Author looks to humanity’s shared history

THE UNDIVIDED PAST: Humanity Beyond Our Differences. By David Cannadine. Knopf. 352 pages. $26.95.

One sufficiently attuned to the warp and woof of history could conclude that human history has been marked at least as much by cooperation and cross-fertilization as by strife.

Yet conventional attitudes expressed by many historians, a large proportion of journalists and a majority of military figures and politicians would have us believe otherwise. Of course, this has much to do with the fact that good news does not sell, while conflict does.

But as Sir David Cannadine demonstrates in “The Undivided Past,” millennia of evidence does not support this sweeping view of adversarial human behavior as the norm.

“There is a very strong temptation to look at the world like this, and I will not deny that there are occasions when it might even be true,” he says. “But more often than not I think it is an absurd oversimplification, is very irresponsible and does a lot of damage.”

Examining history through the touchstones of religion, nation, class, gender, race and “civilization,” Cannadine first addresses our tendency to think in terms of antagonistic absolutes, then assays the wreckage this continues to inflict on humanity. While acknowledging that conflict has occurred and continues to manifest within these categories, he shows persuasively how prejudice and confrontational tensions pale in comparison to our shared history of borrowing and cooperation between peoples, efforts that “overlap, interact and evolve” in relationship with one another.

“What I tried to argue in each chapter is that there is a history of cooperation to be found across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of religion or nation, race or class, gender or civilization,” Cannadine says of his approach. “People do cope and get on with each other and celebrate differences without feeling obliged to kill each other over them.”

Cannadine traverses a broad and complex cultural landscape from ancient times to the present, but does so in an accessible, absorbing manner.

Currently the Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, Cannadine was born in Birmingham, England, in 1950 and educated at Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton. He is the author of 14 books, among them “The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy,” “G.M. Trevelyan,” “Class in Britain” and “Mellon.” Former chair of Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, he has taught at Cambridge and Columbia Universities and has served as director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.

If the author is disturbed by the persistence of polar simplicities and calcified ideologies, he is encouraged by our capacity for amity and tolerance. But will his book find the wider audience it deserves?

To some, that we exaggerate animosities and fail to recognize positive interactions may seem a rather banal observation. Not in Cannadine’s hands. A probing intelligence, exacting scholarship and merciful lack of academic jargon inform one of the most accomplished and provocative books of its kind.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.