History of the world

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History; General history

The history of the world, in popular parlance, is human history, from the first appearance of Homo sapiens to the present.

Paleolithic Period

Map of early human migrations, according to mitochondrial population genetics (numbers are millennia before the present).
Map of early human migrations, according to mitochondrial population genetics (numbers are millennia before the present).

Paleolithic means "old stone age." In other words, this is the first period of the stone age.

Scientific evidence based on genetics and the study of fossils, places the origin of modern Homo sapiens in Africa . This occurred about 200,000 years ago during the Palaeolithic period, after a long period of evolution. Ancestors of humans, such as Homo erectus, had been using simple tools for over a thousand millennia, but as time progressed, tools became far more refined and complex. Humans also developed language sometime during the Paleolithic period, as well as a conceptual repertoire that included systematic burial of the dead. The latter suggests a development of foresight after being consistently exposed to rotting bodies.

Humans of this age also decorated themselves with objects to improve their appearance. During this period, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, who were generally nomadic.

Modern humans spread rapidly over the globe from Africa and the frost-free zones of Europe and Asia. The rapid expansion of humankind to North America and Oceania took place at the climax of the most recent Ice Age, when today's temperate regions were extremely inhospitable. Yet, by the end of the Ice Age some 12,000 years ago, humans had colonised nearly all the ice-free parts of the globe.

Hunter-gatherer societies have tended to be very small, although in some cases they have developed social stratification, and long-distance contacts are possible as in the case of Indigenous Australian 'highways' in Australia.

Eventually most hunter-gatherer societies either developed, or were absorbed into, larger agricultural states. Those that did not were either exterminated, or remained in isolation, such as small hunter-gatherer societies which are still present today in remote regions.

Mesolithic Period

Mesolithic ( Greek mesos=middle and lithos=stone or the 'Middle Stone Age') was a period in the development of human technology between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods of the Stone Age. It began at the end of the Pleistocene epoch around 10,000 years ago and ended with the introduction of farming, the date of which varied in each geographical region. In some areas, such as the Near East farming was already in use by the end of the Pleistocene and there the Mesolithic is short and poorly defined. In areas with limited glacial impact, the term Epipaleolithic is sometimes preferred. Regions that experienced greater environmental effects as the last ice age ended have a much more apparent Mesolithic era, lasting millennia. In Northern Europe for example, societies were able to live well on rich food supplies from the marshlands created by the warmer climate. Such conditions produced distinctive human behaviours which are preserved in the material record, such as the Maglemosian and Azilian cultures. Such conditions also delayed the coming of the Neolithic until as late as 4000 BCE in Northern Europe.

Remains from this period are few and far between, often limited to middens (rubbish heaps which grew over time). In forested areas of the world, the first signs of deforestation have been found, although this would only start in earnest during the Neolithic, when extra space for farming was needed.

The mesolithic is characterized by small composite flint tools ( microliths and microburins) in most areas. Fishing tackle, stone adzes and wooden objects such as canoes and bows have been found preserved at some sites. Threse technologies are first found associated in Africa associated with the Azilian cultures, before spreading into Europe through the Ibero-Maurusian culture of Spain and Portugal, and the Kebaran culture of Palestine. Independent discovery is not ruled out in all cases.

Neolithic Period

The Neolithic means "new stone age", a period of primitive technological and social development towards the end of the stone age. Beginning in the 10th millennium BCE, the Neolithic period is characterized by the development of early village dwellings, agriculture, animal domestication and tools.

Development of agriculture

Artist's depiction of an Ancient Egyptian farmer. (Courtesy KingTutOne.com)
Artist's depiction of an Ancient Egyptian farmer. (Courtesy KingTutOne.com)

A major change, described by the prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe as a "revolution," occurred around the 9th millennium BCE with the adoption of agriculture. The Sumerians first started farming around 9500 BCE. By 7000 BCE, agriculture had spread to the Indus Valley, by 6000 BCE, it had reached Egypt, and by 5000 BCE, people in China were farming. Around 2700 BCE, agriculture spread to Mesoamerica. Although research and education has tended to concentrate on the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East, archaeology in the Americas, East Asia and Southeast Asia indicates that agricultural systems using different crops and animals may well have developed nearly as early in some cases.

