BOOK REVIEW : A ‘Lifeline’ Worth Grabbing


LIFELINES FROM OUR PAST: A NEW WORLD HISTORY by L. S. Stavrianos Pantheon $19.95, 288 pages

Human beings are “the great overachievers of planet Earth,” observes historian L.S. Stavrianos in “Lifelines From Our Past.” And yet, tragically and ironically, we are profoundly threatened by our very success as a species.

“No longer can we avoid asking why this age of unprecedented human dominance and achievement,” writes Stavrianos, “is also the age when the possibilities of species extinction for the first time is a sober possibility.”

To answer the cosmic question he poses, Stavrianos deftly summarizes several million years of human history in a mere 250 pages of text. “Lifelines,” according to its author, is “an inquiry into our usable past.” His credo: “Dare to Omit.” His ultimate concern is “the nature of human nature.”


Rather than a narrative of history, then, Stavrianos gives us a matrix by which we may organize and understand the vast and sometimes contradictory accumulation of data about humankind. He suggests that all human history may be understood as falling into one of three categories: the “kinship” societies of prehistoric times, the “tributary” societies of the ancient and early modern civilizations, and the contemporary world of “free market” or capitalist societies.

Within each phase of human history, Stavrianos takes measure of four “basic lifeline issues” he deems to be crucial to an understanding of our destiny: ecology, gender relations, social relations and war.

Stavrianos displays a ready command of anthropology and biology, as well as of history and philosophy; indeed, he has studied and thought deeply about virtually all the arts and sciences in which humankind is the object of study. Thus, he is able to pause in his essay on the great themes of human development to contemplate the particulars: the deposit of silt by the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates, the slave revolts of ancient Rome, the per-capita calorie intake of a farmer in 13th-Century Germany, the nursery rhymes of England during the early industrial revolution, the replacement of copper wire with fiberglass cable in modern communications technology.

For example, Stavrianos paints the prehistoric world as a Garden of Eden where food was plentiful, human relationships were peaceful and the universe was in balance. Breast-feeding of children, which suppresses ovulation, acted as a kind of natural birth control and ensured that the population did not exceed the food supply. However, once the hunter-gatherers settled in villages, where cow’s milk was available as a substitute, the population exploded and outstripped even the vastly greater food supplies that resulted from the agricultural revolution.

Stavrianos, a professor of history at UC San Diego whose distinguished academic career spans more than a half-century, offers “Lifelines” as a kind of summing-up. But there is nothing musty or perfunctory about the book: It is a vigorous and even visionary work that is really less concerned with human history than with human destiny. The final third of the book, an essay on “Human Prospects,” may be read as a manifesto for the remaking and redemption of our world in the 21st Century.

“Future societies and future humans will be determined not by pre-programmed genes for traits like acquisitiveness or aggression,” writes Stavrianos, a historian who grasps the hard facts and reaches for the messianic ideal, “but by people who have the potential to be actors rather than pawns on the chessboard of history.”