The book is a colossal summary of everything that happened in the history
of humankind from prehistory to Freud. I will only list the few points of
disagreement, but overall this book is a major intellectual achievement.
The first few chapters are purely speculative as they try to reconstruct
how tools, language, consciousness and so forth emerged. These first few
chapters are a bit deceptive and should have been kept for another book.
I almost stopped reading when i realize how many sentences were due to pure
speculation based on scant data. His defense of meat eating felt particularly
offensive to the half billion vegetarians of the world (who are unaware that
their brain should be much smaller than it is).
The other thing that almost put me off was the use of the ancient imperial
system, that used funny terms such as "miles, feet and gallons". Any author
that cannot use the metric system is, by definition, not very up to date.
Finally, i found the book unbalanced in its treatment of religions. Watson
does a wonderful job of debunking Judaism and Christianity... but not Islam
(although there would be a lot to say about the true biography of Mohammed
and the spurious origins of the Quran) nor any other major superstition.
Once you read past these early chapters, the main problem is no longer
speculation but the way time and space are arranged by Watson. He likes to
jump from one continent to another within the same chapter, and (more or less
consciously) from one age to another. The problem is that sometimes it is not
obvious anymore just "which" idea he is examining across continents, other
than the fact that there were "ideas" around.
The synthesis, however, gets increasingly powerful. The most effective part
of the book begins with the Rinascimento (for which Watson prefers the French
word "Renaissance" although he pretty much only talks about Italy throughout
that chapter, just like in a previous chapter he notes that "ekklesia" is
the Greek root of the French "eglise" instead, say, of the Spanish "iglesia").
Here it is the sheer amount of knowledge that poses the real challenge.
Watson peppers the narrative with an incredible amount of observations that
represent the real value of the book. One can find the same information
elsewhere but not so much "annotation" that explains why something is
There are debatable passages, like when he claims that theater and novel were
born at the same time in England and Spain respectively, thereby ignoring
that the first great novel was Francois Rabelais' "Gargantua et Pantagruel" (1552) and not the "Don Quijote" and that among the first great dramas were
Lope de Vega Carpio's "Fuente Ovejuna" (1614) and
Pedro Calderon's "El Gran Teatro del Mundo" (1633) so it is not really clear
that one country "owned" one genre over the other.
Watson writes that the "first global empires in history" emerged after the age
of discovery, but that's because he totally neglected the largest of all
empires: the Mongol empire.
These are the very minor objections that i found in more than 800 pages.