A further step forward in Middle Eastern agriculture occurred with the development of organised irrigation and the use of a specialised labour force, by the Sumerians, starting about 5,500 BCE. Bronze and iron replaced stone as tools for agriculture and warfare. Agricultural settlements had until this time been almost completely dependent on stone tools. In Eurasia, copper and bronze tools, decorations, and weapons began to become commonplace around 3000 BCE. After bronze, the Eastern Mediterranean region, Middle East and China saw the introduction of iron tools and weapons.

The Americas may not have had metal tools until the Chavín horizon in 900 BCE. We also know that the Moche had metal armor, knives and tableware. Even the metal-poor Inca had metal-tipped plows, at least after the conquest of Chimor. However, very little archaeological research has been done in Peru so far and almost all the khipus (recording devices, in the form of knots, used by the Incas) were burned in the Spanish conquest of Peru. Whole cities were still being discovered in 2004 CE. Some digs suggest that steel may have been made there before it was developed in Europe.

River valleys became the cradles of early civilizations, such as the Yellow River valley in China, the Nile in Egypt, and the Indus Valley in the Indian subcontinent. Some nomadic peoples, such as Indigenous Australians and the Bushmen of Southern Africa, did not use agriculture until relatively modern times.

Many humans did not belong to states before 1800 CE. Among scientists, there is disagreement over whether the term "tribe" should be used to describe the kind of societies these humans lived in. Large parts of the world were the territories of "tribes" before Europeans began colonization. Many "tribes" transformed into states when they were threatened or otherwise influenced by states. Examples are the Marcomanni and Lithuania. Some "tribes," such as the Kassites and the Manchus, conquered states and were absorbed by them.

Agriculture made possible complex societies, also called civilizations. States and markets emerged. Technologies improved humans' ability to control nature and to develop transport and communication.

Development of religion

Most historians trace the beginnings of complex religious belief to the Neolithic Period. Most religious belief during this time period consisted of worship of a Mother Goddess, a Sky Father, and also worship of the Sun and the Moon as deities. (see also Sun worship). There is the development of particular shrines, which over time develop as temple establishments, complete with a complex hierarchy of priests and priestesses and other temple functionaries. During the course of the neolithic there is a tendency towardsthe worship of anthropomorphic dieties, portrayed in human form.

Rise of civilization


Agriculture led to several major changes. It allowed far larger population densities, which organised themselves into states. There are several definitions used for the term "state." Max Weber and Norbert Elias defined the state as an organization of people that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a particular geographic area.

Borders delineate states - a prominent example is the Great Wall of China, which stretches over 6700 km, and was first erected in the 3rd century BCE to protect the north from nomadic invaders. It has been rebuilt and augmented several times since.
Borders delineate states - a prominent example is the Great Wall of China, which stretches over 6700 km, and was first erected in the 3rd century BCE to protect the north from nomadic invaders. It has been rebuilt and augmented several times since.

The first states appeared in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley in the late 4th and early 3rd millennia BCE. In Mesopotamia, there were several city-states. Ancient Egypt began as a state without cities, but cities soon arose. A state needs an army to impose the legitimate use of force. An army needs a bureaucracy to maintain it. The only exception to this appears to be the Indus Valley civilization due to a lack of evidence of military force.

States appeared in China in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE. Major wars broke out between states in the Middle East. The treaty of Kadesh, one of the first peace treaties, was concluded between the Hittites and ancient Egypt ca.1275 BCE. Major empires came into being with conquered areas ruled by central tribes, such as Persia (6th century BCE), the Mauryan Empire (4th century BCE), China (3rd century BCE), and the Roman Empire (1st century BCE).

Clashes among major empires took place in the 8th century CE, when the Islamic Caliphate of Arabia (ruling from Spain to Iran) and the Tang dynasty of China (ruling from Xinjiang to Korea) fought for decades for control of Central Asia. The largest continguous land empire was the Mongolian Empire in the 13th century. By then, most humans in Europe, Asia and North Africa belonged to states. There were states as well in Mexico and western South America. States continued to control more and more of the world's territory and population; the last 'empty' territories were divided among states in the Treaty of Berlin (1878 CE).

City and trade

Vasco da Gama sailed to India to bring back spices in the late 15th century CE and early 16th century CE.
Vasco da Gama sailed to India to bring back spices in the late 15th century CE and early 16th century CE.

Agriculture also created, and allowed for the storage of, food surpluses that could support people not directly involved in food production. The development of agriculture permitted the creation of the first cities. These were centers of trade, manufacturing and political power with nearly no agricultural production of their own. The cities formed a symbiotic relationship of a sort, absorbing agricultural products from the surrounding countryside, but providing, in return, manufactured goods and varying degrees of military protection.

