Ripple Effects

The Twenty Most Important Events of Human History


If the history of the world is the trajectory of events leading from a time when we were tens of thousands of disparate, virtually autonomous bands to the present moment when we occupy every habitable inch of the planet earth and are verging on merging into a single civilization that dominates the planet, what are the twenty most important events? Here’s my tentative list:


1. Techtonic plate movements shaped the continents and the climate patterns of our earth. These movements ripped the original one-big-continent in two, created the Himalayas, opened the rift that would someday be the Mediterranean Sea, moved the Americas to the other side of the planet, and created the environmental conditions that favored the evolution homo sapiens sapiens—without whom we would have no “world history”,  just ”world”.)

2. The Creative Explosion circa 40,000 BP marked the origin of most of the main features of human arts and culture–probably the beginning of dance, painting, literature, mythology, and religion.Technology also saw a radical spurt in sophistication.

3. The land bridge between Eurasia and the Americas vanished. The end of the last ice age eliminated the bridge between these continents, leaving two worlds, disconnected from each other, evolving separately until a traumatic joining millenia later.

4. Two divergent ways of life–sedentary farming and pastoral nomadismemerged in Eurasia-Africa. One strategy predominated in a temperate belt stretching from Spain to China, the other largely in the plains, steppes, and grasslands of the north.

5. The seeds of urban civilization appeared along a number of rivers, gradually spreading out to form a handful of distinct world historical monads centered in China, the Indian subcontinent, Mesopotamia, and  Egypt. (Over time, trade moving among these nexes gave birth to further nexes–Persian Civilization straddling the land routes of Eurasia, Greece as an entrepot of sea trade on the Mediterranean.

6. The Indo-European migrations brought pastoral nomads from the Caucasus region filtering down into a region stretching from Italy to India, laying the foundations for a host of significant later cultures (and languages).

7. The axial age saw the birth, within about 500 years, of all the major religious/cultural frameworks of history —Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Semitic Monotheism, and (Greek) Pagan Humanism.

8. Political super-empires coalesced: centered in various locales and expanding through conquest, vast political entities formed throughout Eurasia, including Rome, Persia, a series of Central Asian empires, India, and China. In the Americas the forerunners of similar empires began to emerge in Mesoamerica and on the east coast of South America.

9. The Han Dynasty planted the seeds of a civilization state. The first emperor of China consolidated a political state, but the Han Dynasty that followed him used that state power to establish patterns of Chinese history and culture that became the dominant themes of east Asia for the next 2,000 years.

10. Christendom was born. Christianity permeated the Greco-Roman world, then melded with the culture of pastoral-nomadic Germans from the north to form the pan-European entity known to itself as Christendom, the seed of what we now know as “Western Civilization”.

11. Islam erupted out of the Arabian desert, melding the Levantine, Arab, Persian, and Turkic worlds, along with the Mediterranean coast of Africa, into one new civilization/world-historical monad.

12. The (Long) Crusades pitted European Christendom against Islamic civilization along a front that spanned the entire Mediterranean Sea, a four-century conflict that gave Europe a hunger for the spices of the far east while at the same time blocking European access to those goods. (The long Crusades should be distinguished from the 12 European military forays into “the Holy Lands” that are usually termed “the Crusades.”)

13. The Mongol conquests created a zone of cultural transmission that briefly but consequentially linked China, India, the Islamic world, Russia, and Europe. Together with the Crusades, these conquests and the Pax Mongolica they spawned facilitated a massive flow of knowledge and technology from east to west.

14. The voyages of Columbus opened the door between the global east and the global west, resulting in the near-annihilation of the people of the Americas, the devastation of Africa, and the rise of western Europe as the world’s dominant power.

15. Secular humanism spawned science and democracy: Secular humanism emerged as a new social paradigm competing with religion to provide a coherent framework for understanding and operating in the universe. European thinkers who gave primacy to reason over faith laid the basis for modern science and eroded the idea of kinship as the legitimizing basis for political power, thus opening the door to democracy.

16. The machine entered history. Science fueled a sudden flood of inventions and technological breakthroughs in western Europe and its offshoots, making the machine a dominant player in human history. The ripple effects of these new technologies included revolution, democracy, industrialism and the nation-state

17. The women’s movement took off: The machine also played a part in the metamorphosis of gender roles: the position of women began to shift vis-a-vis men, a transformation so seminal it deserves to be considered as a separate event, one that is still underway.

18. A world war engulfed the planet. The wars of the twentieth century crumbled the major empires of the world and put paid to the very idea of the multi-ethnic empire as a fundamental unit of political organization.  In the rubble of the multi-ethnic empires, the nation-state emerged as the fundamental political unit of human life worldwide.

19. Human domination of nature became a threat to the planet. The relationship of our species to the forces of nature went through a reversal: instead of having to adapt to our environment, we gained the ability to alter our environment to suit ourselves; as a result, the environment to which we must now adapt consists mainly of ourselves and our works—a possible dilemma.

20. The digital revolution began eroding political borders, undermining institutions, connecting people regardless of their position in physical space, and promoting individuation to the point of threatening community. Also, digital technology intersecting with medical and biological research gave rise to the possibility that our species may be melding significantly with our machinery.


Some Recommended Books (in no particular order)

  • Harris, Marvin: Our Kind: The Evolution of Human Life and Culture.
  • Fergusson, Niall. The Ascent of Money.
  • Graeber, David: Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
  • Catlos, Brian: Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors.
  • Keay, John. A History of China.
  • Harari, Yuval Noah: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind.
  • Liu, Xinru, The Silk Road in World History.
  • McNeill, William. The Rise of the West.
  • Nabhan, Gary Paul. Cumin, Camels, and Caravans, A Spice Odyssey
  • Rogerson, Barnaby: The Last Crusaders, East, West, and the Battle for the Centre of the World.
  • Rossabi, Morris (editor) The Mongols and Global History
  • Russo, Patricia: Merchants & Faith.
  • Shaffer, Lynda Norene: Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500
  • Watson, Peter: Ideas, A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud.
  • Yu Hua, China in Ten Words.
  • Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe.
  • Daniel Headrick, The Tools of Empire. .
  • Niall Ferguson, Empire, the Rise and Demise of the British World Order.
  • Fergusson, Niall.:The War of the World.
  • Johnson, Steven: Where Good Ideas Come From.
  • Wolf, Eric: Europe and the People Without a History. 
  •  Chorost, Michael: World Wide Mind, Free Press.


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