Everything has a history, and writers have for thousands of years tried to pull together a universal history of everything. “In earliest times,” the Hellenistic historian Polybius mused, in the second century B.C., “history was a series of unrelated episodes, but from now on history becomes an organic whole. Europe and Africa with Asia, and Asia with Africa and Europe.” For the past hundred years or so, each generation of English-language readers has been treated to a fresh blockbuster trying to synthesize world history. H. G. Wells’s “The Outline of History” (1920), written “to be read as much by Hindus or Moslems or Buddhists as by Americans and Western Europeans,” argued “that men form one universal brotherhood . . . that their individual lives, their nations and races, interbreed and blend and go on to merge again at last in one common human destiny.” Then came Arnold Toynbee, whose twelve-volume “Study of History” (1934-61), abridged into a best-selling two, proposed that human civilizations rose and fell in predictable stages. In time, Jared Diamond swept in with “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (1997), delivering an agriculture- and animal-powered explanation for the phases of human development. More recently, the field has belonged to Yuval Noah Harari, whose “Sapiens” (2011) describes the ascent of humankind over other species, and offers Silicon Valley-friendly speculations about a post-human future.
The appeal of such chronicles has something to do with the way they schematize history in the service of a master plot, identifying laws or tendencies that explain the course of human events. Western historians have long charted history as the linear, progressive working out of some larger design—courtesy of God, Nature, or Marx. Other historians, most influentially the fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun, embraced a sine-wave model of civilizational growth and decline. The cliché that “history repeats itself” promotes a cyclical version of events, reminiscent of the Hindu cosmology that divided time into four ages, each more degenerate than the last.