Friday, December 3, 2010

World History

I'm in the process of editing a very, very concise world history text for adolescent readers. Covering Austrilopithecenes to Y2K in 50 pages is, obviously, a little ridiculous. Here, instead, is the same outline, in 1,000 words. It is totally ridiculous.

Humans evolved out of Africa roughly 200,000 years ago likely on forest peripheries. Their precedent species had already developed tools, fire, walking upright, art and religion, so Homo Sapiens didn't accomplish much besides eliminating all opposing Homo species (Neandertals) and moving to everywhere. Women did most of the labor and child rearing since men have useless nipples, but since women's foraging provided most of our calories they were respected, while male hunting was respected for the imminent death factor. Travelling with migratory animals we may have planted seeds hoping they'd be ready to eat when we returned. Once we decided to keep animals rather than follow them around we needed to make sure there was food, like vetch, for year-round pastoralism. Then 2+2= agriculture for humans.

The 'agricultural revolution' took place only about 20,000 years ago but, significantly, ensures human survival in new ways if food is a guarantee. With sedentary farming the tribal families morphed into both collective village security and increased awareness of ownership as plots of land become inherited based on direct patri-lineage. River valleys are conducive to this farming and villages grow - they now need more organization and protection from free-loaders and raiders. Worldwide astronomy pays off with it's predictive-religious powers, such as in Egypt where knowing the seasons lets you foretell Nile floods.

Village contact is regulated through periodic warfare to reconfirm boundaries, and through trade which requires oversight and regulation. Courts of law, born from tribal custom, along with quantifiable weights and measures, and chicken-scratch writing like cuneiform all help with these tasks. With agricultural surplus comes population growth and some people no longer work on the farm for a living - an elite class of artisans, priests, and rulers. Bureaucratic scribes keep the necessary records, and importantly, calendars. As Burke points out "with a calendar you can give people a date and a deadline" which allows more efficient tax collection, regulated time off, and schedules for construction and labor.

Bigger cities, more trade, more raids, bigger walls and bigger, standing, armies. Mathematics is refined and literature is recorded from oral narratives. Since many rulers claim divine status they must quell foes or their religious power is questioned: ergo empire. Vast wars lead to vast civilizational dominance, such as in China, Mexico, India, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Non-fertile areas, like Amazonian South America, the frozen Arctic regions, and the deserts from Australia to the Sahara ensure these areas remain nomadic and develop only the most limited agriculture. Likewise Pacific islands don't unify until the Polynesian Empire in the early Common Era.

The Jews make a series of important leaps: monotheism (which means not shifting gods when the crops fail) and historization of their creation. Adam was, not a archetype or mythological person from the 'before time', but a historical person with a traceable lineage. Inadvertently, through genealogical fastidiousness, history was born. An explosion of prophet-religions in Eurasia made rulers mortal politicians. Empires of note were the Romans, Han, Guptas and Maya.

Although ambitious trade and sea-faring had existed since the Phoenicians it fell into decline for Europe and Asia for roughly 1,000 years. In the Americas a couple of empires began to emerge, from a diverse patchwork of nomadic and agricultural entities. A rekindling of Eurasian trade and warfare with the Crusades jump-started a political and economic revival. Europeans, now Christian, wanted to bypass the Middle East, now Muslim, in order to get goodies from India and China (now Hindu and Confucian, respectively). Portugal and Spain initially dominated, going West and East and colonizing what they could. China had already done it's exploration thing and decided to close it's ports; likewise with a newly-unified Japan.

Since peoples in the Americas were generally not agriculturalists they hadn't lived with livestock, and as such did not benefit from millenia of immunities to livestock diseases. So when the Europeans came and depended on the aid, willing or no, of local populations for their colonies, this inter-mingling of populations lead to a mass die-off. Likewise, West African populations were effected, since European racism and military superiority elevated colonists from labor, slaves populations were imported. Empires were depopulated of their males and African civilizations and cultures reeled.

Meanwhile France and England had a dynamic, bloody rivalry which, in extending to colonialism, eventually eclipsed the Portuguese and Spanish. Include the Dutch and nearly all of the globe was now under the influence of five or six major European powers (including Russia) - the only comparable bloc remaining being Qing China, who shared influence with Europeans in it's sphere. The English gained the upper hand with the harnessing of water, and then steam, power. Combined with a new type of steel and ample reserves of coal Industrialization was off. Populations grew faster than ever, factories made production mindless, efficient, and mechanic. Ever since explorers had looked to private funds for financing voyages there was now a very prosperous middle class, and wealth was amassed privately on unforeseen scales.

Some cited, correctly, that this rich-poor gap was unfair and perhaps should be stopped. The concept of privilege, however, was finding defenses in all sectors, from pseudo-scientific racism to economics. Scientific method, in the 1600s, had allowed for increasingly rapid discoveries and improvements to technologies and well-being. Likewise medicine improved, often to fix the broken soldiers who were being damaged by improved military technology. This culminated in the wars of Imperialism, and the First and Second World Wars.

In the 20th century empires were abolished for common good, and new concepts like human rights were spread with a new global fervor. Competitive political-economic theories of Communism and Liberal Democracy eventually favored the latter. Globalization necessitated global communication and increased awareness. Lifespans increased in well-off countries, while subsistence was no longer guaranteed for those who had once been colonized. While America was going to space and cultivating polio-inoculated Wall St. billionaires, many elsewhere were suffering in every conceivable fashion. The retaliation is the beginning of the story of the 21st century.

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