Summary: Study of Human History in 4 Pages


 

SYNTHESIS of 164 page study book

 Beginning of Human Life

By some trick of fate, the big bang happened, and the universe started expanding. Once stars and planets formed, another trick of fate occurred when bacteria emerged on earth capable of replicating. Eventually cells learned to play non-zero-sum games and evolved into ever more complex combinations, and ultimately beings.

 Humanoids appeared about six million years ago as a variation of apes, walking on two legs to see above the savannah grasses and carry things. Over millions of years, the network of humanoid variations produced several viable species in Africa, which were successful enough to spread out from the continent into Europe and Asia in search of food.

 Eventually Homo Sapiens emerged in Africa two hundred-thousand years ago. Homo Sapiens captured fire, which enabled cooking and the ability to consume more nutrients and develop bigger brains. The species then developed increasingly sophisticated mental and cultural capabilities, like language, clothing, tools, and importantly trade. Trade enabled the miraculous process of specialization to begin, which in turn enabled humankind, unlike any other species, to harness a more collective potential of population’s resources and skills. Trade, specialization, and cultural evolution have allowed Homo Sapiens to massively alter their world without any noticeable physical evolution.  

 The First Civilization

By 8,000 BC, farming and settlements emerged.  And when the great flood burst through the Bosphorus and inundated the Black Sea plain, the Proto-Indo-Europeans dispersed, bringing farming widely into Europe and the Middle East. At one place in the Middle East in 4,000 BC, the first civilization was born, where farming surpluses were possible through irrigation. In Sumer, the first human city arose with a complex society made up of craftsmen, writing, religion, architecture, and manufacturing. Sumer was almost uncontested for 2,000 years. Eventually other cities and civilizations also developed, and the goal of every human civilization shifted to how to compete with its rivals, (similar to the goal of every paleolithic clan.).  Going forward war would be the way that human societies would assert their effectiveness and durability. War, and empire, and progress, would become the measures of society’s ability to harness its power. What would become the most effective way of organizing and unleashing human activity at scale, became the defining question of human history.

 Modern World

The answer so far, revealed in the developed modern world of the twenty-first century, is to organize into capitalistic nation-states, set in natural borders, speaking a common language, governed usually by some form of representative democracy. Most developing countries are enviously pursuing this model, because it is most effective at unleashing the productive capacity of the population, creating prosperity, stability, and collective power. (The market-economy, authoritarian exceptions of China and Russia highlight that non-democratic governments can also obtain and retain power.)   The path by which humans arrived at the modern world is the path of human history. And that path began in Mesopotamia and flowed through Greece, Rome, Europe, and ultimately England and America.  Everything else is of course important, and related by connection but is off the mainline. Therefore, the histories of Sub-Saharan Africa, pre-Columbian America for example, are not covered in this summary, since they were not on the path to the creation of Modernity, as narrowly defined in this paper.

 Early Civilizations

In the beginning, the earliest civilizations were generated where large-scale crop production was possible – Mesopotamia, India, China.   India and China started later, but all three major civilizations grew organically and independently. In these civilizations, change occurred frequently through empire-building and war from competing factions. In Mesopotamia, it involved the Babylonians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and others. In India, change occurred less frequently, when dynasties fell or new invaders arrived via the Persian highlands.  And in China, the people of the monstrously huge fertile plains were competing with the outsider tribes from the north and the west.  The stories are similar. Each time a new technology or organizing principle was mastered, like bronze or iron or chariots, a new ruling culture usually emerged. Large armies would take the resources of their neighbors at the order of the king. (In Mesopotamia, ancient peoples were conquered repeatedly over two thousand years, stories of which are told in the Bible.)

 Eventually, the first large-scale empires came into being. In Persia, around 500 BC, the empire was built upon horseback from the high plains in Persia. In India, the Vedic empire extended from the Indus valley into the Ganges plains. And in China, the Chou dynasty conquered much of China. This posed new challenges for government – how to oversee and control a multi-regional empire. The solutions included installing loyalists as regional heads, ideally family members, employing spies everywhere, installing rapid communications networks, and creating vassal states. This basic model recurred throughout early history.

