Summary: Six stages of history are hunter gathers, farming societies, city states and empires, middle ages, early modern era and industrial revolution. The stages overlap and each later stage is shorter than the one that preceded it.
Stages of history
It is useful to think of the history of human beings as falling into broad stages.
The stages are not completely clear cut. They have overlapped and the changes from one stage to another have occurred, and are still occurring at different times in different parts of the world.
In his book ‘This Fleeting World’ David Christian says that there are three basic stages of history- the foraging or hunter gatherer stage (from 250,000 to 10,000 years ago), the agrarian or farming stage (from 10,000 to 250 years ago) and the modern stage (from the year 1750 to present). These are indeed the three most basic stages. But it is also possible, and useful, to consider six stages of history. This summary focuses mainly on the six stages as they developed in Europe and the Middle East.
Stage 1: The hunter-gatherer stage
Beings, known as hominids, evolved from our common ancestor with the apes perhaps 2-3 million years ago. Beings, closer still to modern human beings, emerged perhaps 200-300,000 years ago. They developed art, rituals and use of tools about 50-60,000 years ago. They then developed larger brains, with much the same brain size as modern humans, about 40,000 years ago.
Stage 2: Farming societies developed from about 12–10,000 years ago- Farming settlements, appeared on all the major landmasses except Australia following drier and warmer temperatures, as the last ice age began its decline.
Stage 3: City states, Slave owning societies and Empires from about 5,500 years ago- These include the ancient empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Stage 4: Europe’s Middle Ages- commencing from the fall of the Western Roman Empire about 1,500 years ago and lasting until about 500 years ago;
Stage 5: The early modern era commencing around 1500 and finishing with the beginning of the industrial revolution in around 1775;
Stage 6: The industrial revolution or industrial era– If we date this stage from when James Watt began manufacturing a large number of steam engines then it began around 1775.
The first thing to notice about these stages is that each later stage has lasted for a far shorter time than the stage that came before it. This indicates that as human history has developed, the rate of change in the type of societies in which human beings live has increased.
Stage 1: The hunter–gatherers
Hunting and gathering is by far the longest period in human history. Scientists do not know exactly when the hunter-gatherer period commenced. Fossils, bones or traces of creatures that lived long ago, indicate that human beings evolved from apes over millions of years.
All creatures that evolved from the apes are known as ‘hominids’. Human beings are the last surviving hominid on Earth. But there were other hominids that evolved from the apes before human beings came into existence.
Other hominids that are now are extinct include the Neanderthals and the closest known relative to human beings among the hominids- Homo erectus. Many fossils between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago are difficult to classify as either human beings or Homo erectus.
Scientists now believe that Homo erectus learned how to use fire to cook food, between two million and 500,000 or so years ago. Cooking is thought to have resulted in less energy being needed by Homo erectus to digest food. The brain requires lots of energy to function, so the cooking of food led to more spare energy to fuel the brain. This contributed to a reduction in the size of the stomach and an increase in brain size and the evolution of hominids resembling modern day human beings around 200,000 years ago. There were some further changes that followed as well. But scientists now consider that the human being that existed from around 40,000 was much the same in brain size and physique as modern day humans.
During most of the hunter gather period:
- Human beings and our other hominid ancestors survived through hunting for meat and gathering nuts, fruits and other plants.
- People did not stay in one spot but moved around. This was usually to find new sources of food when they had already gathered or hunted most of the food in an area where they had been living.
- People discovered very basic tools, the use of fire for food and warmth and the ability to communicate with each other through speaking using very simple language.
- People lived in small groups of probably no more than 30-50 people.
- People in this period eventually participated in other activities besides hunting and gathering food. These activities included cave painting, dance and music and story telling, especially stories about ancestors and about how the world, human beings and all of the animals came into existence. These were the first myths.
- People lived very close to nature. They often believed that there were spirits or hidden forces that moved nature. Their beliefs, or religion, often related to the sky, animals and worship of nature.
