Humans did not make history – we played host.
According to the accepted narrative of progress, a few great humans have bent the arc of history. But in this revelatory book, Dr Jonathan Kennedy argues that germs have done more to shape humanity at every stage, from the first success of Homo sapiens over the equally intelligent Neanderthals to the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam.
How did an Indonesian volcano help cause the Black Death, setting Europe on the road to capitalism? How could 168 men extract the largest ransom in history from an opposing army of eighty thousand? And why did the Industrial Revolution lead to the birth of the modern welfare state?
The latest science reveals that infectious diseases are not just something that happens to us, but a fundamental part of who we are. Indeed, the only reason humans don't lay eggs is that a virus long ago inserted itself into our DNA, and there are as many bacteria in your body as there are human cells. We have been thinking about the survival of the fittest all wrong: evolution is not simply about human strength and intelligence, but about how we live and thrive in a world dominated by microbes.
By exploring the startling intimacy of our relationship with infectious diseases, Kennedy shows how they have been responsible for some of the seismic revolutions of the past 50,000 years. Provocative and brimming with insight, Pathogenesis transforms our understanding of the human story, revealing how the crisis of a pandemic can offer vital opportunities for change.
Jonathan Kennedy teaches global public health at Queen Mary University of London. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Cambridge. His interdisciplinary research has been published in leading medical, public health, sociology and history journals, and he has written for newspapers including the Guardian and El Pais. Pathogenesis is his first book.
"This book challenges some of the greatest cliches about colonialism and leaves you wondering why you ever gave them the time of day. A revelation, and also that rarest thing, a science title that is entirely comprehensible and often a pleasure to read."
– Sathnam Sanghera, bestselling author of Empireland
"Thrilling and eye-opening. From neolithic diseases to COVID-19, Jonathan Kennedy explores the enormous role played by some of the tiniest life on Earth: the power of plagues in shaping world history."
– Prof. Lewis Dartnell, bestselling author of Origins and Being Human
"From the fall of Rome to the Spanish conquest of the Americas to the industrial revolution, germs have played as much a role in history as guns, generals and "great men" [...] Jonathan Kennedy restores the microbes of infectious disease to their rightful place in the story of human evolution and the rise and fall of civilisations. Science and history at its best."
– Dr Mark Honigsbaum, author of Pandemic Century
"Kennedy debuts with a virtuoso analysis of the fallout from encounters between deadly viral and bacterial pathogens and human populations that lacked immunity [...] He marshals a wealth of surprising scholarship in lucid and succinct prose. The result is a fascinating look at history from the perspective of its tiniest protagonists."
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Professor Kennedy – drawing on the latest research in fields ranging from genetics and anthropology to archaeology and economics – explores eight major outbreaks of infectious disease across the entire history of civilization [...] It's not often you pick up a book that promises to alter your entire understanding of the story of humanity."
"After recent years you don't need us to tell you that infectious diseases have the power to change history [...] A compelling case"
– All the best books to look forward to in 2023 – GQ
"How a virus might have written human history. This is a fascinating, readable, and superbly researched account of how infectious diseases have shaped our history, from the Palaeolithic Era to COVID."
– Prof. David Christian, bestselling author of Origin Story and Future Stories
"I love this surprising, learned, fascinating book which brings human arrogance into sharp relief, reminding us that the real masters of the universe are microbes. Jonathan Kennedy travels through history, unpicking everything we thought we knew; we are but the pawns and playthings of viruses and bacteria. Mind-blowing."
– Cal Flyn, bestselling author of Islands of Abandonment