I've just finished reviewing Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms for The Freeman. (Coming soon, as I know you can't wait to read it.) One thing Clark does, in common with Jared Diamond and other "big picture" historians, is to disparage "narrative" historians for their focus on particulars and individuals, instead of, say, total national GDP growth, or sweeping technological changes.
Now, the "broad sweep" approach to explaining history is fine, as far as it goes. The mistake these fellows make is that they think it can somehow be a replacement for the detailed picture. It's as if, every day, when one of them comes home from the office and the wife asks, "What did you do today honey?" he answers, "Well, I metabolized fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and used the resulting energy to generate neuro-muscular activity." Not doubting that he did do that, nevertheless she insists that really wasn't the answer she was after. When she does, he berates her for focusing on the specific details of life, instead of seeing the big picture.
There is a place for both types of answer. It all depends on what the question was.
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