World History in Brief


World History as a Single Story

Tamim Ansary


Broadly speaking, world history is the story of how we got to where we are today. Usually, however, embedded in the narrative is an assumption about who constitutes the “we.” The shape of the story depends on the tellers of the tale. Today, however, with pretty much everyone on the planet entangled in one another’s destinies, it may be possible to construct a history of the world from the perspective of a global “we.” The throughline of this meta-narrative would surely be the drama of over-increasing human interconnectedness–from a distant past when our species roamed the planet as many thousands of largely autonomous nomadic bands to the present day when “we” are a world wide web of cultures and people potentially on the verge of merging into a single civilization.

Where did it all begin? Scientists tell us the universe started with a Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, and that over countless eons, clouds of primal matter condensed into stars, around some of which planets formed. One such was our own Planet Earth, born roughly 4.5 billion years before today. That is the cosmic backdrop to the human story.

The physical stage was shaped in part by tectonic plate movements, which configured the continents, moved the Americas to the opposite side of the planet, raised a spine of mountains along the length of those two continents, opened the rift that became the Mediterranean Sea, and brought India pushing against Asia, thereby crumpling the Earth’s crust to form the Himalaya mountain ranges. Then, about seven millions years ago, tectonic plate movements reshaped the landscape of northeastern Africa, giving rise to a warmer, drier climate in that region. The new climate transformed heavily forested terrain into grasslands dotted with trees.

In the now-receding forests, certain species of primates had adapted to living partly on the ground by using low branches like bars of a jungle gym to walk on two feet. Some of those creatures receded with the forests, but others went on living at the edge and indeed ventured out onto the savannah. Scuttling among stands of trees, they evolved into bipedal proto-humans, with front paws shaped into hands that were capable of fashioning objects from the environment into tools. In this long moment, “we” crossed the threshold toward becoming humans.

Data gleaned from bones suggest that anatomically modern homo sapiens existed on the planet as early as 100,000 years ago, and probably earlier. By then, we had mastered the mystery of fire; we could make stone clubs, knives, and scrapers; we were social beings capable of operating as coordinated groups to hunt other animals, and we were probably fearsome predators. Thanks to these advantages, we were spreading from our point of origin out of Africa and across the world.

Bones by themselves cannot, however, pinpoint when we developed that most distinctive of human traits: language. Our ancestors of a thousand centuries ago no doubt had a rich stock of verbal signals in common, but mere vocabulary is not language. True language includes that grammar and syntax genetically embedded in our species (and apparently in no other) allowing us to organize words into symbolic structures within which we can interact. Once language had evolved, groups of humans could inhabit not just the physical space they were in, but conceptual worlds they constructed socially, worlds that existed only in the imagination of each member yet had a quasi-objective existence independent of any person. To this day, each of us is born into a pre-existing conceptual world, we learn to imagine it fully, and we then operate within it in concert with others. Human history is not simply the story of individuals or groups of people fighting, trading, inventing, building; it is also the story of these conceptual cosmos forming, growing, overlapping, merging, and evolving.

The emergence of true language may account for the Creative Explosion that began some 40,000 years ago, a period when human capacities suddenly spiked. Within as little as five millennia, most features of “culture” came into existence. From Europe to Indonesia, cave art suddenly featured skillful depictions of animals and hunters. Artifacts from this time indicate the beginnings of dance, music, jewelry. Trace evidence of ceremonial burial rituals suggest religion. Language enabled elders to tell their children what they had learned, and human know-how could thus accumulate from generation to generation. So it probably wasn’t just art, dance, and religion that began with the Creative Explosion but storytelling, poetry, and communal memories of a legendary past—in short, history.

With our ever more sophisticated tools we made clothing and shelters that allowed us to expand into colder climes. By some 30,000 years ago, humans had spread from Asia into North America. There, great sheets of ice blocked their further progress until about 12,000 years ago, when a glacial period ended, the ice sheets melted, and people were able to migrate south. At the same time, however, sea levels rose, erasing the land link between the continents, thereby dividing the planet into a global east and a global west, two worlds that evolved separately for millennia.

Herders, Farmers, and Urban Cultures

In Eurasia around this time, environmental factors were generating a consequential branching of human culture. Some people were becoming sedentary farmers; others were developing a pastoral nomadic way of life. Farming emerged mainly in the temperate zone from Iberia to China. Pastoral nomadism flourished mainly in the north from central Asia to the European plains as well as in the Americas and eventually in western and southern Africa. The nomads inevitably overlapped with and pressed into areas inhabited by sedentary folks. In Eurasia, this provoked patterns of friction that endured for millennia.

The first villages emerged in West Asia and Asia Minor and some grew into sizable towns. There, human societies moved toward ever-greater complexity simply because more people were brushing up against more people, leading to the serendipitous juxtaposition of random ideas that triggers innovation. But the tipping point toward “civilization” came when farmers settled along a number of seminal rivers, the earliest of which were the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus, and the Huang-He rivers.

These (and eventually other) rivers drew settlers because regular flooding deposited fresh topsoil along their banks each year and provided irrigation water. Year-round irrigation, however, demanded that water be hoarded at the peak of flooding and released over time, which could be done only with large-scale construction projects. Building such works required formal social structures beyond mere kinship ties. Abstract conceptual frameworks came into being at this point as mechanisms for weaving numerous lives into a social singleness that transcended kinship, and in these river valley societies, social layering no doubt emerged as well.

The seminal rivers had key geographical differences as well as important similarites, so each culture river valley culture developed distinctive features. The Nile Valley was an enclave of security, virtually sealed to aggressors from the south, east, and west by cataracts and deserts. The river itself was wonderfully navigable, with a current that flowed north and a breeze that blew south, allowing people to ride either way in boats by putting up or taking down sails. People consequently settled along the whole valley instead of bunching up into towns. Cultural homogeneity and the immensity of Egyptian irrigation works favored the emergence of a single god-like monarch whose whims and moods were easily conflated with the slight irregularities of the life-giving floods. The Pharaoh’s supposed divinity (and the need to keep an enormous labor force occupied year-round) resulted in ambitious religious construction projects such as the pyramids, which had cultural ramifications of their own.

The Tigris and Euphrates, by contrast, flowed through flat, bountiful terrain with few protective features. Because settlers in this valley were constantly vulnerable to raids by pastoral nomads, they clustered into walled towns, each an autonomous unit. Surplus social energy was funneled into standing armies. Armies once formed needed occupation. Cities began attacking cities, conquests that generated empires—clusters of cities ruled by a single authority. In Mesopotamia, priests and kings evolved as parallel, though intertwined, institutions. While people here recognized a common gallery of numerous gods, each city tended to embrace one deity as special to themselves, their own supernatural champion.

China’s Huang He, on the other hand, was a rough current all but impossible to navigate, which tended to cut off one community of farmers from another. Yellow dust blown off distance cliffs provided thick topsoil that favored farming, but this dust also caked in the riverbed, raising the waters. Settlers along this river had to terrace their hillsides to farm it and build ever higher dikes to contain the rising waters—dikes that sometimes broke, resulting in catastrophic floods. Life along the Huang He was overshadowed by emergency: survival depended on a discipline, hierarchy and obedience that began perforce in the family.