The development of cities led to what has been called civilization: first Sumerian civilization in lower Mesopotamia (3500 BCE), followed by Egyptian civilization along the Nile (3300 BCE) and Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley (3300 BCE). There is evidence of elaborate cities with high levels of social and economic complexity. However, these civilizations were so different from each other that they almost certainly originated independently. It was at this time that writing and extensive trade were introduced.

In China, proto-urban societies may have developed from 2500 BCE, but the first dynasty to be identified by archeology is that of the Shang Dynasty. The 2nd millennium BCE saw the emergence of civilization in Crete, mainland Greece and central Turkey. In the Americas, civilizations such as the Maya, the Moche and Nazca emerged in Mesoamerica and Peru at the end of the 1st millennium BCE. Coinage was introduced in Lydia.

Long-range trade routes first appeared in the 3rd millennium BCE, when Sumerians in Mesopotamia traded with the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. Trade routes also appeared in the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th millennium BCE. The Silk Road between China and Syria began in the 2nd millennium BCE. Cities in Central Asia and Persia were major crossroads of these trade routes. Phoenician and Greek civilizations founded empires in the Mediterranean basin in the 1st century BCE, based on trade. The large scale transportation of commodities before the modern age was unique to the ancient Greek civilization. Arabs dominated the trade routes in the Indian Ocean, East Asia, and the Sahara in the late 1st millennium CE and early 2nd millennium CE. Arabs and Jews also dominated trade in the Mediterranean in the late 1st millennium. Italians took over this role in the early 2nd millennium CE. Flemish and German cities were at the centre of trade routes in Northern Europe in the early 2nd millennium CE. In all areas, major cities developed at crossroads along the trade routes.

Religion and philosophy

New philosophies and religions arose in both east and west, particularly around the 6th century BCE. Over time, a great variety of religions developed around the world, with Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia being some of the earliest major faiths. The Abrahamic religions also trace their origin to this time. In the east, three schools of thought were to dominate Chinese thinking until the modern day. These were Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. The Confucian tradition, which would attain predominance, looked not to the force of law, but to the power and example of tradition for political morality. In the west, the Greek philosophical tradition, represented by the works of Plato and Aristotle, was diffused throughout Europe and the Middle East by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon in the 4th century BCE.

Major civilizations and regions

By the last centuries BCE, the Mediterranean, the Ganges and the Yellow River became the seats of empires which future rulers would strive to imitate. In India, the Mauryan Empire ruled over most of Southern Asia, while the Pandyas ruled the south of India. In China, the Qin and Han dynasties extended the rule of imperial government through political unity, improved communications and also notably the establishment of state monopolies by Emperor Wu.

In the West, the Ancient Greeks established a civilization that is considered by most historians to be the foundational culture of modern Western civilization. Some centuries later the Romans began expanding their territory through conquest and colonisation from the 3rd century BCE. By the reign of Emperor Augustus in the late 1st century, Rome controlled all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.

The great empires rested on the ability to exploit the process of military annexation and the formation of defended human settlements to become agricultural centres. The relative peace they brought encouraged international trade, most notably were the massive trade routes in the mediterranean sea that were developed by the time of Hellenistic age, with were unparalleled in volume of trade until modern times and the growth of the Silk Road. They also faced common problems, such as those associated with maintaining huge armies and the support of a central bureaucracy. These costs fell most heavily on the peasantry, whilst land-owning magnates were increasingly able to evade centralised control and its costs. The pressure of barbarians on the frontiers hastened the process of internal dissolution. The Han empire fell into civil war in 220 CE, whilst its Roman counterpart became increasingly decentralised and divided around the same time.

Throughout the temperate zones of Eurasia, America, and North Africa, large empires continued to rise and fall.

The gradual breakup of the Roman Empire, which spanned several centuries following the 2nd century CE, coincided with the spread of Christianity westward from the Middle East. The western part of the Roman Empire fell under the domination of various Germanic tribes in the 5th century, and these polities gradually developed into a number of warring states, all associated, in one way or another, with the Roman Catholic Church. The remaining part of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean was henceforth known as the Byzantine Empire. Centuries later, a limited unity was restored to western Europe through the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, comprising a number of states in what is now Germany and Italy.

