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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Plagues upon the Earth Disease and the Course of Human History

By: Kyle Harper(Author)
686 pages, 45 b/w illustrations, 20 b/w maps
A magnificent environmental history of infectious disease, Plagues Upon the Earth stands out for its nuance and readability.
Plagues upon the Earth
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  • Plagues upon the Earth ISBN: 9780691230597 Paperback Jun 2023 In stock
  • Plagues upon the Earth ISBN: 9780691192123 Hardback Oct 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Selected version: £21.99
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About this book

Plagues upon the Earth is a monumental history of humans and their germs. Weaving together a grand narrative of global history with insights from cutting-edge genetics, Kyle Harper explains why humanity's uniquely dangerous disease pool is rooted deep in our evolutionary past, and why its growth is accelerated by technological progress. He shows that the story of disease is entangled with the history of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism, and reveals the enduring effects of historical plagues in patterns of wealth, health, power, and inequality. He also tells the story of humanity's escape from infectious disease – a triumph that makes life as we know it possible, yet destabilizes the environment and fosters new diseases.

Panoramic in scope, Plagues upon the Earth traces the role of disease in the transition to farming, the spread of cities, the advance of transportation, and the stupendous increase in human population. Harper offers a new interpretation of humanity's path to control over infectious disease – one where rising evolutionary threats constantly push back against human progress, and where the devastating effects of modernization contribute to the great divergence between societies. The book reminds us that human health is globally interdependent – and inseparable from the well-being of the planet itself.

Putting the COVID-19 pandemic in perspective, Plagues upon the Earth tells the story of how we got here as a species, and it may help us decide where we want to go.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A magnificent environmental history of infectious disease
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Dec 2021 Written for Hardback

    It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

    There is currently no shortage of big history books on pandemics. What makes Plagues Upon the Earth stand out? Briefly, it is so much more than just a potted history of "celebrity" diseases such as bubonic plague, smallpox, or measles. In particular, Harper carefully revisits existing narratives in light of new data and methods. Although I can only touch on a fraction of what impressed me, what follows are seven reasons why I think this book is worth your time.

    First, it is appropriately evolution-centric, with the first two chapters focusing on microbiology, primatology, and especially evolutionary biology. His discussion of horizontal gene transfer, the mind-blowing concept of viral quasispecies, or the relentless nature of evolution shows he has read the relevant literature and can explain why viruses and microbes outwit us time and again.

    Second, and equally appropriate, the book is germ-centric: "it's a microbe's world. We're just living in it" (p. 20). From their perspective, we are "warm, nutrient-rich, well-defended host environments" (p. 43) that, incidentally, also took over the world. A recurrent theme is that disease ecology shapes us as much as we shape it. Harper warns that "we should not treat the biology of disease like a kind of ghost in the machine, beyond all explanation" (p. 333). Two examples will have to suffice. We have identified 5000-year-old bubonic plague victims, but pandemics only became inevitable later, after rats had spread globally in the wake of trade, urbanization, farming, and grain storage. Harper furthermore details the human factors that contributed to the general crisis of the 17th century.

    Third, Harper pays particular attention to new studies on phylogenetics, genomics, and ancient DNA. Does this kind of data have a special status? I would argue so: compared to historical records, DNA is eyewitness testimony without an ideological axe to grind. As with The Fate of Rome, Harper is not out to overthrow established narratives but to carefully reexamine them to see what genetics can add. The following are but a few examples. Agriculture seems to have spread by farmers pushing out hunter-gatherers, rather than the latter adopting farming practices. Morbiliviruses jumped from rodents and bats via cattle to humans. So, rather than cattle making us sick, we created a zoonotic bridge by animal domestication, "making rinderpest just as much an unintended side effect of human social development as measles" (p. 169). Similarly, human tuberculosis is surprisingly young, but bovine tuberculosis is younger still: we made our cows sick. And unlike a decade ago, we now have solid evidence that the bacterium Yersinia pestis did cause the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages.

    Fourth, Harper brings similar nuance to conventional historical narratives. Agriculture has a bad reputation amongst historians. Palaeopathological findings, such as those gleaned from teeth, do not lie: our health suffered when we started farming. However, this narrative "distorts the role of infectious disease in the deep past" (p. 79). Agricultural villages were too small to sustain chains of transmission of respiratory crowd diseases: "Big city life, and big city death, were things of the future" (p. 162). What sedentary life with domesticated animals and without sewers did bring was mountains of poop. And with it the faecal-oral transmission of a slew of oft-overlooked intestinal diseases. Similarly, the discovery of the New World has been called the Columbian Exchange: we took away new crops and left behind lethal germs, an idea further popularised by Jared Diamond. Though true, focusing on disease makes "the depopulation of the New World seem like a lamentable accident, minimizing the role of violence and deliberate exploitation" (p. 243).

    Fifth, this book highlights neglected (tropical) diseases and historical actors. The period from ~1670-1820 was an age of receding pandemics, often credited to the Enlightenment. But, adds Harper, the rise of institutions and nation-states was just as important. "Improvements in life expectancy are generated not by ideas alone but by ideas that are put into action, especially by capable governments" (p. 384).