- Human beings originally lived in Africa, in the lands now known as Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. They eventually moved, very slowly, into other parts of the world. This probably included moving into North America around 16,000 years ago during a period when the sea between what is now Russia and Alaska was frozen over. After changes in climatic conditions led this ice to melt, the sea cut people off from where they had come and human civilizations in the Americas developed in isolation from the rest of the world until about 500 years ago.
Hunter gatherers did not own slaves. They had no use for them because they moved around and did not own land upon which they might put a slave to work. Hunter gather societies were quite equal as property was owned in common. But they did have leaders. From a very early time there appears to have often been two types of leader- chiefs and spiritual leaders, now known as shamans.
As well as tending to spiritual matters shamans were also often concerned with healing. Death and illness from infectious disease may have been less frequent in hunter gather societies than in the early farming societies. This is because unhygienic conditions are less likely to grow when people are constantly moving than when they settle in the same place. But there is more disagreement about the extent of violence that occurred in hunter gatherer societies.
Shortly prior to the beginning of farming some hunter gatherers began to move less and settled in spots from where they did not move so readily.
It was not farming that first caused settlement. The first settlers were still hunter- gatherers. They were very effective gatherers and were able to make bread out of wheat. The hunter gatherers had already domesticated dogs, which evolved from wolves. Fig trees were also domesticated early so figs were already available for early settlers. Gradually the settlers began to plant crops and farm other animals for food.
Stages 2 and 3: Farming, slavery and empire
It was around 10-12,000 years ago that people began to settle in a single spot and to farm grains and animals.
Farming, or agriculture, developed after the millions of years during which our hominid ancestors moved around scavenging for food.
Farming started up after temperatures increased as last great ice age began its long ending. Even by the year 1900, only about 100 years ago, nine out of every ten people worked on farms.
During the period after farming developed:
- Farmers had extra food that they could sell or exchange in return for other goods or services. Non-farming jobs developed. Some of the earliest non-farming jobs involved the making of clothes, tools, or storage items, forms of transport and medicine;
- Other occupations and trading developed. This led to the rise of small villages and eventually villages turned into the first cities. Although farming developed from 12,000 years ago, it was still almost another 5,000 years or so until cities arose. These first cities were located in Sumer (now Iraq) then in Egypt and in the Indus valley (now mostly Pakistan and the western most parts of India).
- Writing was invented, probably in order to make records about trade. The first forms of writing developed only about 8-9,000 years ago, long after people were first able to talk to each other. But the first kind of writing was in signs. Writing using an alphabet occurred later, perhaps about 4,000 years ago.
- The main religions that people still follow today developed in this period after the development of the first cities. These included Hinduism in India and later Buddhism which was an offshoot of Hinduism. Abraham and Moses lived during this period. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions all trace back to Abraham and Moses and include beliefs in one God, and Adam and Eve as the first human beings created by God.
- After farming developed, slaves could be used to work the land. Military conquests became more common and eventually cities developed into empires. The most famous of these ancient empires were the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires.
- Ancient Greece was famous for its philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle and for some of the earliest achievements in mathematics, science and medicine.
- Plato believed in an immortal soul which exists both before and after a person is born. He developed the influential idea that things existing in the world were less perfect that the idealised or universal form of them. For example, the idea of a horse was more consistent and reliable than all real life examples of horses which might come in many different colours, sizes etc. Plato believed that these ideal forms had an existence separate from the existence of human beings. This included the form of the “good” which sits above all other forms of everything- much like God. Human beings acquired knowledge through a process by which the soul remembers the ideal forms.
- Aristotle did not believe in the ideal forms. He concluded that knowledge comes to human beings through thinking about the things that we experience and observe through the senses.
- Unlike Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome is not famous for new contributions to science or philosophy. It is better known for its successful military conquests, roads, architecture and engineering and the development of written law. Also for the Latin language that forms the basis of modern day languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.