Then there was the Indus. This was not, actually, one river but many streams that joined together only a few miles from the sea. While pyramids were going up in Egypt, some five million people inhabited this landscape, living in at least 1000 towns. They equipped their cities prolifically with baths, plumbing, and sewage systems since water was neither precious nor problematic, and they luxuriated in arts, crafts, engineering, and trade; but their lives were haunted by impermanence because the Indus streams had a disturbing propensity to change course. A bustling city might be stranded far from water over a few generations. Also, the Hindu Kush mountains loomed over this valley and from the high grasslands beyond the mountains, marauders came storming down repeatedly. Over the ages, Indian civilization emerged from a complex interaction among those pastoral nomads and these settled farmers.

From each seed, culture spread along capillaries of trade and corridors of conquest. Entropots along especially busy routes bloomed into cities, and these too became centers of distinctive, expanding cultures. In the west, the Mediterranean Sea supported the busiest webwork. Although Egypt fronted upon this sea, the Nile made Egyptians so self-sufficient, they had little incentive to sally forth—the world came to them. It was the Greeks, therefore, who ended up defining Mediterranean civilization. They lived on rocky islands and peninsulas unsuitable for farming but rimmed with coves that made ideal launch points for seafaring. East of the Mediterranean, the web of criss-crossing routes between Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, India, and the northern steppes supported the emergence of Persian civilization.

The northern steppes remained inhabited by pastoral nomads, among whom political groupings were fluid and shifting, but the nomads were not the left-behinds. They too kept developing ever more sophisticated skills for their way of life. Around 5,000 years ago, tribes of cattle herders between the Black and Caspian Seas domesticated the horse and invented or acquired a formidable military device, the two-wheeled chariot. They spread east and west, from the Tien Shan mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, and from this belt trickled south. As the people branched apart, their mother tongue branched into the various (mutually unintelligible) languages of the Indo-European family. Linguistic evidence suggests, therefore, that the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Indians were some blend of Indo-European nomads and indigenous folks already inhabiting the areas they entered.

Civilizations as Master Narratives

Ideas radiating from vital urban cores wove together into civilization-sized worldviews. By the first millennium B.C.E. a number of distinct regional civilizations had coalesced, each a plexus of mythologies, narratives and values forming a coherant framework.

The world view that took shape in China saw the universe as concentric. Its core was an empire, the so-called Middle Kingdom. Around this were tributaries. Around them were various barbarians. Beyond them didn’t matter. History oscillated between happy periods of imperial unity and unhappy periods of fragmentation. The state of the world at any given time depended on whether an imperial dynasty had a mandate to rule from “heaven.” This ultimate supernatural aspect of the universe was not personified.

In India, by contrast, people saw a world teeming with intricately personified deities. The universe was not concentric but striated. Kingdoms came and went, but the stratification of humans into castes and subcastes and outcastes cut across all boundaries. The gods themselves existed at many levels, some being avators of other higher gods, some incarnating down into the human realm at times. History was an illusion of chaotic change masking a permanent reality without change. The only movement was the quest of individuals to migrate upward from the most palpable but least real level to the least palpable but most real.

Further west, from the Iranian highlands to the Mediterranean sea, Indo-European tribes had long been migrating into areas inhabited by earlier peoples such as the Sumerians. This region had seen a great deal of warfare, empire-building, and interminging of peoples. Here emerged a view of the universe as essentially dramatic. History was neither cyclical nor changeless but linear: it had a beginning and it would have an end. In between, a dramatic struggle was underway among the gods, in which human beings and their fate were intimately involved.

In the far west, the Mediterranean world of the Greeks, the Indo-European pantheon of gods affiliated with aspects of nature morphed into a somewhat different version of a dramatic universe. Here, the gods came to be seen as something like a race of supernatural beings sharing the same material universe as people. They were immortal and vastly powerful but otherwise looked and acted much like people and had the same range of faults, virtues, and quirks. They were tangled up in dramas with one another, just as we humans were with one another. The gods however might whimsically interfere in human affairs, so they had to be propitiated. Still, there was a natural universe irrespective of the gods, and people had to somehow make their own lives within it.

Birth of Major Belief Systems

Between roughly 900 BC and 200 BC, a number of charismatic personalities distilled the themes of the regional civilizations into fairly specific belief systems. Each one purported to give meaning to human life and govern how people should behave. In the 6th century B.C.E., the Chinese sage Confucius integrated the rituals and observances of his culture into an ethical system rooted in the idea of empire and family as reflections of each other. Throughout the social order, he suggested, every person had familial-style duties, responsibilities, and rights. The father was like an emperor within his family; the emperor was like a father to his subjects.

In the Indian subcontinent, where the center of cultural gravity had moved to the Ganges River valley, an array of mystical renunciants produced sacred texts called Upanishads. While Hinduism has no distinct beginning and is still evolving, the Upanishads did mark a seminal moment in this vast religious tradition. These mystics identified reincarnation as the fundamental fact. People endlessly died and were reborn, moving through millions of lives governed by a law called karma, which dictated that everyone reaped what they sowed—but not necessarily in the same lifetime. Karma determined whether a soul moved up or down with each re-birth. In higher realms the ratio of spiritual to material increased and the highest achievement was ascent out of the cycle of reincarnation altogether, into union with the unchanging, eternal world soul.

Meanwhile the Buddha was blending the same themes into a somewhat different brew. The Buddha did not offer a cosmology so much as a practical program for escaping the cycle of birth, aging, and death. He identified desire as the source of suffering, recommended a life of moderation (“the noble eight-fold path”) and taught techniques of meditation by which a person could break free from attachment and achieve freedom from reincarnation in any single lifetime.

In the Persian world the prophet Zoroaster produced a hugely influential set of ideas, which are known today mainly from traces it left on later systems. Zoroaster cast the universe as a struggle between light and darkness, each personified as a singular deity. Humans were situated between the two and could tilt the outcome by their moral choices. When the Persians conquered Babylonia and absorbed Mesopotamia into their empire, Zoroaster’s ideas encountered the proto-monotheistic religion of the Hebrews. A series of Hebrew prophets emerging from Babylonian captivity transformed their religion into full-fledged Judaism. They too cast the world as a struggle between good and evil but reduced the number of deities to one and demoted Satan to a mere creation of His. Judaic monotheism retained, however, a link to the Mesopotamian theme of gods as champions of particular peoples, for in Judaism, the one God of everyone had a special covenant with the Hebrews, to reward them for moral conduct by restoring to them their tribal homeland of Israel.

Finally, on the stage set by secular paganism, Greek philosophy emerged as a belief system analogous to the religions of the east. Greek philosophers launched inquiries into the material realm that persist to this day as preoccupations of science. For example, Thales and other pre-Socratics asked: what is the one substance of which every other is made? The Sophists explored intellectual methods for winning arguments, which helped give birth to logic. Finally, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle situated the source of moral good in secular life rather than in dictates from deities and identified reason as the means for discovering it.