In China, dynasties would similarly rise and fall. Nomads from the north began to invade in the 4th century CE, eventually conquering nearly all of northern China and setting up many small kingdoms. The Sui Dynasty reunified China in 581, and under the Tang Dynasty (618-907) China entered into a second golden age. However, the Tang Dynasty also splintered and, after about half a century of turmoil, the Northern Song Dynasty reunified China in 982. Yet, pressure from nomadic empires to the north became increasingly urgent. All of North China was lost to the Jurchen in 1141 and the Mongol Empire conquered all of China in 1279, as well as almost all of Eurasia's landmass, missing only western and central Europe and Japan.

Northern India was ruled by the Guptas in these times. In southern India, three prominent Dravidian kingdoms emerged: Cheras, Cholas, and Pandyas. The ensuing stability contributed to herald the golden age of Hindu culture in the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," have become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," have become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.

Vast societies also began to be built up in Central America at this time, with the Maya and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica being the most notable. As the mother culture of the Olmecs gradually declined, the great Mayan city-states slowly rose in number and prominence, and Maya culture spread throughout Yucatán and surrounding areas. The later empire of the Aztec was built on neighboring cultures and was influenced by conquered peoples, such as the Toltec.

South America saw the rise of the Inca in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Inca Empire of Tawantinsuyu spanned the entire range of the Andes and held its capital at Cusco. The Inca were prosperous and advanced, known for an excellent road system and unrivaled masonry.

Islam, which began in Arabia in the 7th century, was also one of the most remarkable forces in World history, growing from only a few followers to become the basis of a series of large empires in India, the Middle East, and North Africa.

In Northeast Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia, which both had long been linked to the Mediterranean world, remained Christian enclaves as the rest of Africa north of the equator converted to Islam. With Islam, came new technologies that, for the first time, allowed substantial trade to cross the Sahara. Taxes on this trade led to prosperity in North Africa and the rise of a series of kingdoms in the Sahel.

This period was marked by slow but steady technological improvements with developments of influential importance, such as the stirrup and the mouldboard plough, arriving every few centuries. However, there existed some short periods of rapid technological progress in some regions. Most importantly, the Mediterranean Sea during the Hellenistic period (in which hundreds of technologies were invented), and periods of technological decay and decline like the areas of the Roman Empire during its decline and fall and the subsequent Early Medieval period.

Rise of Europe

Background for European advance

The invention of the movable-type printing press in 1450s Germany was awarded #1 of the Top 100 Greatest Events of the Millennium by LIFE Magazine. By some estimates, less than 50 years after the first Bible was printed in 1455, more than nine million books were in print.
The invention of the movable-type printing press in 1450s Germany was awarded #1 of the Top 100 Greatest Events of the Millennium by LIFE Magazine. By some estimates, less than 50 years after the first Bible was printed in 1455, more than nine million books were in print.

Nearly all the agricultural civilizations were heavily constrained by their environment. Productivity remained low and it was easy for natural climate changes to instigate the boom and bust cycles which brought about their rise and fall. But, by around 1500, there was a qualitative change in world history. Technological advance and the wealth generated by trade gradually brought about a widening of possibilities.

Even before the 16th century, some civilizations had developed relatively advanced societies. In ancient times the Roman and Greek civilizations had developed very advanced societies which were supported by an advanced monetary economy with financial markets and private property rights,. These institutions created the conditions for continuous capital acumulation with increased productivity in all sectors of their economies. Second to some estimates, the per capita income of Roman Italy, with was one of the most advanced regions of the Roman Empire, was comparable to the per capita incomes of the most advanced economies in the world by the 18th century. (see ) The most developed regions of the ancient classical civilization were more urbanized than any other region in the world until the early modern times. However this civilization gradually declined and colapsed. Many historians still discuss why this decline ocurred.

One of the most advanced civilizations of the middle ages was China. It had developed an advanced monetary economy by 1000. China had a free peasantry who were no longer subsistence farmers, and could sell their produce and actively participate in the market. The agriculture was highly productive. China was the most urbanized region in Eurasia. It enjoyed a technological advantage over the rest of the Eurasian world and had a monopoly in cast-iron production, piston bellows, suspension-bridge construction, printing and the compass. (see Joseph Needham). But, after earlier onslaughts by the Jurchens, the remnants of the Sung empire were conquered by the Mongols in 1279.