- Jesus Christ lived during the period of the Roman Empire. Jesus was seen as a rebel by the Romans and was eventually sentenced to death by crucifixion.
- At first the Romans persecuted the followers of Jesus. But 300 years after Christ’s death, the Roman Emperor Constantine, supported Christianity. Christianity was already growing before Constantine. But his decision to support Christianity led to its further spread among people living within the Roman Empire.
- The Roman Empire eventually spilt into Western and Eastern parts. The Western part of the Roman Empire ended 476 years after the death of Christ. The Eastern Empire, came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, and lasted about an extra thousand years ending in 1453.
- Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire St. Augustine set out his ideas about Christianity. Augustine taught that:
- Although God is all powerful and all merciful, evil exists in the world because God gave human beings free will so that they could choose between good and evil.
- The relationship between human beings and God must be managed through the Catholic Church.
- God has already pre-determined before people are born who will be saved and who will go to heaven.
The first two of these ideas in particular, greatly influenced the Catholic Church and life throughout the Middle Ages. Augustine was influenced by the thinking of Plato on the immortality of the human soul, the notion of a world beyond the senses as well as Plato’s idea of the form of the good sitting above all reality. Through Augustine these ideas became a part of the Christian tradition.
The Middle Ages
The period from the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE until the early modern period commencing around 1400 or 1500 CE is often known as the Middle Ages. It is also sometimes referred to as the medieval period.
The earlier part of the Middle Ages is also sometimes known as the ‘Dark Ages’. The period of the Dark Ages is often regarded as having lasted from about 476 until 900. It is called the “Dark Ages” because after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire there were periods of disorder including war between mainly Germanic tribes known as “barbarians” and there was little economic development or development of new ideas. In the longer term the most successful of the Barbarian tribes were the Franks who established a kingdom which gradually evolved into France.
The Catholic Church survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and exercised great influence. It promoted the view that all the knowledge that was needed was religious knowledge as held by the Catholic Church. During this period, most new thinking occurred in the Arab world which was then intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education.
Nevertheless, it is also the case that in the early part of the Middle Ages, there were many instances in which Christianity was a modernising influence because Christian monasteries were the only places of culture or learning. Christian knowledge on how to build using stone and Christian literacy were useful governance tools which impressed non-Christian (pagan) leaders and often led to them adopting what was then still a relatively new religion.
For example, Patrick (later known as Saint Patrick) took Christianity to what was then an illiterate and pagan land, Ireland. He was able to convince Ireland’s pagan leaders to adopt Christianity. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, England was invaded by a Germanic tribe, the Anglo Saxons and Christianity almost vanished. It eventually returned to England through Ireland via Scotland. A group of monks from Ireland, lead by Columba, convinced the rulers of Scotland, the pagan Picts, of the benefits of Christianity.
During the Middle Ages:
- Farm workers would work on the farms, known as manors, for the landowner, who eventually became known as Lords, Nobles, Knights or Aristocrats. The farm workers worked in exchange for protection from attack and were sometimes allowed to keep some of what they produced. These farm workers were not slaves. But they could not leave the farms where they worked. They were “bonded” to this land. They became known as serfs or peasant farmers. The difference between a serf and a slave is that a slave could be bought and sold by the slave owner without an exchange of land. But a serf was owned by whomever bought the land to which the serf was bonded.
- The Popes of the Catholic Church usually remained in Rome and sided with the land owners and local kings. After its earlier modernising influence Christianity eventually became a way of reinforcing the system of loyalty between peasants, lords and kings.
- Saint Benedict (480 – 21 March 543) had made rules that came to influence life in monasteries, the places where monks lived. Monasteries became commonplace in the Middle Ages. St. Benedict’s rules were a strange mixture. For example, some rules said that it was important for Christians to engage in good works by helping the poor and the sick. But other rules were very strict forbidding monks to eat, talk or laugh too much as this was seen as sinful, or as a distraction from faith in God.
- In politics the dominant view was that just as the Pope was the ruler in spiritual matters, Kings ran the government based upon authority from God. This idea became known as the divine right of kings, or absolute monarchy.