Vast Empires Form

As civilizations and religions congealed, political super-states emerged. Four empires were especially vast and consequential. In the Middle World, immediately east of the Mediterranean, a series of empires arose, each conquering the one before and then expanding the realm with further conquests until at last the Persians brought the process to a climax. Their empire stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt and brought many people under one political umbrella. The Persians’ success was built on technology, ideology, infrastructure, and administration. They embraced Zoroastrianism as the official imperial religion; created an elite corps of military experts to spearhead their armies; built an impressive road network; created a postal system, fielded a formidable intelligence corps; and set up an intricate administrative system of provincial governments beholden to a center. In the centuries that followed, these same themes emerged repeatedly as ingredients of state-building.

The Persian expansion ended when they came up against a cultural energy expanding from a different center: Persia met Greece and failed to conquer. In fact, it was the Greeks who did the conquering. In the 4th century B.C.E, led by Alexander of Macedon, the Greeks swept east through Persia, spreading a patina of Hellenism across much of the Middle World. But Hellenism reached its limits, too, when it lapped against a culture expanding from yet another center. The Mauryans of India stemmed the tide of Hellenism by forging the subcontinent’s first imperial state. Like the Persians, they built a powerful military, good roads, a postal system, and a spy network. They also relied on doctrine to cement cohesion. The greatest Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, anointed Buddhism as a favored religion, giving it temporary ascendency over Hinduism in the subcontinent.

By then, the real heirs of secular pagan Greek culture were emerging in the far west. The Romans worshipped the same gods as the Greeks but under different names. They plowed the same fields of art, literature, philosophy, and culture, but less deeply. Their real genius revealed itself in politics, technology, and administration. They systematized a body of laws based on reason. They evolved a republican political structure that substituted a complex, quasi-elected body for a monarch and gave it life by ratcheting civic chauvinism to a near-religious fervor. The Romans invented concrete, built roads and bridges, aqueducts and sewage systems, stadiums and baths. Their conquests were based not so much on military brilliance as on technology, tenacity, and organization. By the start of the Common Era, they had conquered all the lands rimming the Mediterranean, absorbing into their Greco- Roman social fabric a staggering array of peoples and cultures.

Finally, there was China. There, the king of a state called Qin conquered all the kingdoms surrounding his, to forge the first Chinese empire. In 221 B.C.E. the Middle Kingdom of the Chinese cultural imaginary came into concrete existence. The First Emperor of China used brutal force to impose a structure of authoritarian regulations on his realm—so brutal that the backlash toppled his son and ended his dynasty. But the peasant who emerged from the chaos as ruler founded the long-lasting Han dynasty. Qin brutality having built a state, the Han could commence to govern gracefully. By wedding the first emperor’s rigorous bureaucracy to a society already infused with the Confucian belief system, the Han cemented cohesion. They staffed that bureaucracy with scholars chosen by examinations that tested, not just literacy, but mastery of Confucian classics, thereby reinforcing the doctrinal unity of the administration. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but the Han employed China’s ideographic script as an instrument for governing this heterogeneous world as a unit. Thus the Han presided over four centuries of more or less uninterrupted prosperity and power.

Trade Between Civilizations

Civilizations usually get the spotlight, but people living between the great civilizations helped shaped history too, particularly as connectors. An enduring problem for the Han were the Turkic nomads of the north, whom the Chinese called the Xiong nu. The first emperor had built a wall to keep these raiders at bay, but in Han times the wall became as much trade zone as barricade, for both groups had products the other coveted. The nomads wanted Chinese silk, jade, and bronze; the Chinese wanted nomad horses (ironically to fight the nomads). Chinese products filtering through nomad territories reached distant lands, and products from those lands came trickling back to China, sparking an appetite for trade goods that germinated what is retrospectively called the Silk Road. This was not one road but a thick network of overland routes that took Chinese products (especially silk) to markets as distant as Rome but snaked into India and throughout Persia as well.

In the last century B.C.E., certain tribes allied to the Chinese were driven from the steppes by the Xiongnu. They regrouped in the rubble of Mauryan civilization as the Kushan empire, stretching north from the Indus River Valley and replacing the Hellenic Bactrian kingdoms, residues of Alexander’s campaigns. The Kushan empire functioned as a melting pot, overlapping as it did the Indian, Turkic, Chinese, and Persian cultural zones. Buddhism had been losing its hold in India; but the Kushans embraced it, and their endorsement enabled Buddhist missionaries to flow through Central Asia to China. On its way through the steppes Buddhism brushed against themes from the Persian world, and from the contact emerged a new commerce-friendly form of the religion, featuring quasi-deities called Bodhisattvas, and religious functionaries who shouldered the heavy work of meditation. The masses could ride to nirvana on vessels navigated by these monks so long as they contributed to the monasteries and performed designated rituals. From this time on, Buddhism was centered in China and points south.

Kushan power soon crumbled but over the centuries states kept forming here, distinct from the better-known civilizations surrounding them—Persia, India, China. This unstable but recurrent state tended to straddle the Silk Route and usually extended south to ports on the Arabian Sea, thereby connecting overland trade through Central Asia to the sea trade network on the Indian Ocean. The sea trade network was shaped by the seasonal monsoon winds that blew from the center of Eurasia out to sea in the winter and from the sea back toward the interior in summer. The Himalayas split these winds into two distinct whorls, one in the Pacific Ocean and one in the Indian Ocean. These monsoons overlapped in southeast Asia. Sailors from China could ride the monsoon winds to Malaysia and Indonesia in winter and back in summer. Sailors from India, Arabia, and Africa could ride to the same area on their monsoons. For three to six months, traders from both worlds mingled here as they waited for the winds to change. Southeast Asia thus functioned as another nexus of world cultural interaction.


Both the Silk Road and the monsoon routes linked to that other busiest of trade webs, the Mediterranean sea. By the last century B.C.E, the entire Mediterranean littoral was a single political entity. Rome had started out as a secular pagan society that drew its cultural inspirations from Greece; but once Roman conquests encompassed Mesopotamia and the Levant, ideas from that region wove into the Greco-Roman fabric. One such strand was Judaism from which came branching out Christianity, a new religion. To be a Jew, one pretty much had to be born Jewish but as Christianity coursed into Roman society, it shed all tribal affiliation: anyone could become a Christian. Mesopotamian gods had been the champions of particular peoples. The Christians believed in one God only, and so He, in his incarnation as Jesus Christ, was the savior of all humanity.

Christianity brought into the Roman world the Judaic emphasis on scriptures and revelation over reason and observation. This put Christianity inherently at odds with the secular paganism of Greco-Roman culture. Yet Christianity also absorbed certain elements from its Roman environment: the Church organized on the Roman model, dividing the world into dioceses, with a hierarchy of administration that ran from local priests at the bottom to metropolitans and bishops at the top. As the social fabric of Rome weakened, the structural integrity of the Church strengthened. At last, Roman emperor Constantine realized that the most efficient administrative system in his realm was the shadow-state created by Christianity. When he converted to Christianity in 312, he set the stage for co-opting that administration. He moved his capital to the ultra-defensible city of Constantinople, closer to the birthplace of Christianity, and by the 5th century, Christianity had become the state religion of the empire and all others were proscribed.

