Thursday, January 13, 2011

World History (2): Big Ideas

The following "conversation starters" were developed for my world history students at Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University, beginning in 2008.

History is one of the liberal arts, thus one of the thinking arts. Through its stories, concepts, and tools, it provides great training for the mind.

One way to train the mind is to master concepts that have explanatory power and that provide a strong narrative thread. A half-dozen of these concepts are below, so let's look at each in turn.

1. Thresholds are big events. Once unleashed, they change human life forever. Ten examples are the Agricultural Revolution, civilization, gunpowder, printing press, Columbian Exchange, American Revolution, Industrial Revolution, atomic weapons, exploration of outer space, and creation of the Internet.

  • To get an idea of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on human beings, watch Hans Rosling's "200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes" on BBC4, accessible at (Note warily the "y" axis, which is a little misleading in the way the log scale portrays health and wealth "in the middle." But, still, the creative way the Rosling makes his point is worth a look.

2. A timeline of the globe's integrated history is a useful way to relate thresholds to each other. Following are some of the thresholds I discuss with students in World History I (to 1500 A.D.). They set the stage for everything else that we will explore:

  • Anatomically modern human beings were migrating out of Africa by 100,000 years ago (y.a.). Many anthropologists argue that Africa is the cradle of humanity -- all human beings are descended from African ancestors.
  • Something like a cultural Big Bang occurred around 35,000 y.a., evidenced by the dramatic appearance of some 50,000 paintings scattered in places like Chauvet Cave in southwestern France. These paintings reveal a fully developed aesthetic and religious sense in Homo sapiens. (This is all theory. How could we prove it? To prove that the brain changed sometime around 35,000 years ago, we would have to find a human body with an intact brain that froze well before 35 millennia ago, and one that froze well after 35 millennia ago, and compare the two brain sections to see if brain structure changes could be detected.)
  • One of the greatest revolutions of all began at the end of the Pleistocene or Ice Age, around 10,000 y.a. In the Middle East, humans took a radical step when they turned from hunting and gathering to domesticating plants and animals. Likely it was women who initiated this audacious attempt to "subdue the earth" and create new lifeways. (The thinking is that young mothers sitting and feeding their offspring had the opportunity to observe their environment closely.) With food surpluses, pottery appeared, social differentiation arose since not everybody had to be involved in producing food, and a settled way of life in villages became possible. Men at this time likely initiated a parallel revolution: war. War is theft organized on a large scale; a large food supply would be a tempting target. So many good things and a few bad things came into the orbit of human existence during the Agricultural Revolution (or Neolithic Revolution) that started some 10,000 years ago.
  • Civilization is the next great revolution that followed the Agricultural Revolution. Civilization is an intended way of life. Social classes, writing, cities, and monumental architecture made their appearance in major river valleys starting about 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India.
  • Axial Age: From about 3,500-2,500 y.a., Jewish leaders counter virtually all ancient worldviews with the articulation of something dramatically new: transcendent monotheism, the separation of the Creator from creation, a people’s covenant with God, the ethical critique of rulers, linear time, the moral evaluation of history, and the end of human sacrifice. Elsewhere, between 2,800 and 2,200 y.a., as empires aspired to become universal, compelling new religions and philosophies spread and took root. Among the founders were Confucius, Laozi, the Buddha, Vedic priests, Thales, and Socrates.
  • Popular sovereignty and constitutional government arose in Greek poleis and Rome some 2,500 years ago.
  • With the "fall" of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 A.D., society groped in a Dark Age for new ways to reorganize its politics and economy. Numerous local adaptations occurred, and a new kind of struggle arose in feudal times that would have a lasting effect. For the first time in world history, two different but powerful institutions -- church and state -- engaged in a centuries-long struggle for power and allegiance. This institutional competition in the West (in contrast to the Caesaro-papism in the East) thwarted long-term, totalitarian accretions of power in either the king or the pope, thus providing a seedbed for freedom in the West.
  • Columbus's four voyages to the western hemisphere in the 1490s ushered in a new era in human history. As a result of the "Age of Discovery," three different populations -- Europeans, aboriginal Americans, and Africans -- would mix with dramatic results. The Columbian Exchange would introduce new plant and animal life to populations. Institutions would arise that would lay the groundwork of modernity and lead to more than three centuries of European domination, "the West over the Rest."
  • Modernity is a huge threshold that deserves its own essay. Modernity was made possible by the confluence of many, many factors in Western Europe after the 15th century that did not come together in the same way or so quickly anyplace else. Among the factors that converged to bring about modernity are the following ten: (a) epidemiological patterns involving domesticated animals, (b) the geography of Western Europe in relation to the Afro-Eurasian land mass, which encouraged aggressive sea-going cultures, (c) cultures that recognized the rights of individuals -- e.g., Antigone, (d) institutional arrangements that encouraged freedom -- e.g., ancient democratic Athens, ancient republican Rome, and medieval church vs. state rivalries, (e) imperial competition among a number of small nation-states, (f) commericial, financial, and industrial innovations that fostered technological innovation, (g) cultures that welcomed and appropriated foreign influences, (h) cultures that tolerated diversity, boundary transgression, and paradigm shifts, (i) globalization of the flow of ideas, goods, and services, and (j) enough effective leaders who knew how to drive changes that led to greater freedom, opportunity, and sustainable prosperity. Because these ten factors characterized much of the West from the mid 1400s to the mid 1900s, world history was dominated by "the West over the Rest."
Teachers know that timelines and thresholds offer a great heuristic method for generating questions. Say, for example, you are interested in the ethical evolution of human beings. Just focusing on the Fertile Crescent, you could trace the revolution from the most basic ethic of all, Might Makes Right (Lamech's ethic early in the Book of Genesis; and Thrasymachus' ethic in Plato's Republic), to Lex Talionis (the eye-for-an-eye ethic in the Book of Deuteronomy), to the Silver Rule (Don't do unto others....) in later Hebrew Scripture, to the Golden Rule (Do unto others....) in Jesus' teaching. You might even add Garrett Hardin's Lifeboat Ethics as one modern twist at the end of your timeline, but clearly most basic ethical systems people live by had developed between 2,000-3,500 years ago.