 Ancient Mediterranean Republics

A better model emerged as the course of western empire shifted to the Mediterranean, with Greece and then Rome, based on a more inclusive society. Greek society was based on a confederation of allied city-states, a set of cultural experiments. Athens was where humans started to think more deeply about society, civilization, and humanity. Athens went far deeper in the human experience, developing theatre, literature, history, government, and philosophy.  Athens and its dependents were democracies in 400 BC. The citizen-farmer enjoyed a level of freedom and enrichment not yet seen on the planet. And the 25-year war between Sparta and Athens was in part a war about monarchy vs. democracy. Once the Athens baton was passed to Rome, Greek society was absorbed, emulated and grafted onto a Roman republican military-industrial complex that leveraged the full might of its ever-expanding citizenry. 

 Ancient Rome achieved a level of prosperity and health not seen again until the 1800s. Rome marshalled its full citizenry through hard benefits of being a citizen, and the glory and wealth of being a senator/general. Conquered nations joined the Roman Empire as additional citizens. The Roman Empire covered all of Western Europe and the Mediterranean shores from which it traded with India and China via the Silk Road.

 When Rome stopped expanding and became defensive, its spoils-sharing model ossified and decayed over two centuries, until it was overrun by the Germanic tribes in the 400s who were themselves pressed ever westward by the Huns on horseback coming across the steppes. Western progress halted and regressed into chaos. The republican and democratic model was lost.

 Medieval Backwardness in Europe and the Rise of China

The Middle Ages in Europe were a step back into fragmentation, poverty, superstition, and death, which lasted almost a thousand years. The early period has little recorded history amid the chaos of the Saxons, Franks, Vandals, Goths, Burgundi and others. Charlemagne built a thin empire over Europe in the 700s but it could not last. Meanwhile the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium lived on, controlling the trade between Europe and Asia for another thousand years. The Arabs created a brief golden age for a few hundred years in the Middle East, Spain and the Africa coast.

 As the Middle Ages ended, by the year 1400, Europe had organized itself into a dozen or so proto-nation-states, each with a Catholic king and new vernacular language. But Europe was still a poor and backward place, relative to the Arab world and China. The Mongol Empire had connected China and Europe, highlighting the gap in progress between its two ends. The Arab world had progressed, unlocking advances in mathematics, science and literature. And China, a nation 20x larger, had much greater knowledge and technology.  (India was progressing slowly, as a fractured set of small principalities.) 

 The European Bourgeois and the Break from Medieval Dogma

Yet at this very point in time, 1400 AD, the trajectories of these great cultures turned and began to move in opposite directions. The Arab world stopped progressing, by turning its back on science and enforced the Koran as the source of all knowledge. China withdrew into itself, banning or limiting all foreign interactions for three centuries; they felt they had nothing to learn from the world. Europe, on the other hand, was gradually reshaped by its slowly expanding bourgeois class of bankers and traders who resisted the old power of the Church and royalty.  They had the power of money. First in the Italian city-states, then Holland, then everywhere.  Europe experienced the Renaissance – a rediscovery of ancient philosophy and focus on human accomplishments. Then Europe experienced the Reformation, which created Protestant states who were free from the thought restrictions of the Catholic church. Finally, Europe experienced the Enlightenment in the 1700s which let Man question the purpose of government, the methods of science, and his place in the story of evolution.  None of this occurred in the Arab world, China or India, where the Imam, Confucius, and Hindu priests all preached static obedience and order.  And so in Europe alone, the weight was gradually lifted of immobilizing, false religious dogma,  divine absolute kings, and arbitrary court rulings by the aristocracy. In their place, the modern world began to be outlined based upon commerce, progress, and the increasing rights of people.

