the Bantu Expansion gets none.
Preliminary suggestions for the second edition:
- Make “Western Europe” and “The European Expansion” into one chapter.
- Add a chapter on the Austronesian Expansion, which would help to cover regions Cook seems to give little attention: South East Asia and Polynesia.
- Cover the Bantu Expansion.