The original Roman empire had grown too huge and complex to administer as a unit now, given the transportation and communication technologies of the times. The eastern half established by Constantine congealed into a tough imperial core, but its connection to the west dwindled. In the eight century, the Byzantine version of Christianity began flowing north into Slavic lands thinly colonized by Vikings. Over the centuries, these influences—Viking, Slavic, and Byzantine Christian—blended to form Russian civilization.

The western empire meanwhile fragmented until Christianity was the only remaining instrument of social cohesion. The pastoral nomads north of the empire, German tribes such as the Goths, Visigoths, and Vandals, were now better able to do what nomads on the edges of urban civilizations had always done, nibble at territory, raid towns when possible, and occupy whatever areas the empire could not defend. Yet German migrations into Roman territory changed the Germans too; so the “fall of Rome” might just as aptly be described as the rise of something new: the Christianized world of Greco-Roman secular paganism absorbed elements contributed by Germanic nomads to form Christendom. What resulted can be seen in retrospect as the seed of “Western Civilization.”

Islam and the Middle World

Just as the Roman-Christian and Germanic worlds were blending, Islam was born in the Arabian peninsula. Mohammed took the Abrahamic tradition of monotheism to its uncompromising extreme. He stripped it of tribalism and turned it into a teleological social project: God, characterized by a radical singleness, had specific instructions for human society. Mohammed taught a set of rituals to his followers, who were guaranteed to spend eternity in paradise by virtue of their membership in Mohammed’s community, which was not just a religious congregation but a political entity.

With the Prophet’s death his followers confirmed his religious community as a political state, which rapidly conquered territory from Iberia to the Amu river. As it expanded, Islam the religo-political phenomenon evolved into Islam the civilization, a new fabric woven of previously distinct cultural strands. Just as western Christendom was born of Greco-Roman Christian Germanic ingredients, so the Islamic eruption now incorporated Arab, Levantine, North African, Hellenic, Persian, and eventually Turkic elements into a new master narrative. Islam as empire maximized its territorial reach within a century and began fragmenting, just as Rome had done, but Islamic civilization continued spreading toward sub-Saharan Africa, across northern India, and into southeast Asia.

The persuasive power of Islamic civilization stemmed from its vision of a just and harmonious community right here on Earth, derived from a structure of immutable laws called the shari’a. This was more than a legal code for it governed not only criminal conduct and civil matters but also family life, social etiquette, sexual mores, diet, dress, religious rituals, and indeed every sphere of human action and interaction entailing choice. The shari’a was thought to have an objective existence, like the laws of nature, so the instructions ordained by God had the same precision and certainty as did the course of stars across the sky. Elaborating the shari’a down to the last detail became a central project of Islamic civilization, much as science later became a central project of Western civilization.

Beyond the frontiers of Islamic expansion, Indian civilization continued to blaze. The Mauryan state had collapsed in the second century B.C.E., but the subsequent period of fragmentation was also a time of creative ferment. Then in the 4th century C.E. the Gupta empire united the subcontinent once again. This dynasty embraced Hinduism as enthusiastically as the Mauryans had Buddhism. Under Gupta rule, in a world shaped by Hinduism, Indians made important strides in mathematics, medicine, philosophy, art and literature. The great oral epics of Indian civilization, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were written down in these centuries. By the time the Muslims arrived at the gates in the 8th century, first as traders and later as invaders, Gupta power had eroded; but Indian learning still glowed brightly enough to infuse Muslim civilization with some of its intellectual vigor.

Bright Ages/Dark Ages

Indeed, the five centuries following the birth of Islam might well be called the Bright Ages, given the creative vitality of the Eurasian world east of the Mediterranean. China had already seen the invention of paper, block printing, and the magnetic compass. In the early 7th century, the short-lived Sui Dynasty built the Grand Canal linking China’s two great river systems, with immense economic consequences. Under the prosperous Tang and Song dynasties that followed, the Chinese invented the mechanical clock, gunpowder, chain drives, porcelain, canal locks, paper money, and much more.

The Islamic world, known to itself as Dar ul-Islam (“the realm of peace”) could also lay claim to world historical centrality for geographical location made Dar ul-Islam the cultural crossroads of its time. Intellectuals of the Islamic world were the first ones in a position to make direct comparisons between Greek, Indian, Persian, and Chinese learning. Muslim thinkers sought ways to integrate these diverse ideas and reconcile them with the pronouncements of the Qur’an, in pursuit of which goals Muslim thinkers made breakthroughs presaging many modern sciences including physics, chemistry, and geology. They also invented sociology, developed algebra, and advanced medical learning, as well as mapmaking, and navigation. Most significantly, they elevated translation into a science, which had crucial consequences for the history of ever-increasing human interconnectedness. All these achievements, however, revolved around the core project of elaborating the shari’a, so that one day all the world might become a single, harmonious community.

Mohammed having been a merchant, traders were seen as culture heroes in Islam, so Muslim world became the commercial nexus of the global east. Muslim ships docked in Chinese ports, brought Islamic ideas into southeast Asia, threaded through India, plied the monsoon trade network to Africa, and carried goods from Baghdad to Spain and back.

Since precious metal tends to flow to wherever exchange is taking place, the hum of commerce in the east drained hard currency out of Europe. There, urban centers were already crumbling and pastoral nomads were settling into subsistence farming. Without currency to facilitate transactions, trade shrank and people stopped traveling much. Germans carved Roman territories into petty fiefdoms, law and order broke down, and Europe entered its “Dark Ages”.

The Concept of Europe

Then, in the 11th century, the tide began to turn. In the Islamic world, pastoral nomads started gnawing at urban civilization, much as the Germanic tribes had earlier done to Rome, and with similar consequences. Masses of Turkish nomads converting to the faith spawned a less nuanced, more doctrinaire Islam, bound to scriptural literalism, which dampened intellectual vigor and transferred power into the hands of a clerical orthodoxy. Endorsed by these clerics, Turkish warriors led armies into northern India and spread a layer of Islamic rule over a population that remained overwhelmingly Hindu. At the same time, other Turkish tribes pressing into northern China began fragmenting that empire and carving out small kingdoms of their own. The Song imperial dynasty relinquished the north and regrouped in southern China as a smaller state. In retrospect, this looks like a period when the cultural vigor of India, China, and the Middle World began to wane.

In Europe, the opposite process was underway. Here, over several centuries, subtle technological improvements such as the horse collar and the mould board plow had made peasants just fruitful enough to produce small surpluses, which they took to impromptu crossroads trade fairs. As exchange increased, temporary trade fairs turned into permanent markets, which coalesced into towns. By then, the Church of Rome had brought its doctrine to maturity and was extending its reach across the continent and down into the lives of all Europeans. By the end of the first millennium, every village had a church, every church had priests, and all priests answered to higher officials in a hierarchical chain topped by a single pope with decisive say over all doctrine. Western Europe now had the technology and administration needed for coalescence. The Church provided the last key ingredient, an ideological framework that enabled everyone in Western Europe to think of themselves as members of a single something.