Outwardly, the Renaissance (beginning in the 14th century) was the rediscovery of the scientific contribuitions of the classics and the economic and social rise of Europe. But it could also be argued that it engendered a culture of inquisitiveness which ultimately led to humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and finally the great transformation of the Industrial Revolution. However the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century did not have any immediate impact on technology. Only in the second half of the 18th century were scientific advances beginning to be applied to practical inventions. The advantages Europe had developed by the middle of the 18th century were two: an entrepreneurial culture and the wealth generated by the Atlantic trade (including the African slave trade). But, to a minority of historians, in 1750, labour productivity in the most developed regions of China was still on a par with that of the Atlantic economy in Europe (see Wolfgang Keller and Carol Shiue). It is important to consider that, second to most historians and social scientists, the per capita productivity of Western Europe already exceeded the per capita productivity of all other regions in the globe by the late middle ages.

There are a number of explanations why, from the late middle ages onward, Europe rose to surpass these other civilizations, become the home of the Industrial Revolution, and dominate the rest of the world. Max Weber argued it was due to a Protestant work ethic that encouraged Europeans to work harder and longer than their fellows. Another sociological-economic explanation looks at demographics: Europe with its celibate clergy, colonial emigration, high-mortality urban centers, continual warfare, and late age of marriage had far more restrained population growth compared to Asian cultures. A relative shortage of labour meant surpluses could be invested in labour-saving technological advances such as water-wheels and mills, spinners and looms, steam engines, and shipping, rather than fueling a simple expansion of the population. Many have also argued that Europe's institutions were superior, that property rights and free market economics were stronger in Europe than elsewhere in the world because of the ideal of freedom which was peculiar to the European continent. In recent years, scholars, such as Kenneth Pomeranz, have challenged this view.

Europe's geography may also have played an important role. The Middle East, India and China are all ringed by mountains, but once past these outer barriers all are relatively flat. By contrast, the Alps, Pyrenees, and other mountain ranges run through Europe, and the continent is also divided by several seas. This gave Europe some degree of protection from the peril of Central Asian invaders. In the era before firearms, all of Eurasia was threatened by the horsemen of the Central Asian steppe. These nomads were militarily superior to the agricultural states on the periphery of the continent and, if they broke out into the plains of Northern India or the valleys of China, were all but unstoppable. These invasions were often devastating. The Golden Age of Islam was ended by the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, and both India and China were also subject to periodic invasions. Europe, especially western Europe, was far less subject to these threats.

The geography also contributed to important geopolitical differences. For most of their histories, China, India and the Middle East were unified under a single dominant power that expanded until it reached the surrounding mountains and deserts. In 1600, the Ottoman Empire controlled almost all the Middle East, the Ming Dynasty dominated China, and the Mughal Empire had control over India. By contrast, Europe was almost always divided among a number of warring states. Pan-European empires, with the major exception of the earlier Roman Empire, tended to collapse soon after they arose. Paradoxically, the intense competition between rival states is often portrayed as one source of Europe's success. In other regions, stability was often a higher priority than growth. For instance, China's growth as a maritime power was restricted by the Hai jin of the Ming Dynasty. In Europe, such a blanket ban would have been impossible due to disunity; if any one state had imposed such a restriction, it would have quickly fallen behind its competitors.

Another doubtless important geographic factor in the rise of Europe was the Mediterranean Sea, which, for millennia, had functioned as a maritime superhighway fostering the exchange of goods, people, ideas and inventions.

Also, in the tropics the ever-present diseases and parasites, sapping the strength and health of humans, and of their animals and crops, were socially-disorganizing factors that impeded progress.

Mercantile dominance of Europe

In the fourteenth century, the Renaissance began in Europe. Some modern scholars have questioned whether this flowering of art and humanism was a benefit to science, but the era did see an important fusion of Arab and European knowledge. One of the most important developments was the caravel, which combined the Arab lateen sail with European square rigging to create the first vessels that could safely sail the Atlantic Ocean. Along with important developments in navigation, this technology allowed Christopher Columbus in 1492 to journey across the Atlantic Ocean and bridge the gap from Africa-Eurasia to the Americas.

This had dramatic effects on both continents, in one of the most famous historical Outside Context Problems. The Europeans brought with them diseases that the American natives had never before encountered and an uncertain number of them were killed in a series of devastating epidemics. The Europeans also had the technological advantage of horses, steel and guns that allowed them to overpower the Aztec and Incan empires, along with other cultures of North America.