    Sixth, and related to this, history is rarely a linear march of progress and Harper highlights overlooked periods of setbacks. The age of receding pandemics was followed by new disease outbreaks in the 19th century – such as cholera, yellow fever, and influenza – all of which piggy-backed on the invention of steamships and railroads. Long-distance trade and bulk shipping of tropical foodstuffs created a new global disease ecology for humans, animals, and plants alike. "More often than not, the outbreaks of the nineteenth century came in peace" (p. 429). One of the most fascinating ideas in this book is that of 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun who recognized that epidemics do not just result from societies failing, but also from them being successful. Harper calls it a profound insight: at least in agrarian empires, demographic upswings also could trigger lethal epidemics and social disintegration.

    Finally, Plagues Upon the Earth is rigorous yet readable. Harper draws on a huge body of academic literature, providing 90 pages of references and 59 pages of endnotes with interesting asides and advice on recommended reading. As above quotes show, Harper has a knack for writing an engaging narrative.

    Though Harper grants it is too early to take stock of the COVID-19 pandemic, he reiterates that we were warned time and again. "the pandemic was a perfectly inevitable disaster [...] its contours predictable, its details essentially random" (p. 504). Our shared history with germs should be classroom material. Harper expresses this call to arms most powerfully right at the start: "We do not, and cannot, live in a state of permanent victory over our germs. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberation from infectious disease, but interruptions are inevitable, not anomalous" (p. 3).

    Plagues Upon the Earth is a phenomenal achievement and my recommendation of the year for background reading on the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a big book that is well worth your time.
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Kyle Harper is a professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma. His books include The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton) and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Moore, Oklahoma.

By: Kyle Harper(Author)
686 pages, 45 b/w illustrations, 20 b/w maps
A magnificent environmental history of infectious disease, Plagues Upon the Earth stands out for its nuance and readability.
Media reviews

"[A] superb new history of infectious disease. Be so grateful you live now!"
– David Frum

"[A] sweeping masterpiece [...] It's difficult for me to think of anyone who will not find something eye-opening and enlightening in the pages of this comprehensive, beautifully written and eloquent book."

"Plagues upon the Earth is a remarkable achievement."
– Talha Burki, The Lancet

"An ambitious, engaging, and unified history of humanity's interaction with infectious disease."
– Gregory J. Morgan, Science

"By integrating history, demography, economics, evolutionary biology and genomics into a seamless narrative, [Harper] does something that I, for one, have never seen before done so eloquently or persuasively: he demonstrates that any thorough understanding of health requires the kind of sweeping perspective that the humanities offers."
– Steve Mintz, Inside Higher Ed

– Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"Well-conceived. [...] [Kyle] Harper combs through the literature of history, economics, epidemiology, and other disciplines to deliver a solid study of the role of infectious disease in the human story. [...] Harper's long-view study is a welcome addition to the spate of recent books on epidemic disease."
Kirkus Reviews

"This is a solid book, superbly referenced and interdisciplinary, covering disease from pre-human origins to the present, and making extensive use of published DNA comparisons and descriptions of plagues by historical observers."

"Completing the reading of this book leaves one with more than a feeling of satisfaction. Admiration for a major task that was written in an engaging style that retains a facile elegance throughout its 700 pages, that presents comprehensive and detailed information as though it were the sort of material that readers come across every day, is what one might not expect, but welcomes, in a serious work of this size."
 – Ian Lipke, Queensland Reviewers Collective

"This timely work is the book of extraordinary brilliance and scope and the most significant in the field since William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples from the mid-1970s."
– David Lorimer, Paradigm Explorer

"What a magnificent accomplishment! Plagues upon the Earth illuminates the inexorable toll of infectious disease on humankind over thousands of years. The net effect is a clarion cry beseeching us to forswear denial and hubris for realism and collaboration when it comes to our vulnerability to disease. Readable, global, and provocative, this book speaks to the human condition itself."
– Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82

"The ordeal of COVID-19 reminds us of the power of infectious disease in human affairs. Harper's lively overview illuminates the global historical role of infectious disease as no previous book has done, taking advantage of the fresh harvest of information about disease history now available through genomic sequencing. A triumph of synoptic history on a crucial and all too timely subject."
– J. R. McNeill, coauthor of The Great Acceleration

"Kyle Harper has written the perfect update to William McNeill's twentieth-century groundbreaking book, Plagues and Peoples, drawing on twenty-first-century science to show how viruses, bacteria, and other microbes have changed the course of history and threaten our survival. This monumental work spans the history of humanity and our species' constantly evolving landscape of microscopic threat. It's a jaw-dropping contribution to the canon of literature on pandemics, outbreaks, and microbial impact on human history."
– Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance

"Timely, comprehensive, and fluently written. Plagues upon the Earth represents a superb unification of the latest evidence about infectious diseases from prehistory until the present: diseases that changed the course of world history more than treaties, wars, and nations. If viruses and bacteria could have selected their own most worthy biographer, they couldn't have done better than to have chosen Kyle Harper to narrate their long history."
– James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain

"Comprehensive and accessible. Everyone should read Plagues upon the Earth in order to understand the role of disease in our history, and in our future."
– Susan P. Mattern, author of The Slow Moon Climbs

"Reading Harper's masterful book is like witnessing firsthand the terror of Pompeii, except that it is not the eruption of Vesuvius that fills us with fear and awe but rather deadly epidemics as they unfold across the centuries. Plagues upon the Earth illuminates the history of humanity and its diseases while providing important insights into the COVID-19 pandemic."
– Peter J. Hotez, author of Preventing the Next Pandemic

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