Numerous monasteries had sprouted in Europe, too. Translation now revealed its historical power. Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek texts gravitated from Muslim Spain to European monasteries. Wherever books bunched up, scholars came, and where scholars gathered, students came: the first European universities were born, in Naples, Paris, and elsewhere. In and around these intellectual communities, the scholastics emerged, a school of European thinkers who took up the same task that had preoccupied Muslim philosophers earlier: reconciling the rationalism of the Greeks with the doctrines of the faith—except that the faith, in this case, was not Islam but Catholic Christianity.

In its Dark Ages, Europe had been under assault from every side by Germans, Huns, Magyars, Muslims, Vikings, and others. Now Europe was ready to switch from defense to offense. Finally, the energy of this rising culture erupted into the Crusades: nine European military campaigns carried out in Palestine between 1095 and 1291. Launched by a pope, an abbot, and a ragtag of street preachers, the Crusades gripped the European imagination. Knights flowed east and on the way struck a shivering blow at that other major Christian realm, the Byzantine empire. They also planted several small kingdoms in the Levant—Catholic beachheads within Dar ul-Islam.

These campaigns were only one chapter in a bigger story, a long Crusades as it were, which unfolded over five centuries and extended from Palestine across the Mediterranean to Spain: a front of interaction between two global entities, European Christendom and Dar ul-Islam. The interaction included much war but also considerable cultural and commercial exchange. In Byzantium and the Levant, Europeans encountered the dynamism of the Eurasian east. Fighting what they saw as a monolithic enemy, western Europeans developed a monolithic sense of their own identity, based on the otherness of the other. The long Crusades helped create the concept of Europe.

The Crusades also transformed Europe. Modern finance began to emerge in northern Italy as people flowing through from many parts of Europe with many kinds of coins sought the services of currency exchange experts. The money changing business morphed into the money lending business and then into banking. At the same time, people returning from the east brought knowledge of commercial practices common to the Islamic world, such as double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit as a form of payment. These revolutionized the ability of Europeans to conduct business. The real game changer, however, was “Arabic numerals”—Indian mathematics as developed by Muslims, which facilitated business calculations that were virtually impossible with Roman numerals.

The Mongol Eruption

In a continent poised for takeoff, the Crusades aroused a European hunger for the trade goods of the far east, especially spices. But those same Crusades created a zone of hostile middlemen who blocked European access to those goods or made them prohibitively expensive. Then came one of the key Black Swans of history: in 1219, Mongol armies erupted out of Central Asia, a penultimate flare of pastoral nomadic power. Within two generations, Genghis Khan and his successors brought China, Russia, and much of the Islamic world under one political umbrella. From the South China Sea to Constantinople, political borders dissolved. For one crucial half-century, goods, messages, and ideas coursed swiftly through the largest contiguous empire history has ever known.

Together, the Crusades and the Mongol conquests triggered a massive transmission of ideas, inventions, discoveries, and technologies from Asia to Europe. Diseases flowed through the network too, including the bubonic plague, which may have killed over half of all Europeans in the 14th century. Horrifying though it was, this catastrophe also broke up stubborn social encrustations in Europe, left over from the feudal past. Innovations derived from the Crusades could now produce maximum social impact. Serfdom died out, peasants gained some mobility, worker’s wages rose, the feudal system foundered, and women achieved some measure of liberation.

Inventions that entered Europe at this time included nautical instruments such as the lateen sail and the magnetic compass. Europeans could now undertake hitherto unthinkable voyages. Portuguese sailors circumnavigated Africa, blazing a sea route to the Indies. More consequentially, Christopher Columbus, sailed west across the Atlantic, hoping to reach the Indies–and stumbled on the Americas instead.

Global East and Global West Merge

Columbus’s voyage of 1492 might well be considered the pivotal event of world history. Other Europeans had reached the Americas, but Columbus opened the floodgate to traffic between the hemispheres. The first result was history’s greatest holocaust—European diseases raging across the global west killed as much as 95% of the indigenous population and left the survivors too weak to resist conquest. Western Europeans thus came into possession of a virtually unpeopled land, rich with untapped resources.

What their arrival wiped out was not a civilization but a universe of civilizations parallel to that of the global east. Urban civilization had emerged independently at least twice in the Americas, in Peru and Mesoamerica. Here, as in Asia, early agricultural cultures emerged in river valleys, and developed into urban societies built around city-temple complexes, often featuring enormous pyramids. Arts styles that originated with the Olmec of Mexico reappeared in cultures from the Zapotecs of western Mexico, to the later Mayans, then the Toltecs, and finally the Aztecs. Enormous pyramid-shaped earthen mounds in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys bespeak a sophisticated vanished civilization. Teotihuacan in central Mexico was one of the world’s six largest cities in the 5th century CE, with trade links radiating throughout Mesoamerica. Today, we don’t even know what these people called themselves. Along the east coast of North America, tribal nations flourishing when the Europeans first arrived had sophisticated political institutions that may have influenced the founders of the United States, but the origins of these remain obscure. The Mayans certainly had sophisticated mathematical skills, a precise calendar, extensive astronomical knowledge, and a written script. They certainly wrote histories, but of their many books, only three of undisputed authenticity survive, and part of a fourth. These reveal something of Mayan religious rituals and calendar, but the rest is mostly lost to darkness.

Europeans on the westernmost edge of the Eurasian landmass—Spain, Portugal, England, France, and the Low Countries—had first and best access to the Americas. They profited the most from Columbus’s voyages. In America, these newcomers elaborated a plantation system in which a vast tract of land is given over to a single cash crop. The most prominent crops were sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Tobacco, being an addictive drug, did especially well. The sugar industry boomed because it supplied the raw material for rum, but also because, in Europe, sugar was nearly as precious as gold. Sugar production, however, required backbreaking manual labor, which the indigenous people of the Americas were too ill to perform, so the planters began importing slaves from Africa.

Africa in the Global Narrative

Africa below the equator had been largely isolated from the mainstreams of urban history by the Sahara desert, and an equatorial rain forest infested with tsetse flies. Around 3,000 years B.C.E., however, advanced indigenous cultures developed near the western coast of what is now Nigeria. The Nok were making sophisticated terra cotta sculptures here, and they mastered iron smelting technology. From this area, people began spreading south and east in waves rivaling the Indo-European migrations. These can be traced by the spread of languages belonging to the Bantu family, which include most of the languages spoken in sub-equatorial Africa today.

To the north, between the Sahara and the equatorial forest a succession of major empires flourished between the 4th and 16th centuries. Ghana gave way to Mali, which was followed by the Songhay empire, each bigger than the one before. The Songhay empire lasted into the 17th century, by which time, some state formation had begun below the equator. Most of southern Africa, however, remained a world of pastoral nomads and tribal villages, who did what others had done throughout the world for thousands of years, fought petty wars with neighbors and used the prisoners they captured as slave labor. Africans also sold their captives to Arab traders who came inland seeking ivory, ebony, musk, and gold. Slaves taken by Muslims mostly ended up as soldiers, servants, and sexual chattel because the Islamic world had not developed plantations or industrial factories.

