A “gripping” (The Washington Post) account of how the major transformations in history—from the rise of Homo sapiens to the birth of capitalism—have been shaped not by humans but by germs
“Superbly written. Kennedy seamlessly weaves together scientific and historical research, and his confident authorial voice is sure to please readers of Yuval Noah Harari or Rutger Bregman.”—The Times (U.K.)
According to the accepted narrative of progress, humans have thrived thanks to their brains and brawn, collectively bending the arc of history. But in this revelatory book, Professor Jonathan Kennedy argues that the myth of human exceptionalism overstates the role that we play in social and political change. Instead, it is the humble microbe that wins wars and topples empires.
Drawing on the latest research in fields ranging from genetics and anthropology to archaeology and economics, Pathogenesis takes us through sixty thousand years of history, exploring eight major outbreaks of infectious disease that have made the modern world. Bacteria and viruses were protagonists in the demise of the Neanderthals, the growth of Islam, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the devastation wrought by European colonialism, and the evolution of the United States from an imperial backwater to a global superpower. Even Christianity rose to prominence in the wake of a series of deadly pandemics that swept through the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries: Caring for the sick turned what was a tiny sect into one of the world’s major religions.
By placing disease at the center of his wide-ranging history of humankind, Kennedy challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions about our collective past—and urges us to view this moment as another disease-driven inflection point that will change the course of history. Provocative and brimming with insight, Pathogenesis transforms our understanding of the human story.
About the Author
Jonathan Kennedy teaches politics and global health at Queen Mary University of London. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Cambridge.
“[Kennedy] wrangles an astonishing breadth of material into easily accessible, plain prose. . . . Even readers familiar with the material will find [Pathogenesis] fascinating. . . . Kennedy will leave readers galvanized by the time they flip to the last page, having assured us that we could win the narrative back from germs—if we’re able to muster the political will to do so. Pathogenesis puts us in our rightful tiny place in the universe as this great, big—and terrifying, at times—world spins. But, Kennedy reminds us, we are not helpless.”—The Washington Post
“Full of amazing facts . . . Pathogenesis doesn’t only cover thousands of years of history—it seeks radically to alter the way the reader views many of the (often very well-known) events it describes.”—The Guardian
“Well-timed . . . [and] compelling . . . Kennedy’s book manages to end on a somewhat hopeful note. Yes, our trajectory is defined by microbes. But it’s also influenced by our reactions to them—and our acknowledgment of their power.”—The Atlantic
“Kennedy marshals a dizzying range of material, from the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe to the rise of the slave trade. . . . An entertaining read.”—The Economist
“[Pathogenesis] shines when it brings cutting-edge science to bear on these questions, something that Kennedy treats with great care. . . . Pathogenesis shows a microbial world that is as complex, dynamic, and alive as the human one, and just as consequential.”—Financial Times
“Great historical changes are often conceived of as being brought about by the genius and tenacity of great men, or occasionally women, but Jonathan Kennedy argues that germs are largely responsible for everything, from the decline of the Neanderthals to the current poverty of sub-Saharan Africa. . . . [He] offers a different lens to view many of the big events of the past.”—Associated Press
“The fluency of Kennedy’s narration is remarkable, weaving Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and Monty Python into memorable and accessible explanations of genetics, evolutionary biology and demography. . . . Impressive and enjoyable.”—The Spectator
“A virtuoso analysis of the fallout from encounters between deadly viral and bacterial pathogens and human populations that lacked immunity. . . . The result is a fascinating look at history from the perspective of its tiniest protagonists.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“It’s not often you pick up a book that promises to alter your entire understanding of the story of humanity.”—Lit Hub
“Thrilling and eye-opening . . . Jonathan Kennedy explores the enormous role played by some of the tiniest life on earth: the power of plagues in shaping world history.”—Lewis Dartnell, author of The Knowledge
“This book challenges some of the greatest clichés about colonialism and leaves you wondering why you ever gave them the time of day. . . . A revelation.”—Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland
“A fascinating, readable, and superbly researched account of how infectious diseases have shaped our history.”—David Christian, author of Origin Story