- There was little rapid scientific or technological innovation, or the spread of new and original ideas in Western Europe.
- A new religion grew rapidly in the Middle East between 632 and 740 CE. This was Islam. It grew out of the teachings and conquests of the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad accepted many of the teachings of Judaism and Christianity including the idea of one God, Adam and Eve and rules, more or less similar to the Ten Commandments. But unlike Jesus Christ, Muhammad did not just prophesize. He also spread Islam through a series of military conquests.
- By the time Muhammad died in 632 he was the effective ruler of all of southern Arabia and within one hundred years of his death Arab armies had spread Islam by conquering virtually all of the Middle East, Persia, North Africa and Spain. They launched raids into France but were defeated there by the Frankish King, Charles “the Hammer” Martel.
- For some 300 years from the late 700’s Vikings from Scandinavia raided and settled in wide areas of Europe.
- Some 400 years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. The Holy Roman Empire lasted, in various guises, until 1806.
- The Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Catholic Church in “the great schism”. This occurred in 1054. Various reasons have been given for this split including disputes over Papal authority, over whether the Holy Spirit comes from God the father alone or from the father and son, the Catholic insistence that priests should not marry and even over whether priests could have beards.
- In 1066 England was successfully invaded by the Normans. The Normans were descended from Vikings who had settled in what is now Normandy in the northern part of France. However by the time the Normans invaded England they were French speaking and after 1066, French dialects became the main language of England’s kings and the English upper class for the next 300 years.
- Apart from Augustine’s adoption of Plato’s ideas, much of the learning of ancient Greece, including, for example, the thinking of Aristotle was largely ignored in Western Europe during the early Middle Ages. The exception was Spain during the period when it was controlled by Muslims. Here the Jewish scholar Maimonides (1138-1204) and the Islamic scholar Avveroes (1126-98) translated and interpreted the Greco Roman classics. Avveores wrote commentaries on the thought of Aristotle which was eventually translated in Latin. He concluded there was no incompatibility between Islam and reason and that wherever the Qur’an did not conform to reason it should be interpreted as poetry or metaphor. Like Plato however he thought that this subtly could only be understood by educated people, so most people should be encouraged to accept a literal reading of the Qur’an.
- Later Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) incorporated some of Aristotle’s ideas into Christianity, including the idea that knowledge is acquired through the senses. He also adapted Aristotle’s ideas around causes, claiming that the need for what Aristotle had called an efficient cause (or designer) was a proof God’s existence. It was through the Islamic scholars that classical thought, apart from the thinking of Plato, was preserved in the West, eventually contributing to rise to the Renaissance, a few hundred years later (see below).
- Despite the great schism between 1095 and 1291 Christianity eventually responded to Islam by launching what are known today as the Crusades. The original idea behind the Crusades was to capture Jerusalem, which was a holy city for both Christianity and Islam, back from its Islamic rulers. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. By 1291 the entire Middle East was completely controlled by Islamic rulers. However the Crusades did contribute to Europe being exposed to Islamic knowledge (especially science and mathematics). This, together with increased trade, benefitted Europe, which eventually came to better the Islamic world economically.
The early modern era
There is no agreement on precisely when the Middle Ages ended. Cities, which had their own governments, in what is now Italy, developed more modern businesses and trading practices from the 1200’s. This included the development of companies with share holders, regular postal services, the ability to take out insurance cover for financial losses at sea and new ways of keeping accounts. Like more modern accounting, the accounts began to record fixed assets like buildings, separately from the cash flow generated by sales.
The more modern business practices were followed in Italy by the Renaissance. Dating the beginning of the Renaissance is not easy- perhaps it began in the 1300’s.
- The Renaissance is sometimes seen as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the early modern era. However others argue that the Renaissance was mainly an artistic or cultural movement.
- Three important events, which arguably represent the beginning of the early modern era, occurred over the period of just 50 years between 1492 and 1543.