Contact with Muslims spread Islam into Africa, perhaps because Islamic doctrine forbade the enslavement of Muslims, a prime incentive for conversion. By the end of the 13th century, the Mali elite had converted to Islam from which time forward, the history of west Africa intertwined with the Islamic narrative. Indeed, the Mali capital of Timbuktu became a major intellectual center of the Muslim world.

When European slave traders arrived in the 16th century, they drastically disrupted the course of history here. Tribes and nations along the coast abandoned farming and industry for the easy money to be made from catching and selling slaves from an ever more devastated interior. Over the next three centuries, some ten million Africans were hauled to the Americas in chains. Africa became a crucial if tragic part of an increasingly integrated global narrative dominated by Western Europeans.


The first Europeans to colonize the Americas lucked into an immense trove of precious metals. Gold gets the press but silver was the real disrupter, precious enough to function as money anywhere, abundant enough to circulate as coins. The Spanish extracted massive quantities of silver from the Americas, which made them the richest power in Europe–until the sudden glut of silver caused the value of silver itself to plummet, helping to reduce Spain from the richest country in Europe to one of the poorest.

Even as its power declined in Europe, however, Spain held onto its vast empire in the Americas. A small class of Spanish colonials ruled a vast population of indigenous people. But American natives who had survived European diseases developed immunity, and their numbers began to grow. The border between the two cultural communities blurred until a new culture emerged south of the Rio Grande river, flavored by genetic and cultural contributions from both peoples—mostly Portuguese or Spanish-speaking but not Castilian Spanish; mostly Catholic, but with a panoply of its own saints, such as Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. In the Caribbean, and in South America, particularly Brazil, considerable cultural contributions came from Africa as well.

In France, England, and the Netherlands, the influx of silver corresponded to an increased productivity that led to formidable prosperity. Armed with hard cash, these Europeans financed ambitious trading expeditions to the East Indies, giving rise to multinational corporations, and since these East Indies Companies were chartered by their respective governments, the birth of such corporations also helped promote the nation-state as a political form.

Post-Mongol Restoration

East of the Mediterranean, quite a different world historical narrative was unfolding. Here the Mongol holocaust had left a hunger for the restoration of an older order. The Islamic world had taken the hardest hit, so the rebound here involved a resurgent Islam. Around 1500, one last flaring of pastoral nomadic power planted three powerful new Islamic states. The Ottoman empire spread from Anatolia into the Balkans, the Levant, and North Africa. The Safavids, a militant Sufi sect, rebuilt Iran as a Muslim Shi’a power. The Moghuls, who traced their line back to Genghis Khan, restored Islamic suzerainty over Northern India.

These empires took little notice of cultural events in Europe and the Americas, busy as they were with jump-starting the interrupted social project of Islam: to universalize a community governed by the architectonic shari’a, which Muslim scholars had derived over the centuries from the revelations of Prophet Mohammed. Ottomans tried to replicate on a grand scale the social system pioneered in Medina, which put Muslims in charge but accommodated non-Muslims as harmonious threads. The Safavids committed to developing a monolithic Shi’a version of a Muslim society. The Moghuls had their hands full as a powerful minority ruling a huge Hindu majority.

Throughout the Middle World, the effort to restore normalcy undermined the appeal of experimentation. A self-selecting clerical establishment tightened its grip on social policy. Admittance to its ranks required mastery of orthodox Islamic doctrine. The clerics were protected by authoritarian dynastic governments, whom they legitimized by their endorsement, an alliance from which both partners profited. In the 16th century, in seeking to derive harmony from unchanging doctrine, the Islamic world strained to achieve stasis. The Ottomans constructed a particularly intricate mechanism of counterbalancing parts built to operate enduringly so long as everybody kept doing what they were doing. And the results seemed to confirm the wisdom of state policies for the Islamic World achieved a coherence and complexity rivaling its own previous peak. The elite lolled in luxury, the masses were well fed, and Muslim states wielded such military might, they had little to fear except one another.

Into this world came European traders armed with silver and gold. They bought their way into the Ottoman world, disrupting the intricate social arrangements that made the system work. In their wake, corruption infested the bureaucracy and undermined Ottoman efficiency. A similar process weakened the Safavid empire next door. In both cases, the European presence exacerbated mounting internal contradictions.

European traders also landed in India, almost unnoticed by the Moghuls. Their commercial power soon overwhelmed local manufacturing and spawned an economy built around supplying raw materials to European industries. The cash derived from this exchange pooled in the coffers of the Indian elites, enabling them to buy whatever they desired, especially products manufactured in Europe. Under European domination, India acquired a British-style civil service system and the most extensive rail network in Asia. English became India’s most common second language. At the same time, Hindus gained ground vis-a-vis Muslims, although both were subducted by the British.

Over the course of the 18th century, as Europeans co-opted the ruling elites of these Muslim societies and gained control of their economies, Islamic reform movements sprang up in response. These sought to restore a spiritual dimension to Islam by rescuing it from the legalism of clerics and the corruption of political elites, but the reform movements were fueled by the promise of liberating Muslims from subservience to Europeans. The reformers cast Europeans as a monolithic “other,” and the Otherness of that Other became their basis for a new definition of Muslim identity.

Restoration in China

The Mongols had devastated China less than the Islamic world, but China was nonetheless living through its own version of post-Mongol recovery. When the Ming Dynasty ousted the Mongols in 1368, they framed their victory as a reclamation of China from aliens. They then toiled to restore China as the Middle Kingdom mandated to rule “all under heaven.” Here, as in the Islamic world, hunger for a status quo of earlier times undermined regard for creativity and innovation. The Ming promoted a reinvented system of Confucian values and built a totalitarian bureaucracy even more intricately regulated than the one installed by the First Emperor. Decades before Columbus sailed to America, the Ming dispatched an enormous armada to sail around southeast Asia to India and even to Africa—but only to assert the centrality of China. After this flirtation with global exploration, the Ming destroyed their own ships and redirected all their society’s energies toward boxing out the dreaded nomads of the north. They rebuilt the Great Wall as a massive stone structure stretching thousands of miles, perhaps the most ambitious construction project ever undertaken, considering the technology available. The Ming restored the Grand Canal linking northern and southern China. Here too imperial policies generated such stability and prosperity, it was easy to assume that China had everything and needed nothing, a success that encouraged inward-looking complacency.

European penetration of the Americas had brought new crops flooding into the global east. Plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, peanuts and squash changed diets from Ireland to Africa. When these crops reached China, they proved so nutritious they sparked a population boom. But European traders were arriving with silver too. The Ming empire operated with paper money but the state now began demanding that taxes be paid in silver (while state payments continued to be made in paper.) To acquire silver, Chinese taxpayers had to increase their exports to Europe. Porcelain workshops and silk production boomed to industrial scale, and the Chinese adopted a plantation system to grow tea in mass quantities, mainly for export to England.