Gold and resources from the Americas began to be stripped from the land and people and shipped to Europe, while at the same time large numbers of European colonists began to emigrate to the Americans. To meet the great demand for labour in the new colonies, the mass import of Africans as slaves began. Soon, much of the Americas had a large racial underclass of slaves. In West Africa, a series of thriving states developed along the coast, becoming prosperous from the exploitation of suffering interior African peoples.

The Santa Maria at anchor, painted ca. 1628 by Andries van Eertvelt, shows the famous carrack of Christopher Columbus.
The Santa Maria at anchor, painted ca. 1628 by Andries van Eertvelt, shows the famous carrack of Christopher Columbus.

Europe's maritime expansion, unsurprisingly given its geography, was largely the work of the continent's Atlantic seaboard states: Portugal, Spain, England, France, the Netherlands. The Portuguese and Spanish Empires were at first the predominant conquerors and source of influence, but soon the more northern English, French and Dutch began to dominate the Atlantic. In a series of wars, fought in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating with the Napoleonic Wars, Britain emerged as the first world power. It accumulated an empire that spanned the globe, controlling, at its peak, approximately one-quarter of the world's land surface, on which the " Sun never set".

Meanwhile, the voyages of Admiral Zheng He were halted by China's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), established after the expulsion of the Mongols. A Chinese commercial revolution, sometimes described as "incipient capitalism," was also abortive. The Ming Dynasty would eventually fall to the Manchus, whose Qing Dynasty oversaw, at first, a period of calm and prosperity, but would increasingly fall prey to Western encroachment.

Soon after the invasion of the Americas, Europeans had exerted their technological advantage over the peoples of Asia as well. In the early 19th century, Britain gained control of the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and the Malay Peninsula; the French took Indochina; while the Dutch occupied the Dutch East Indies. The British also occupied several of the areas still populated by neolithic peoples, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and, as in the Americas, large numbers of British colonists began to emigrate to these areas. In the late nineteenth century, the last unclaimed areas of Africa were divided among the European powers.

This era in Europe saw the Age of Reason lead to the Scientific Revolution, which changed our understanding of the world and made possible the Industrial Revolution, a major transformation of the world’s economies. It began in Britain and used new modes of production such as the factory, mass production, and mechanisation to produce a wide array of materials faster and for less labour than previous methods. The Age of Reason also led to the beginnings of democracy as we know it today, in the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century. Democracy would grow to have a profound effect on world events and quality of life. During the Industrial Revolution, the world economy was soon based on coal, as new methods of transport, such as railways and steam ships, made the world a smaller place. Meanwhile, industrial pollution and damage to the environment, present since the discovery of fire and the beginning of civilization, accelerated tenfold.

Twentieth Century onwards

Ascendance through technology

The advent of nuclear weapons, this exploding over Nagasaki in 1945, ended World War II and marked the beginning of the Cold War.
The advent of nuclear weapons, this exploding over Nagasaki in 1945, ended World War II and marked the beginning of the Cold War.

The twentieth century saw the waning of Europe's domination of the world—partly due to the costs and internal devastations of World Wars I and II—and the attendant rise, as rival superpowers, of the United States and the Soviet Union. Following World War II the United Nations was founded, in the hope that it could allay conflicts among nations and prevent future wars. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in possession of the field as "the sole remaining superpower," termed by some a " hyperpower." (See " Pax Americana.")

The century had given rise to powerful secular ideologies. The first, after 1917 in the Soviet Union, was communism, which after 1945 spread to Central Europe, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, North Vietnam and North Korea; in 1949, to China; and during the 1950s and '60s, elsewhere in the Third World. The 1920s and '30s saw militaristic fascist dictatorships gain control of Italy, Germany, Japan and Spain.

These transformations were linked to wars of unparalleled scope and devastation. World War I destroyed many of Europe's old empires and monarchies, and weakened France and Britain. World War II ultimately saw most of the militaristic dictatorships in Europe destroyed and communism advance into Eastern and Central Europe and into Asia.

This led to the Cold War, a forty-year stand-off between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. All of humanity and complex life forms were put at risk by the existence of nuclear weapons. The nuclear powers understood the risks, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 nearly precipitated nuclear war. Such war being viewed as impractical, proxy wars were instead waged, at the expense of non-nuclear-armed Third World countries.

In 1991 the world witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with some of its former republics rejoining Russia in a Commonwealth of Independent States, while other republics as well as several former Soviet " satellites" reached out toward western Europe and the European Union.

