Books: Of Men and Microbes

PLAGUES AND PEOPLES

by WILLIAM H.McNEILL

369 pages. Anchor Press/Doubleday. $10.

Empires rise and fall. Tribes, nations, peoples flourish and vanish. Customs and cultures evolve. Why? Is it God's will? Sheer chance? The power of greed? The pattern of history? All of the above is probably the safest answer. But even taking that much into account, argues University of Chicago Professor William McNeill, historians miss one of the prime catalysts in human history: infectious disease.

Caste System. In Plagues and Peoples McNeill, who won the 1964 National Book Award for The Rise of the West, offers a provocative medical man's view of why the...