Then, as the 17th century dawned, wars in Europe (among Europeans) temporarily crimped the flow of silver to China. As it happened, a period of bad weather had triggered food shortages–just as the population had risen. These and other dislocating circumstances brought the Ming Dynasty down. Their successors, the Manchurian Qing, carried out military campaigns that expanded China to its biggest size ever, but China was also expanding its exports to Europe at this time, and the European presence in China was growing. As a matter of state policy, the Chinese refused to import anything from Europe. They would accept only silver in exchange for Chinese goods.

The Europeans considered precious metal equivalent to national wealth, so the drain of silver alarmed them, but they were hooked to this trade. The British government, for example, had come to depend on tea taxes for its revenue. Possessing India as they did, the British now promoted the sale of Indian opium to the Chinese—for silver. When the Qing government tried to outlaw this trade, Britain employed military force. Two “Opium Wars” fought between 1839 and 1860 ended with Chinese concessions to an array of Western powers, and after this, although still technically a sovereign empire, China was partitioned into a multitude of colonized parts. In all of East Asia, in fact, only Japan escaped Western domination: they had read the signs early, retrenched against Western influence, and begun to industrialize on their own.

Secular Rationalism and Its Fruits

Just as the Ming and the neo-Islamic empires were trying to tamp down innovation for the sake of stability, Europe was going the other way. Here, thanks to a long period of improvement, change had appeal and experimentation had prestige. The monolithic doctrinal power of the Catholic Church was under siege. In the 16th century, the growing dissent erupted as the Protestant Reformation, which spawned numerous alternative versions of Christianity within European society. Meanwhile, the trickle of intellectual exploration that began with scholasticism turned into a torrent. Revived respect for classical Greek and Roman learning had generated new humanistic styles of art and literature and new inquiries into the natural world. The scholastics’ achievements had buttressed the proposition that a perfect God must have created a rational universe, inspiring legions of thinkers to search the observable world for the hidden clockworks of reality. Early on this registered as a way to know the mind of God, but it acquired a purpose and dynamic of its own. In the several centuries after the voyages of Columbus, Europeans invented calculus, developed the experimental method, formulated the laws of motion and of thermodynamics, and launched all the branches of modern science.

The same climate that spawned science triggered a tsunami of practical inventions. Gutenberg’s seminal movable type came along just as paper was replacing parchment. Books could now be mass produced, making them cheap enough for the masses to read. Just as religious movements were challenging the monolithic dominance of the Catholic church, secular philosophers were questioning the Christian emphasis on the afterlife. At the same time, hard currency from the Americas was greasing the gears of commerce as never before; new methods of financing were making economic ventures of unprecedented ambition possible; and mastery of the seas was revealing the provocative diversity of the planet to European society.

Technology had always shaped culture, but in this period—when spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, mechanical clocks, geared machinery, and later the steam engine, the power loom, the locomotive and countless other mechanizations of work were transforming European life—the machine entered history as a truly defining force.

Ideology and Revolution

Europeans also applied reason to the realm of social interaction, giving rise to novel political concepts including the idea that government was, like any machine, a human artifice designed for a rational purpose and modifiable by those governed. In North America, thirteen British colonies won independence from the mother country and set to work designing a new form of government from scratch, proceeding on the assumption that the function of a government was to secure benefits for its citizens. Consent of the governed replaced kinship and divine favor as the source of a ruling power’s legitimacy. On this premise the United States of America was born.

Less than a decade later, the French Revolution saw kings, clerics, and aristocrats ousted from power in the name of ideals—“liberty, fraternity, equality”— confirming the modern concept of revolution as sudden ideological violence aimed at replacing, not just one set of rulers with another, but one social paradigm with another. The American and French Revolutions asserted democracy as their goal, and in 1848, a version of this ideal sparked a wave of upheavals across Europe and Latin America. But the idea of government as a rational social project did not necessarily imply democracy. By the latter half of the 19th century, Karl Marx and his intellectual successors had proposed Communism as an ideal form for society and defined government as a mere mechanism for achieving that ideal state, through a revolution led by a dictatorial party committed to the ultimate goal. In 1919, Communists did indeed seize state power in Russia, physically the world’s biggest country. Communism was just one of many ideologically-driven party-based “isms” that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. Others included socialism, nationalism, racism, fascism, liberalism, and eventually Islamism.

The same year political upheavals surged through Europe, a conference in Seneca Falls marked a seminal moment in another revolutionary movement: feminism. Industrialization had first wiped out “cottage industries” and thus destroyed the role of women’s work in the economy of western Europe. Then, however, it opened up women’s participation in public life—beginning with the liberty to shop unaccompanied, then to work outside the home, then to seek work-oriented education, then to seek political rights in the public sphere, then commercial, social, and legal power, then reproductive rights, and finally full access to the military sphere. The emergence of women into the public sphere may be the most far-reaching shift in human affairs since the Neolithic revolution: the change that changes everything. In fact, virtually all liberal, progressive, and revolutionary movements of the past two centuries, from European Communism to China’s devastating Taiping Rebellion to America’s countercultural movement have paid at least lip service to the liberation and empowerment of women..

The Machine Age

The machine had many other reverberations. It brought the middle class into being. It made war more deadly. It made messaging ever faster, enabling central political powers to control ever larger surrounding domains. It facilitated cargo transport to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century, all the world was linked into a single network of production and consumption. Thereupon only the politics of distribution limited our species’ capacity to feed every person on the planet.

The inventions of the machine age came in waves triggered by core ideas. The steam engine broke open the notion of using combustion to power work, whereupon inventors explored all the implications: what other substances could provide combustion? What other forms of work could be harnessed to this effect? Petroleum replaced steam (with deep political consequences, since the Islamic world proved to be the main reserve of this resource). Weaving, garment manufacturing, hauling, drilling, even the making of machines—all were mechanized and harnessed to combustion.

The telegraph revealed the practical possibilities of electricity, a force scientists had been exploring for a century. By revolutionizing messaging over long distances, the telegraph spawned a rich corporate entity with money to spend on patents. Tinkerers eager to get rich were inspired to explore what else electricity could do. Along came the telephone, electric lights, refrigeration, air conditioning, electric motors, radios, movies, television…

The Politics of Industrialization

Outside the West, many people saw mechanization as the key to Western power. Beginning in the 19th century, a wide array of rulers and movements put industrialization at the center of their political goals. In the Muslim world, the elites in closest contact with Western culture tended to embrace secular developmentalism as an ethos.

But secular developmentalism found itself inherently at odds with Islamism, a burgeoning movement. Islamists argued that only one thing could restore Muslim dominance: strict adherence to Islam in its “purest” form, a code derived from the most literal possible reading of the sacred texts. Islamists rallied support with two banners: one, the unifying chauvinism that came from a sense of shared membership in a world-wide community (the “umma”); and the other, an unwavering application of Islamic legislation to family matters. After all, Islamism had staked its identity on its opposition to Western culture, and the most obvious difference between the two cultures involved family life and gender roles. In the Western world industrialism had extinguished tribe as a source of identity; the nuclear family was emerging as a unit separable even from extended family; the individual was seen increasingly as a sovereign actor in society; and women were expanding out of family life into public roles previously reserved for men. Islamists not coincidentally put the sequestration of women and the walling off of family life from public life at the center of their campaigns.