The collapse of the communist polities found a delayed reflection in the capitalist realm as the late-20th-century acceleration of free trade and "globalization" led to the United States' growing indebtedness to China, and to the export of American jobs to low-wage countries, at the expense of American workers. The United States' growing internal and external debts boded ill for that country's long-term economic, diplomatic and military position in the world. ( Lou Dobbs, War on the Middle Class, 2006.)

The same century saw vast progress in technology, and a large increase in life expectancy and standard of living for the majority of humanity. As the world economy switched from one based on coal to one based on petroleum, new communications and transportation technologies continued to make the world more united. The technological developments of the century also contributed to problems with the environment, though urban pollution is lower today than in the days of coal. As the world's petroleum reserves approached exhaustion within the next few decades, competition for the shrinking resource exacerbated long-standing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The last exploration of the moon, Apollo 17, 1972.
The last exploration of the moon, Apollo 17, 1972.

The latter half of the century saw the rise of the information age and globalization dramatically increase trade and cultural exchange. Space exploration reached throughout the solar system. The structure of DNA, the very template of life, was discovered, and the human genome was sequenced, promising to eventually change the face of human disease. The number of scientific papers published each year now far surpasses the total number published prior to 1900 , and doubles approximately every 15 years. Global literacy rates have continued to increase, and the percentage of the global society's labor pool needed to produce society's food has continued to decrease substantially ( Kurzweil 1999).

The same period, however, raised prospects of an end to human history, precipitated by unmanaged global hazards: nuclear proliferation, the greenhouse effect and other forms of environmental degradation caused by the " fissile-fossil complex," international conflicts prompted by the dwindling of resources, fast-spreading epidemics such as HIV, and the passage of near-earth asteroids and comets.

The development of states had always taken impetus from hope of gain and fear of loss. The sense of national identity had always been forged in conflicts with outsiders who were perceived as a threat. As the 20th century closed, the world witnessed the rise of what some saw as a new superstate, the European Union. Tentative steps were also taken, at emulating the European Union, by states in Asia, Africa and South America. Meanwhile the growth, life and collapse of states, organized around various human populations and for the purpose of achieving various human goals, continued to be accompanied by wars, with concomitant loss of life, physical destruction, disease, famine and genocide.

As the 20th century closed and the 21st opened, an increasingly interdependent world faced common hazards that could be averted only by common effort. It more and more seemed that the world must either perish or survive as a whole. This was brought home on October 30, 2006, by the Stern Review, warning of the threat of global warming and rapid climate change. In the historic escalation of human perils, localized internecine and international conflicts began to be edged out, as a focus of dread, by common threats to all mankind.

The global threats posed by environmental degradation and by the exhaustion of material and energy resources were not the first "matergetic crisis" that the world had faced. One of many earlier ones had been triggered by Britain's exhaustion of her supplies of wood needed for the production of iron, and had led to the invention of coking by the Abraham Darbys, father and son, which helped spark the 18th-century Industrial Revolution. Similarly, as the 20th century yielded to the 21st, the world seemed again to be lodged at a historic bottleneck which might be opened up by new technological innovations and by concerted effort on the part of the world community. The world was using but a small part of the solar energy that is continually bathing Earth; an imperative for coming decades must be to capture more of the energy that is radiated out by the great fusion reactor at the centre of the solar system — the Sun — and to use it wisely.

Globalization and westernization

The world was politically united by Europeans, who established colonies in most parts of the world outside Europe. Western culture modernised rapidly due to the industrial revolution and began to dominate the world in the 19th and 20th century, but was greatly influenced by other civilisations. There are still enormous cultural differences between world regions, although the trend is towards unification with a Western dominance.

The mercantile empires of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain in the 15th to 19th centuries dominated the seas. The industrialisation and the social and political changes in the Western World of the 18th and 19th century led to a feeling of superiority among western thinkers and politicians. Africa and most of Asia became European-controlled, while European descendants ruled in the Australia and the Americas. New ideologies emerged aimed at reshaping the world. Social Darwinists and imperialists generally believed that white people were superior and that they should civilize the primitive peoples (other cultures) by introducing Western ways of production (economics) and Western ideologies, such as Christianity. This way, the primitive people could have a 'better', 'more moral' lifestyle, although it was assumed that they could never be as cultivated as the whites. Socialists and liberals wanted to civilize the working classes in western countries as well. Socialists and American liberals believed (and continue to believe) that the society is, in large part, responsible for the behaviour of its citizens and that the society should be changed in order to make the world better. American Conservatives, European liberals, and all Libertarians believed (and continue to believe) in freedom and market forces and want individuals to take responsibility for themselves and hold that a society should guarantee freedom in order for individuals to develop fully. Christians, regardless of political ideology, believe that the individual's relation to their Church and/or God is the critical factor in a satisfactory life. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions have religious concepts of their own.