 European Competition

Europe, being made of a fragmented geography, developed into a handful of sizeable, competing nation-states, which drove each other toward innovation and change. The endless cycle of expansion and contraction, empire and revolution, continued amongst different western Europe princes, as well as intruding Turks, Arabs, and Tatars. When the age of discovery arrived, and then the scientific revolution, the same conflicts continued to play out over a wider global geography with larger armies and weapons. The discovery and conquest of America was a side effect of the European prowess. As was the eventual subjugation of India and China, who missed their chance to build a sustainable lead over Europe. Europe had won the race.

 Along the way,  different countries had their golden eras.  In the 1500s, the Portuguese, on the fringe of the Silk Road east-west trade bonanza, were bold sailors who discovered and exploited the maritime route to India and Asia by sailing around the tip of Africa. In the same era, Spain became the wealthiest country in Europe by discovering and exploiting the great resources of the New World.  But Spain remained medieval in outlook, and squandered its advantages in the name of its king and the Church.  Next, the Dutch emerged as a republic, fresh from its independence from Spain, and became a bourgeois nation of traders and sailors and bankers and corporations.  The Dutch and their East/West Indies Corporations built the most liberal, open, literate, wealthy society in Europe by the mid-1600s.  Unfortunately, for the rest of history, the Dutch would have to contend with envious French and German armies, and envious British navies, which brought them back to the role of a small player. Finally France, reigned by Louis XIV and then Napoleon. became the greatest continental  power  of the 1700s and early 1800s based upon its enormous nation and highly centralized power structure in the person of the ruler.  But this too did not last, and was debilitated by royal bankruptcy and waves of unhappy revolt.

 English Model of Private Wealth

England alone, protected by its island nature, was able to avoid hosting destructive wars, and was able to unify its nation, around a Protestant church and a power-sharing government.  Its political evolution occurred fastest, with Magna Carta, a commoners Parliament, and a competent aristocratic cabinet to direct the country. They were also quick to observe the Dutch riches and pursue copycat strategies, ultimately displacing the Dutch fleets through war; England made huge investments to dominate the seas with the largest and best navy.  English freedoms and English mercantile policy then unleashed the benefits of capitalism and maritime trade, which drove private-sector economic innovation and the Industrial Revolution.   Being first to suppress the erratic nature of its monarchy and then industrialize the private sector at scale was an enormous achievement. By 1800, England became the most free and advanced nation on earth and the vanguard of human history, building two successive global empires and planting its civilization around the world in India, the Far East, Australia, America and the Caribbean. Second place went to the fast followers in France, Spain and the Netherlands. And last place went to the feudal anachronistic empires of Austria, Russia, Germany, and the Ottomans, finally deconstructed only after World War I.

 Age of Capital and Empire

The 19th century deepened and extended the modern world framework outward from England. It was the triumph of capitalism and bourgeois society on a global scale.  The Developed World emerged alongside the establishment of thousands of corporations, employing millions of people. Colonialism began in earnest, defining the Developing World usually as providers of single-resource raw materials, in a newly defined nation-state. England built the largest global empire. France and Italy claimed Arab lands and parts of Africa. Germany was late to the colonial land grab in Africa and was frustrated. China, the behemoth, was a prone, enormous market, controlled and manipulated by the European powers. Russia as always was enormous and slightly backward. Only Japan was the new great player whose feudal leadership had pursued an ambitious catchup program of technical modernization.

 Across the waters, the New World lay protected by the United States and its Monroe Doctrine. The civilization of the United States, founded as an inspired extension of English civilization in 1776,  was built upon even greater individual freedom, religious freedom, equality and self-government, elected by the people, without monarch or nobility (though these rights were denied to Blacks and Native Americans). By the twentieth century, the USA had grown to also be a great power based upon i.) its good fortune in conquering a huge, valuable continent, ii.) the effectiveness of its capitalism-based representative democracy and meritocracy. Like virtually all governments of the 18th and into the 19th century, America was willing to disregard the rights of the indigenous and enslaved populations in developing the country and nation.