- In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. He would be followed soon after by other Spanish and Portuguesecolonizers of the Americas.
- Then, in 1517 Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, beginning what is now known as the Reformation. This created a third important branch of Christianity known as Protestantism.
- Then in 1543 Nicolas Copernicus published a document which put forward the theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Copernicus’ theory was contrary to the Bible’s teaching that God had created the Earth at the centre of the universe– a myth which most people of the time believed to be true.
- It was also during this fifty year period that Nicholas Machiavelli published his work “The Prince’ (distributed in 1532). Machiavelli is regarded as the first secular political philosopher. He suggested that political success should be judged by ends rather than means and that to be successful a ruler must sometimes be prepared to act immorally and use violence and deceit if required. This marked a shift towards judging actions with reference to consequences rather than medieval notions of intention, or good and evil as defined by religious doctrine.
During the early modern era:
- The conquering of the Americas by European powers led to new foods including corn, potatoes and the tomato being introduced into Europe. The turkey was the only animal taken from the Americas to Europe. Europe was also enriched by the lands which could be cultivated in the “New World’ as well as the gold and silver that was taken from the Americas. It is sometimes argued that this extra wealth in Europe would eventually assist in funding the industrial revolution.
- In the other direction the Europeans introduced new grains and animals including horses, cattle and sheep into the Americas. They also introduced new diseases, especailly small pox. Small pox decimated between 50-90% of native Americans who, unlike the Europeans, had no immunity to this disease.
- In 1517, Martin Luther commenced a rebellion against the Catholic Church. Luther hated the practice of the Church selling people pieces of paper so that sins would be forgiven and the person could avoid going to hell or spending too long in purgatory a sort of “waiting room” where people were thought to be sent before God decided whether they should go to heaven or hell. Luther believed this practice was dishonest and corrupt. The pieces of paper were known as “indulgences”.
- Luther founded Protestantism which became the third main branch of Christianity (in addition to the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches). Protestantism and its various offshoots eventually became the branch of Christianity followed by most Christians in Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the USA and Africa. Luther followed most of Augustine’s ideas including the idea of pre-destination. But he did not agree with Augustine’s idea that individuals could only develop a relationship with God through the Church. One of Protestantism’s new teachings was that the Bible was a higher source of religious authority than the Church and that the Church was not required to link people to God- individual people could develop a direct relationship with God themselves.
- Eventually the new emphasis that Protestantism placed upon the individual, together with the idea that material well being was a sign that the individual was favoured by God, led to an ethic, or way of seeing the world, that helped spur the development of the capitalist system.
- The theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun was heavily criticized by both the Catholic Church and by Luther. Luther called Copernicus and “upstart” and a “fool” who wanted to reverse the entire science of astronomy. The scientist Galileo was later put on trial by the Catholic Church for supporting the theory of Copernicus. On threat of death he had to withdraw his view, said to be sinful, that the Earth moves around the Sun.
- The periods known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment occurred after the Reformation. Many of the institutions and customs and morals that had been so resistant to change during the Middle Ages were questioned. A stronger belief in the importance of reason and science developed. There was renewed interest in classical Greek philosophy.
- Important scientific and technological discoveries were made especially in the fields of astronomy, physics and medicine. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) worked out new theories about light and gravity. He also developed the calculus, a method of working out accurately, from a known starting point, how things move or change as time passes. Modern physical science would be impossible without the calculus.
New political ideas emerged, or were more widely promoted. These included:
- Religious tolerance– the idea that governments should not impose a particular religion on their citizens,
- The social contract– governments only have a right to rule over people by the consent of those governed. This opposed the idea that God had given Kings a “divine right” to rule over their subjects;
- The right to property– individuals had a right to acquire property and this right should not be interfered with by governments;
- The rule of law– laws should be applied equally to all citizens;
- Separation of powers– the best form of government is one where power is split up between independent judges (who decide disputes between individuals), parliaments (who debate and make laws) and the executive arm of government (which is responsible for implementing policies and laws). This system was promoted as preventing any one part of government becoming too strong and as providing checks against corruption or abuse of power. It is the system now used, in different variations, in all modern democratic forms of government.
