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In 384 pages?

Cook chronicles history of the human race

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- As the Cleveland Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Michael Cook has spent years tackling topics such as early Muslim dogma and the finer points of religious ethics in the Islamic world. Now he delves into a broader area of inquiry: the history of the human race.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

And on that topic he strives for of all things brevity. His new 384-page book, "A Brief History of the Human Race," (W.W. Norton & Co.) examines the last 10,000 years and explains why and how history has unfolded the way it has.

Cook's panorama takes in everything from the rise of agriculture to the destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, from the timekeeping innovations of the Mesoamericans to the caste systems of India. He journeys through the centuries in lively, engaging prose, offering an insightful look at how cultures thrived or failed all over the globe. The New York Times called the book "a smart, literate survey of human life from Paleolithic times until 9/11."

In the book's preface Cook sets out to explain, in his jocular style, the task before him. "Humans have taken to making history only in the last few hundred generations," he writes. "For two or three thousand generations before that our ancestors were probably no less intelligent and insightful than we are now (or no more stupid and obtuse). But they were otherwise engaged. Why they changed tack, and with what results, is what this book is about."

But Cook freely admits that he has no "Grand Unified Theory" with which to neatly tie up the world's history. "This, in fact, may be no great loss," he writes with characteristic humility, "since if I had such a theory, it would almost certainly be wrong."

Cook came to Princeton in 1986 from the University of London. He is the author of seven books, including "Muhammad" and "The Koran: A Very Short Introduction." In 2002 he was one of five recipients of the Andrew Mellon Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award, which comes with up to $1.5 million. Recently he talked to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about historical information such as the greatest public relations disaster of the 16th century and why ancient Mesopotamian civilization didn't develop in Australia.

You are a professor of Near Eastern studies. What made you want to tackle a daunting topic like the history of the human race?

I thought you might ask me that. It came out of an experience that I think a lot of my colleagues have probably been through after completing some enormous research project. In my case the project started in 1985 and was published in 2000. The book is called "Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought" and it's 700 pages long, with 4,000 footnotes. You get done with something like that and you have this feeling of liberation. You get kind of giddy. And you want to do something as the Monty Python show used to say "completely different," and within the range of my academic activities, writing a history of the human race was completely different.

book cover

I had to be a bit euphoric to have the nerve right now I've come down from that. I wouldn't do anything as imprudent. I suppose there were plenty of things that built up to it. For one thing I've always been full of curiosity, and curiosity makes you much more interested in other people's business than in your own. It's kind of dangerous, but it can be very rewarding.

There were obviously a lot of events in history you had to skip over to write a brief history of the human race. Which major events were left out of the book?

The whole history of the modern world from the 16th century is done in a single chapter. There's no account of the first World War or the second World War. Lots of really major things are not there, and I didn't even try to put them in. Instead I picked out some underlying processes and said implicitly: This is what the modern world is really about.

And what are those underlying processes?

Above all the industrial revolution in Western Europe and its continuing impact on the rest of the world. Think of the enormous inequalities of wealth and power this has generated, and the latent or explosive tensions that go with them. Whatever the violence of 9/11 was, it wasn't random.

What are some of the major factors that determined how different regions fared in history?

Geography and climate certainly do a great deal of shaping of the outcomes of history. One example is Australia. Jared Diamond gives a fine account of that in his "Guns, Germs and Steel." Australia is a very tough place to try to develop an agricultural economy because there isn't much rainfall and there's no large river anywhere in the country that you can really rely on for irrigation. Worse yet, there's very little by way of plants and animals you can hope to domesticate. That means it would have been incredibly hard, or perhaps impossible, for the native population of Australia to have developed anything like ancient Mesopotamian civilization there. No agriculture means no villages, no cities, no metal-working, no writing and no bureaucracy.

But the way environmental conditions box people in is only half of what I wanted to say in the book. The other half is that the boxes can be surprisingly big, even for hunter-gatherers. There can be lots of room to bounce around in. The last few thousand years of hunter-gatherer existence in Australia are full of innovations, new technologies that come and go and are found in some regions but not others.

In the same way, history often goes in completely unpredictable directions that don't make any sense if you try to relate them to geographical or other material factors. Cultures tend to be in some respects all like each other and in other respects very idiosyncratic. The idiosyncrasies are very hard to explain, but it's a key characteristic of the human race that it keeps coming up with them. We're talking about what scientists call emergent phenomena.

What was your favorite thing that you came across in your research?

I really enjoyed writing about John Knox and the pamphlet he wrote in the 16th century, "The Monstrous Regiment of Women." He argued that it was totally wrong for women to rule as queens. A monarch had to be a man. And he made that argument for the specific reason that the queens ruling at the time happened to be Catholic and he was Protestant. This was his way of doing down the Catholics. So he published this pamphlet and the next thing that happened was a Protestant woman became queen of England. I called it the greatest public relations disaster of the 16th century. There's real satisfaction in seeing this dour Scotsman fall flat on his face. By the way, I'm half Scottish.

How much of a role did events that seemed trivial end up playing in history?

If we're talking about great things having small beginnings, a momentous example is the fact that in the seventh century someone in Arabia decides after a lot of hesitation that he's receiving revelations from God, and starts a new religion. Think how different world history would have been if Islam had never happened. And it hangs on a thread in the life of one man in a remote part of the world that no one had paid much attention to. It's a very small beginning.

Historians like to say that such-and-such an event was inevitable, but they never know because they can't do a scientific experiment over at the E-Quad. And when you look carefully, it often doesn't look like events really were inevitable. I can perfectly easily imagine a history of Europe in which World War I did not happen nearly happened maybe, but did not actually happen. Just as we could imagine very easily a world in which the Cuban Missile Crisis spilled over into nuclear warfare.

One reviewer remarked that you tried to examine humankind from "a non-partisan viewpoint." Did you correct some false impressions Westerners may have had about their own importance?

That was a very nice thing for the reviewer to say, and it certainly corresponds to my intention. 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.

You won the Mellon award in 2002. What are your plans for it?

That award was absolutely fantastic. It's one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me. I've taken this year as a kind of quiet year I'm being selfish and taking time off to think and in that way the award has made an enormous difference to my quality of life.

Next year I start being altruistic. I'm bringing in three younger scholars who are near the beginning of their careers, and there are going to be two conferences. One will be on the Near East in the 18th century. The other will be on Ibn Taymiyya, a Muslim thinker from the 14th century who deserves to be as famous as Thomas Aquinas and has become a kind of mentor to the Islamic fundamentalists. He was very smart, very original and very obstreperous.