How did humanity develop? Why have some societies thrived for long periods and others disappeared quickly? What decisions or unexpected turns of events made the difference between survival or extinction? Is past experience a reliable guide to the future?Boston University historian David Fromkin explores the above and many other questions in The Way of the World, his superbly crafted historical analysis of the story of humanity and civilization. Fromkin focuses on change, from the beginning of the universe, as scientists presently understand it, to a look at how it could affect our future. He concentrates primarily on the way human beings have organized and governed themselves and dealt with the crucial issues of war, peace, and survival. But he also acknowledges the central influence of religion and art. The influence on history by the founders of the major religions, he notes, endured over the ages and eventually far exceeded that of even the most successful generals and politicians . . . 4 billion of the 5.5 billion people alive today remain adherents of one or another of the religions they founded. Art is viewed by Fromkin as a magical gift. We have a tendency to regard the arts as products of civilization rather than an innate impulse. The evidence instead seems to show that they are basic to our nature, for they flourished prior to civilization. They are among the first unique manifestations of humanity. In graceful prose Fromkin traces events from the development of the first city-state in Sumer to today's world which, while it is the world America wanted, it is not a world that America made. He examines the works of Herodotus and Thucydides, the latter's history of what we call the Peloponnesian Wars, the first book to provide moral criticism of history and politics. He discusses the rise and fall of Rome, particularly as interpreted by Edward Gibbon. Taking a long view, Fromkin writes: The wonder of ancient history was not that one civilization, that of Rome and the classical Mediterranean, failed, but that so many others succeeded, many of them brilliantly. Fromkin does not agree with those who say that Europe's takeover of the rest of the world was deliberate or intended. Only afterwards could it be seen that Europe had conquered the world; and even then we might disagree as to why it happened. Fromkin has the rare ability to convey a lot of information, often on difficult or sophisticated subjects, with a few beautifully constructed sentences. He also helps us to understand some things differently. Fromkin asserts that the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation are all misleading designations. He suggests that the Goths were looking for pastureland in Roman territory where they could settle, safe from the Huns. ( So far as historians can judge, it was not their original intention to put the empire or its cities to the torch. ) Fromkin also posits that the similar experimental approaches of Prince Henry the Navigator and Thomas Edison, in quite different areas, centuries apart, exemplified the rationalist frame of mind that took Europe out of medieval religion and into modern times. Fromkin demonstrates that irony is a major theme in history. He writes, Many if not most of the major happenings of the twentieth century took the world by surprise. Today, Science is said to be the faith of the modern world, it is the basis of our hopes for the future . . . As for the future, however, Fromkin is not optimistic about predictions, . . . yet many of us probably most of us either do not understand [science] or do not accept as true that which it tells us. Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.