The 20th century witnessed a strong polarization between these ideologies. Social Darwinism suffered a great loss when Nazi Germany was defeated during World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union enforced decolonization. The Civil Rights movement and the hippie counter culture of the 1960s led to a worldwide domination of a humanist ideology which persists in Westernized countries today.

Socialists attempted to change society with different methods. The two most powerful movements were social democracy and communism. Social democrats tried to reach a socialist society by changing society in cooperation with other political parties. The welfare state was created in many western countries. Left-wing Christians and liberals also shared a belief in the welfare state. Today, the welfare state is unpopular because it withholds economical progress due to inefficient investments. Communists attempted to create a socialist society by destroying the old society, the old elites and all competing ideologies. It led to genocide and substantial poverty, and was widely viewed as unsuccessful. Soviet and Chinese leaders and intellectuals discovered that the 'western' style of production with self-responsibility led to continuing progress, while the communist societies were in a continuous economic depression, so they were forced to become capitalistic.

Non-Western civilizations were first dominated by Western colonisers, who generally treated the local population with extreme harshness as local resources were exploited to benefit the colonial power. Nationalist and communist movements that swept through these countries inspired the local populace to begin thinking of, and initiating, independece movements, wanting equal shares in the world. Many African and Asian colonies became independent in the 1960s. Initially, there was much optimism that the new underdeveloped countries could become developed, but their economic situation generally grew worse after becoming independent. Civil wars and dictatorships wrecked the local societies and economies - the cause of which is sometimes attributed to neocolonialism, particularly that of the United States (see Jingoism, and the Dependency theory). Today, many Latin American and Asian nations are beginning the transition to first-world status; most of Africa and the Middle East, however, is stagnating.

Conservatives and nationalists around the world were afraid that their societies would collapse due to modernisation and new ideologies, so they tried to turn the tide of change. Conservatism is popular in many parts of the world, with neo-conservatism dominating the United States government. Islamic fundamentalists try to stop secularisation by waging war against Western culture. Many state leaders and intellectuals in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa criticise the West for its "immoral" lifestyle. Conservatism is fed, for a large part, by a religious belief in the afterlife with its attendant fears of retribution foreverafter.

Attempts to unite the world by military conquest or revolution met with no success. The nation state became the most important institute in the (western) world. Colonial empires in the 19th century were based on nation states, which controlled large territories containing 'aboriginal' populations. Nation states united in federations during the 20th century. During the interbellum between World War I and World War II, the League of Nations tried to prevent wars. After World War II, the United Nations tried to solve many problems that could not be solved by individual nation states. The League of Nations and United Nations were dependent on the voluntary contribution and desire to cooperate of individual member states. These organizations cannot function without the support of large countries, as was apparent during the 1920s and 1930s and during the Cold War. Many states are not (ethnic) nation states, but exist as multiple nations (sub-Saharan Africa), or only have a small portion of a nation within their boundaries (as in Arab countries).

The number and size of free market economies have increased dramatically since the 19th century, but state-controlled economies were still seen as viable alternatives, until the fall of the USSR in 1989. Free-market economies led to an enormous growth in standards of living. A global free market has, so far, met with mixed success. The free transfer of goods and information led to a growing interdependence of states that are bound by self-interest to cooperate with other states. This process is called globalization.

Overpopulation has been identified as one of the largest worldwide problems. This problem was identified much earlier by thinkers such as Malthus and Max Weber. Weber was afraid that India and China would develop their economies at the cost of Europe, and advocated German imperialism to prevent poverty for the German masses. The technological and economical development of the 20th century proved that the western countries could have economical growth through internal development. The European countries at the time of Max Weber could be seen as Third World countries compared to the wealth they have now. China, India and Latin America have been developing in recent decades, which has consequences for employment in western countries. Increasing population is also linked with the rapidly increasing demand for a share of limited resources and for the increasing destruction of the environment as these resources are used.

American culture has made a huge impact on the world. Hollywood movies and jazz music dominated the whole western world from the 1920s. Youth culture started in America. Jeans, T-shirts, the American style of advertising and pop music gained worldwide dominance in the 1960s and 1970s.

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