Towards the end of the early modern era two very important revolutions occurred- the American Revolution (1783) and French Revolution (1789). Both revolutions overthrew rule by King and established republics- a form of government without a king or queen. Many of the political ideas of the Enlightenment were established in the Constitutions of the new republics.
The American Revolution was a war against both foreign rule by Britain as well as rule by a King. This revolution replaced rule by a King with republican rule, which is rule by a Parliament and President.
The French Revolution did not involve a war against a foreign power. It was a civil war (a war within one country) that aimed to replace Kingly rule with republican rule based on the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality. However these ideas did not last long.
The French revolution descended into authoritarianism and terror eventually Napoleon came to rule in France as a military dictator, with as much, or perhaps even more power, than the King that the French Revolution had displaced. Napoleon set about conquering large parts of Europe.
Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in 1808 weakened Spain’s control over its colonies in South and Central America and meant Spain was unable to effectively resist the movements led by Simon Bolivar and others, that established governments in South America that were independent from Spain.
Napoleon was finally defeated in Russia, where his soldiers were trapped by the onset of the harsh Russian winter and by the English at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The end of the early modern era overlaps with the beginnings of period known as the industrial revolution.
The Industrial revolution
The industrial revolution refers to the period in which modern machines, powered by steam made through the burning of coal, first began being used in factories to produce goods for sale to large numbers of people.
The industrial revolution began in England and spread from there to other parts of Europe and to the USA. In the 1770’s, in the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire in England, Richard Arkwright applied water-power to the process of producing cotton His water frame allowed multiple strands of cotton to be spun continuously by unskilled workers. Prior to this only skilled workers could spin cotton on a spinning wheel, a single strand at a time. In 1775 James Watt invented a steam engine that worked far more efficiently than earlier models. By 1779 steam was used to power machines for weaving clothes.
Prior to the industrial revolution craftspeople or artisans made goods for sale to other people. But apart from the use of steam to power machines the industrial revolution led to another important change.Instead of the artisan making the product from start to finish the production process began to be broken up- one worker would work at a machine making a part of a product which would then be passed on to another worker who would operate the machine to make a different part.
Weavers who had previously weaved clothes from start to finish rebelled against the use of the new machines which produced clothes far faster than they could do. The rebels were called the “Luddites” and their riots, in which they smashed the new machines, were harshly repressed by the Government of the day.
Even today when somebody complains about new technology somebody else might call them a “Luddite”. By 1817 the Luddite protests had ceased and by 1825 Manchester now had 104 cotton-spinning mills and there were 110 steam engines in the town.
In the early 1800’s the industrial revolution began to spread from England to the USA. Francis Lowell established cotton mills in the USA in 1814, based on the British cotton mills he had seen in England.
Slavery still existed at this time in the USA and it played a role in assisting the industrial revolution in both the USA and England. By 1840, in the Southern states in the USA, black slaves worked on huge cotton plantations that grew 60 per cent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 per cent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry.
Conditions in the factories in the early stages of the industrial revolution were very harsh. Children were put to work in the factories and were paid very low wages, working 12 to 14 hours a day. Unguarded machines could cause them to suffer serious injuries or death.
In 1848 a series of revolutions broke out in Europe- especially in France, Germany, Italy and Austria although up to fifty countries were affected. These revolutions were the result of a demand for more democracy as well as economic demands from lower classes and the rise of greater nationalism. The revolutions were defeated and many people died.
1848 was also the year in which Karl Marx published the communist manifesto. Marx and his colleague Frederick Engels set out their view that history was propelled by conflicts that inevitably developed between different social classes- basically between those who control society and the means of producing the things that society consumes and those who do not. Under the still relatively new capitalist system the two conflicting classes were the capitalists who owned the factories and the workers who worked in them, mostly under very harsh conditions. Marx successfully predicted what we now refer to as “globalisation”- the spread of new markets to buy and sell goods across the globe. He was less successful in his prediction that the workers would overthrow the capitalists and establish a society in which there was no longer any conflict between contending classes.
