Frontiers

Our Story

Emeritus historian writes the human story from the Stone Age to today.
April 2005
Emeritus professor James Davis states up front the stark ambition of his latest scholarship, The Human Story: Our History from the Stone Age to Today. He writes, “This book tells how ancient wandering peoples settled down, and how they founded cities, conquered neighbors, formed religions, found out who they were and where among the stars they lived, did some good and many wrongs, thrived, and journeyed into space.” All that in just 466 pages.

Davis retired from the history department in 1994, after 34 years of teaching at Penn. His research has specialized in the social history of early modern Europe with a particular emphasis on Venice. “I had written scholarly books before, which had reached small audiences,” he explains. “I wanted to reach a lot of people for a change.” Needless to say, his compact summary of “our history,” from stone tools to cloning, leaves out a few facts. “The secret of writing the history of the world,” he contends, “is to focus very hard on the really big topics and to be willing to leave things out.” An online reviewer praised the book’s readable prose and the author’s mastery of the past, noting that “Davis gazes over eons like the rest of us look back on last week.”

Davis comes clean on the “slant” of his work in the book’s third sentence: “In spite of all we hear and say, the world has been improving for a good long time.” There is a dark hints, though, in the narrative’s final sentence, which ponders how the human story might turn out: “If any species does destroy us, it will surely be our own.” But in Davis’ telling, there is always more light than darkness. A poetic epilogue sums up his summation of history: “So far so good.”