 20th Century

The direction of world history had been mainly defined by the beginning of the 20th century, which began with Great Powers controlling most of the world, divided between republics (England, France, USA) and feudal societies (Russia, Prussia, Austria, Ottomans, Japan).  World War I broke out, because once again feudal autocracies (Germany, Japan) wanted to go to war, and their people had no way to stop them. Only this time, war would be long and far more terrible, as outdated military leaders did not understand the implications of the new armaments of artillery and machine guns.  It took five years of trench warfare to resolve, and in its aftermath the old aristocratic empires were dismantled and replaced.  Russia fell to the Communists, tragically. Germany/Prussia was cowed, reshaped, and disarmed. Austria and the Ottomans were also broken up into more coherent nation-states.  Unfortunately, the post-war work of politicians and central bankers was abysmal, and set the stage for a second war to fight over the fundamental issues once again. But the shape of the Modern World was largely in place after World War I, with many new coherent nation-states with embryonic republican governments, and suffrage extended to all men and women in much of the developed world.. As most of the remaining monarchies were overturned, the Anglo-Saxon model of society became the clear winner in the world.

 

 

 

Themes

 

The direction of the arrow is toward complexity, commerce, trade, prosperity, interconnectedness. Trade is a fundamental human force independent of government, nation, religion.

 

The inevitable ultimate advancement of science and logic and rational thought. 

 

Geography: Rivers as highways. Mountains as fences. Fertile plains as bread baskets, the size of which determines the scale and power of a sustainable population (China, USA, France). Steppes as a terrifying threat of a horde on horseback, bringing the plague.  The crucial impact of geography, creating scale barriers on civilizations, inducing competition and innovation. When too large and isolated, creating the opportunity for stagnation (China, Russia). 

   

The continuous territorial expansions and conflicts, endless, creating larger entities and nations to arrive at natural borders. The crucial element of language as a basis for nation. The ever-present priests. The continual use of religion to reinforce the elite. 

 

The cyclical overrun of the haves by have-nots, civilization by the hordes, perhaps stopping only when and if the hordes themselves become civilized. 

 

The plight of society’s members at the expense of royalty’s or upper strata’s selfish military conflicts. The fundamental desire by people for stability and peacefulness as much as possible. The trade-off between freedom and stability/safety. 

 

The fundamental lack of reliable virtue in human beings over time; horrible corrupt leaders inevitably emerge over time. The need for forms of government, however dysfunctional, which can create stability and basic systems of justice for societies. 

 

The accidental nature of history in particular the power of a single individual to change the course of history in the short term.

 

The origin of religion out of superstition. The need to explain the mysteries of nature. The incredible impact of religion and the church on the course of human history as a force unto itself. An indication of a fundamental human need, from time immemorial. The philosophical nature of the churches on the meaning of life and the plight of man. The damaging emergence of fundamental or strict orthodox religions as a way to avoid resolving the disparities between science and faith. The ongoing disparities of science and faith. 

 

The time periods involved, with some ancient civilizations and empires and modes of thought existing for long periods, many centuries or millennia.

 

Surprisingly, the only recent awareness to focus on technology and know-how as a basis for civilization’s progress.

 

War has been the natural selection process of human culture. Amid the noise and ebb and flow of individual dynasties (produced by naturally weakening personal ties, declining productivity, natural disasters, diseases), there is also a triumph of more effective cultures. Societies that can mobilize the resources of their civilization better. (Roman, Norman, British, Napoleonic, European). Power and wealth and commitment per capita. 

 

In the absence of war in much of the world, battles of cultures will be fought with other means: trade, cyber, diplomacy. Culture wars continue between the West vs China, the West vs Russia, the West vs Islam. 

 

I am a guy who survived the Covid lockdown by reading 63 history books and writing a 164 page study book and a synthesis, which is published here.