In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) published his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s view challenged the traditional understandings that God had created the world in a short period of time for the benefit of human beings, as well as the idea that the nature of all species were “fixed” (which traces back to Aristotle), Darwin explained that all living things develop from characteristics, or traits, inherited from their parents. Certain traits have survival advantages, or disadvantages, based on how well those traits, cope in the environment. Over periods of time, usually very long periods, offspring possessing the traits with survival advantages become more common. Darwin’s ideas were so important because they changed forever the way large numbers of people thought about the world and the place of human beings in it.
After 1860 technological advancement occurred at such a rate that the period from 1860 through to 1914 is sometimes called the “second industrial revolution”. The steel, chemicals, and petroleum and electrical industries developed. There were great advances made in transportation which meant that the goods produced by the new industrial processes could be sent more quickly and over longer distances to new markets.
Germany and the United States became new leaders, and by the end of the late 1800s they were challenging Great Britain in the world market for industrial goods. By 1890 the USA became the world’s largest economy a position that it retains today, although it may soon be overtaken by China.
There was a revolution in communication. Summaries of world events were sent by telegraph across the world and were published in daily newspapers. Anybody who could read and write could access information about world events with a speed unknown to previous periods of history.
In 1913 Henry Ford began to mass produce a motor car- his model T Ford- on an assembly line.
During the 200 or so years that has passed since the commencement of the industrial revolution, and especially over the last hundred years or so since 1914, the pace of technological change has been more rapid than at any stage in human history. This period has seen:
- Radio, television, internet, personal computers, airplanes, submarines, rockets, automobiles, nuclear power;
- The most rapid every increase in human population;
- Dramatic increases in life expectancy in developed countries due to improved nutrition, hygiene and the development of new medicines and medical technologies, especially immunization and germ killing anti-biotic medication;
- The development of computers which can store and process information more quickly than the human brain;
- The development of weapons of mass destruction that are so powerful that their widespread use would threaten the survival of humanity;
- The development of multi national corporations which are wealthier than the poorest nations and whose economic activities and investments spread right across the globe;
- The development of container shipping, which, from the 1960’s, dramatically increased the amount of raw materials and goods that could be efficiently transported spurring still greater international trade;
- Development of new theories as to the creation of the universe (the “big bang” theory) and the understanding that space can stretch warp and curve and that at a certain point space and time become the same thing as do mass and energy;
- New theories about human personality, including the importance of early childhood experiences and the role of the unconscious in affecting human behaviour.
Technological and scientific progress, as well as unprecedented levels of economic growth, has led to dramatic increases in living standards and life expectancy especially in developed countries. Nevertheless about one fifth of the world’s population still lives on less than $1.25 (US) a day, 2.6 billion people, more than one third of the world’s population, live on $2 a day, or less, a figure that has changed little since 1981. About the same number do not even have access to basic sanitary toileting facilities.
The modern era also saw two world wars in which modern technology was put to use to increase the casualties that could be afflicted on enemies. 37 million people are estimated to have died in World War I (1914-18). Over 62 million are estimated to have died in World War II (1939-45). World War II also included an attempt by Nazi Germany to wipe an entire people- the Jews- as well as the first and only use of atomic bombs against a civilian population (by the USA against Japan).
On the other hand, despite the persistence of world poverty, there is at least now recognition that there are certain fundamental rights should be enjoyed by all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 sets out social, economic, and cultural rights which are regarded as essential to for a happy life. And the modern era has seen some undoubted improvements in the position of women, racial and religious minorities and people with disabilities in some countries. And most countries that were ruled as colonies during the early part of the modern era have now won independence, even though it is also true the legacy of colonial rule continues to have many negative impacts.