Now contrast ethical revolutions with scientific revolutions involving, say, communication: from eons and eons of oral communication; to the development of writing on clay, parchment, and papyrus around 5,500 y.a.; to the printing press using moveable type around 1450 A.D.; to the telegraph (1860s); to the telephone (1876); to the radio (1921); to the TV (1930s); to the Internet (1990s).

Notice the acceleration of techological change in the last 150 years compared to the relative constancy of ethical positions during the last 2,000 years? What does it say about human beings that there have been many more communication revolutions than ethical revolutions in the modern age?

A final note before we leave the topic of timelines and thresholds: A good mental discipline is to ask yourself, whenever learning about changes over time, "To what degree was such-and-such an event (or person, movement, revolution, institution, invention, catastrophe) a threshold that changed human life forever?"

3. Simultaneity, loosely conceived, is one of those fascinating mysteries that draws historians. How do we explain two virtually identical things happening at once, when there is no apparent communication between the two?

  • Darwin and Wallace independently formulated the ideas of natural selection within a few years of one another.
  • Leibniz and Newton invented the calculus independently.
  • The Chinese and Europeans set out on long-distant voyages at roughly the same time.
  • And what was it with the 6th century B.C., when there was a profusion of sages whose thought took root in distant parts of the world? Confucius (born 551 B.C.), the Buddha (born in 566 B.C.), Thales of Miletus (died 545 B.C.), Mahavira (born 540 B.C.), Jeremiah (died 581 B.C. -- all lived within a few years of each other, though separated by great distances and geographic barriers.
  • Two seminal events happened in the 12th century B.C.: the fall of Troy that gave shape to Greek mythology, and the Exodus that created a nation for the Israelites.

4. Closely related to simultaneity -- but more comprehensible -- is the rapid diffusion and adoption of certain innovations. Think about it: Anatomically modern humans have existed for at least 100,000 years; it is a long time for dramatic changes to occur. But history is crowded into the last few thousand years of the species' existence. It is amazing how fast the Agricultural Revolution, once it started in the Middle East, sprouted in other areas of the world. The same can be said of the creation of the first civilizations, the building of pyramidal structures, the establishment of the first empires, and the founding of a number of major religions and philosophies during the centuries that Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age.

5. Historians find interest in comparisons and analogies. Is it not striking that four of the world's greatest religious and philosophical leaders did not write down their teachings? Even though they came from literate cultures, Confucius and Socrates and Jesus and Muhammad passed on their teachings by the spoken word. NB: historians must be alert to false analogies.

6. Causal relationships are closely related to analogies. Over the centuries, historians have been fascinated by the demise of the Roman Empire in the West and have ginned up at least two dozen plausible explanations for its fall. (For Edward Gibbon, a major culprit was Christianity. Other historians have implicated climate change, soil exhaustion, lead poisoning, racial pollution, slavery, intellectual stagnation, social disorder, excessive government, and immorality.) If you can figure out why the Roman Empire fell, and why other civilizations fell, then you might be able to discern a pattern that has persuasive explanatory power. NB: historians must be alert to the post hoc fallacy and other misleading explanations.

7. The relationship between history and geography -- basic time and space -- is often telling. Most historians will tell you that geography is more than just the stage on which the human drama plays out, but it is also less than destiny. Or is it? Jared Diamond's important work, Guns, Germs and Steel, examined how differences arose between the indigenous people of New Guinea and those in Eurasia's middle latitudes. What he found is that latitude, climate, soil, vegetation, and the presence or absence of herd animals were critical to whether a people developed more complex cultures.

When I teach world history and present the lesson on "the West over the Rest," I start with geography. Hanging a map of Afro-Eurasia in front of the class, I ask students to describe the outline of the three continents. They readily see that Africa's coastline is linear and smooth, as is much of Asia's (with the exception of Korea and Japan). Europe's coastline, however, is quite different. Europe, the western projection of Eurasia, is a ragged series of peninsulas, islands, and small seas. The interior is interrupted by numerous mountain ranges that separate what plains there are. These geographic features encouraged the formation of numerous, relatively small, competitive states that were oriented to the sea. What a contrast to the earliest riverine civilizations of Afro-Eurasia -- Sumer on the Tigris and Euphrates, Egypt on the Nile, India on the Indus, and China on the Yellow. These earliest civilizations did not have a small ratio of land area to coastline. I'd wager that geography is a necessary if not sufficient explanation for Europe's eventual dominance over the rest of Afro-Eurasia.


Questions to think about:

1. What is a threshold?

2. Plot two thresholds on a timeline and put the approximate date each occurred.

3. When did continuous innovation begin to characterize the human condition? [Craig, pp. 2-3]

4. About when did the Bronze Age occur? What threshold accompanied the early Bronze Age? By the way, the terms Iron Age, Bronze Age, Age of Silver, and Age of Gold were coined by Western writers in the 19th century who were influenced by the Industrial Revolution, which used a number of metals in technological advances. [Craig, p. 8]

5. What developments characterize the emergence of civilization? [Craig, pp. 2, 7 ff.]

Bonus: Must the logic of the Agricultural Revolution lead to the creation of civilization, if other conditions are right for its development? Or does diffusion best explain the rise of civilization? [Craig, p. 3]

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