Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress
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Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress

Diseases and Economic Development

By Robert A. McGuire and Philip R. P. Coelho

The crucial role played by diseases in economic progress, the growth of civilizations, and American history.





The crucial role played by diseases in economic progress, the growth of civilizations, and American history.

In Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress, Robert McGuire and Philip Coelho integrate biological and economic perspectives into an explanation of the historical development of humanity and the economy, paying particular attention to the American experience, its history and development. In their path-breaking examination of the impact of population growth and parasitic diseases, they contend that interpretations of history that minimize or ignore the physical environment are incomplete or wrong.

The authors emphasize the paradoxical impact of population growth and density on progress. An increased population leads to increased market size, specialization, productivity, and living standards. Simultaneously, increased population density can provide an ecological niche for pathogens and parasites that prey upon humanity, increasing morbidity and mortality. The tension between diseases and progress continues, with progress dominant since the late 1800s.Integral to their story are the differential effects of diseases on different ethnic (racial) groups. McGuire and Coelho show that the Europeanization of the Americas, for example, was caused by Old World diseases unwittingly brought to the New World, not by superior technology and weaponry. The decimation of Native Americans by pathogens vastly exceeded that caused by war and human predation.

The authors combine biological and economic analyses to explain the concentration of African slaves in the American South. African labor was more profitable in the South because Africans' evolutionary heritage enabled them to resist the diseases that became established there; conversely, Africans' ancestral heritage made them susceptible to northern “cold-weather” diseases. European disease resistance and susceptibilities were the opposite regionally. Differential regional disease ecologies thus led to a heritage of racial slavery and racism.


$32.00 S | £25.00 ISBN: 9780262015660 352 pp. | 9 in x 6 in 36 figures, 37 tables


  • Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress is economic history at its best: careful and compelling economic theorizing; fidelity to the data and the facts; and a genuine openness to other disciplines, particularly medicine and biology. There is much to learn from this rich and provocative story.

    Werner Troesken

    Professor of Economics, University of Pittsburgh; author of The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

  • Scientists, economists, historians, and a goodly number of the rest of us have long recognized disease as a powerful influence on the course of human experience, but we have harvested less than we could have from that insight because our familiarity with the subject is so thin. We can do a lot to cure that by reading this excellent study, Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress.

    Alfred W. Crosby

    Professor Emeritus of History, Geography, and American Studies, University of Texas at Austin; author of Ecological Imperialism

  • Parasites represent the most common pathogens of 'the bottom billion', the world's poorest people. This volume provides important new insights on a group of organisms that together represent a potent force in trapping people in poverty.

    Peter J. Hotez

    Professor of Pediatrics, Molecular Virology, and Microbiology, and founding Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine; President, Sabin Vaccine Institute