Meanwhile, by the start of the twentieth century, European colonization had brought the Chinese empire to its lowest ebb. A new generation of Chinese activists favored saving their civilization by abandoning traditional Chinese ways and adopting selected Western ones. Nationalism took hold in China, giving rise to a nominally democratic movement, which in 1912 ended the Qing dynasty, and replaced the Chinese imperial system with a Western-style republic. Over the next half century, Chinese versions of Western currents contended for control of the region and indeed of this civilization.

The End of Empires

Even as science and technology leapt ahead, political forms lagged behind. The turn of the 20th century saw much of the world still organized into multi-ethnic empires, each a clankerous collection of parts—ethnic nationalities, tribes, fiefdoms, petty principalities and the like, living mostly by local rules but submitting allegiance, taxes, and military service to some central power. This venerable form dated back to the earliest Mesopotamian empires. In 1900, the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns had their patchworks in Europe, the Romanoffs ruled an omnibus Russia, the Ottomans technically still held much of the Islamic world, the British and French had their worldwide collection of colonies, and China, parsed though it was by European powers retained the outer form of a traditional empire ruled by the Qing dynasty. Within all these empires, however, nationalism, racism, and other swelling “-isms” were straining the framework, until at last a spectacular outburst of violence originating in Europe engulfed the world, rising to one climax in 1914 and another in 1939. The great war of the 20th century finally ended in 1945 with the annihilation of two Japanese cities by nuclear bombs and the reduction of Germany to ruins.

By that point, all the traditional multi-ethnic empires had been pulverized out of existence. Out of the rubble, the nation-state had emerged as the (seemingly) final political unit. In theory every person now belonged to one such state, and the nation-states were contiguous, with no unclaimed land between sovereignties.

Yet even as the world congealed into a collection of sovereign countries, a simpler superstructure was emerging too: countries clumped into two rival “blocs”, the Communist and Capitalist worlds, with a smattering of unaffiliated countries often called “the Third World” between them. These were the global players in the forty-five year drama known as the Cold War. And although the world war had officially ended, the competition between the rival blocs manifested as conflicts in the Third World, where the superpowers supported competing forces, each hoping to draw the disputed territory into its bloc.

The competition between ideological blocs lay like a grid over other sources of violence. As the century wound down, the contradictions built into the idea of the nation-state generated numerous wars and friction. Virtually every state turned out to contain within its borders ethnic minorities with a propensity to self-identify as nations and therefore seek autonomy. Also, many national borders world were straddled by ethnic or tribal groups whose members felt affiliated with one another but found themselves subject to separate state authorities.

And even as the world was congealing into nation-states and “blocs” of nation states, the first traces of global units began to appear. The United Nations was born. The Bretton Woods conference established rules for currency exchange among nations. The World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund emerged as planetary economics overseers. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted principles of value deeper than any culture. States, movements, and private groups took actions that challenged the principle of sovereignty. Global anti-apartheid activists, for example, claimed the right to modify the domestic laws of South Africa. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini “passed” a death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie as if he had jurisdiction over a British citizen. U.S. president George Bush had Panamanian president Noriega “arrested” for drug crimes in Panama. Al Qaeda launched military operations on the scale of a nation-state without possessing one inch of territory.

Persistence of the Past

The Cold War temporarily obscured ancient currents still flowing. The Islamic Revolution of Iran and the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, for example, had less to do with the Cold War than was seen at the time. China appeared to have joined the Communist bloc in 1949, when a movement led by Mao Tse-tung seized power and launched a state patterned after the Soviet Union, a pattern derived from the theories of Karl Marx which were themselves firmly rooted in mainstream Western philosophy. On the face of it, then, China had joined the Western world historical narrative

But Chairman Mao’s career fits just as neatly into a Chinese world historical narrative. He played out what Chinese historians had long identified as an archetypal pattern of history as seen from this center: a warring-states period had ended; the empire was unified once again: the Middle Kingdom had been restored. Much this same story had been seen when the Qin dynasty founded the first empire, when the Sui dynasty reconstituted it, and when the Ming emerged. Like earlier empire-founders, Mao was a ruthless colossus who sacrificed countless lives to carry out monumental, transformative infrastructure projects. He imposed on China a body of regulations administered by a corps of bureaucrats educated in the official canon. Under earlier emperors, that cannon was Confucianism. Under Mao it was “Maoist” Communism. Mao’s administrators were party members, not scholar-bureaucrats, but they too secured their offices by passing exams in the doctrine. And again, the backlash to Mao’s tough rule brought a quick end to his “dynasty,” but his work laid the groundwork for what may be a more enduring surge of Chinese cohesion and dominance. The Qin were followed by the Han, the Sui by the Tang, and now, with Mao gone, China is on a course laid down by Deng Xiaoping and his successors.

What’s Next

Throughout the 20th century, even as war tore up the world, inventions kept sewing disparate lives together. Cars, airplanes, telephones, radio, movies, and television all moved cargo and messages ever further, ever faster. Antibiotics and new vaccines extended life. Air conditioning and electricity expanded the zone of human habitation and the hours of human productivity. In the late 20th century the computer launched the digital age. Tinkerers at once set out to explore what else could be digitized. So far they have come up with cell phones, the Internet, social media, and 3-D printing. Surgical replacement of body parts, bionic sensory organs, primitive mind-reading and mental manipulation of material technologies, organic computers using enzymes instead of electricity, and machines that pass the Turing test for intelligence suggest that the border between humans and human technology is dissolving and we are merging with our machines. These developments have taken us across another line as well: throughout history environment has shaped human culture; now culture shapes the environment and is shaped by its own technology. We have become the environment with which we must contend. Our ancestors built shelters to protect themselves from the climate. We struggle to protect the climate from ourselves.

The machine age has intertwined with the political narrative of the world. Information circulating within a network of people who interconnect more directly with one another than with others outside their network is the mechanism by which world-historical microcosms have always formed. But today, technology, social media, and political institutions ensure that information cannot be contained within fixed geographical networks. Workers in India provide support services to companies in the United States. The United States floats treasury bonds bought in great quantity by the Chinese state. Economic decisions by Chinese state planners affect mortgage rates in Des Moines. People in Des Moines vote for their favorites in American Idol, a TV show spun off the British hit Pop Idol, which also spawned Afghan Star, a show from Kabul watched in remote Afghan villages on TV sets hooked to satellite dishes and powered by solar panels bought not with money but with opium, which the villagers trade to Taliban gangs and tribal warlords–who process and sell the drugs to finance military operations against Western armies, sales that contribute to skyrocketing addiction rates in western Europe—

We humans started out as tens of thousands of autonomous bands of hunters and gatherers. Here we are now, on the verge of merging into a single intertwined spaghetti of human civilization. What is world history? It is, I propose, the trajectory that goes from that beginning to this present.




One Response to World History in Brief

  1. M.C. Mars October 4, 2015 at 12:35 AM #

    This “story” is an astonishing work of scholarship and erudition delivered with such an off-the-cuff ease, it leaves me wondering how much more he knows that he didn’t include. Awesome!

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