Human Civilization, Progress and Advancement
Civilization and advancement
How did some regions come to be wealthier and more powerful than others? Two historical events have shaped what is known as human civilization, and have created vast chasms in prosperity and power among human societies.
The first major cleavage among human societies was between hunter-gatherer/ nomadic communities and settled, agriculturally-based communities. The former (which all humans lived in originally) featured relatively few members in a single community, largely because of limited available nutrition.
The settled societies, on the other hand, enjoyed much larger populations. Raising livestock in large numbers and harvesting large amounts of plants enabled them to obtain vastly greater nourishment than the foragers and hunter-gatherers, and thus they become more populous.
The advent of agriculture also allowed many members of society to engage in activities other than obtaining food. Hence the development of social classes: full-time warriors/ soldiers, priests, merchants, entertainers, or others. In most ancient settled societies from China to Egypt to the Americas the four major social groups were warriors, priests, merchants and peasants.
The development of social classes allowed the products of what we know as "civilization" to arise: new inventions, art, music, architecture, cities, philosophy, etc. All of these things are possible only if people can devote their time to something other than obtaining food or physical security, which hunter-gatherer peoples must do more or less full-time, and settled peoples can delegate to separate classes and groups. Hunter-gatherer societies have also tended to be more egalitarian, and settled societies more hierarchical and unequal.
The first four major centers of settled civilization were in (1) China on the Yangtze River, (2) South Asia on the Indus River, (3) Egypt on the Nile River and (4) Mesopotamia on the Tigris/ Euphrates Rivers. From these epicenters, the political, economic and social tendencies of civilization spread to surrounding regions such as the Mediterranean basin, East Asia, Central Asia and Southwest Asia.
With superior technology, many more people and a vested interest in land, the settled societies overtook the nomadic peoples, and eventually conquered the world, such that today not a square inch of land on this planet is unclaimed by one of them in some way, shape or form.
The second major development to allow certain human societies to advance beyond others was the rise of industry and manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution occurred thousands of years after the development of agriculture, beginning in the 18th century and becoming consolidated in the 19th century.
The Industrial Revolution consolidated the rise and power of the merchant and business class, which had been gradually building in the western world for several centuries to that point. Under the previous agriculturally-based regime, power was synonymous with land and the crops it produced. This was true of economic power and political power. This reality underlay feudalism, a socioeconomic system where the dominant members of society were the ones who owned the land (typically composing between 0 and 5% of the total population).
A sharp inequality between the tiny ruling elite of warriors/ soldiers, lords, nobles, priests and religious officials on the one hand, and the mass of peasants, serfs, slaves and other agricultural laborers on the other had been in place since the rise of agriculture and complex society. This socioeconomic model began to break down with the Industrial Revolution, and a middle class dominated by merchants and professions expanded.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, this middle class would come to be the backbone of democracy, which is the key political reality that distinguishes the most advanced societies today from the least advanced.
The Industrial Revolution was the single most important event in the modern era in allowing some societies to advance in material wealth far beyond others. Previously unimaginable technological innovations improved agriculture and expanded crop yields enormously, feeding millions and then billions of people. The rise of capitalism and free market economics delivered increased productivity in many industries, permitting more goods and services to be produced for society, for less average cost to society.
The chasm between the regions of the world that have fully undergone industrial transformation, and those that have only partially undergone it or not at all (and thus remain in the previous agriculturally-dominated phase), is the single most striking fact of the modern economic world. The difference between postindustrial and preindustrial or semi-industrial societies explains much of the differing levels of wealth and standards of living in the world today.
A potential third major shift is the computer revolution, beginning in the middle of the 20th century and arguably still occurring. This development has allowed some regions of Africa and Asia to skip the industrial phase entirely, directly transforming from agriculturally-based economic systems to information-based ones.
Whether this development is sustainable remains to be seen. It is not clear whether a previously agricultural society can fully reap the benefits of high technology and information technology without first undergoing the massive social, cultural and political adjustments precipitated by industrialization.
Agriculture and industry were surely the proximate causes of wealth and power in civilization, but what were the causes of agriculture and industry? Why did some societies become settled and focused on agriculture, but not others? Why, ultimately, did the Industrial Revolution occur first in Europe instead of, say, Sub-Saharan Africa?
Traditionally these questions have been unanswerable except through racism and genetic determinism, or through haphazard religious doctrine and creative myths and legends. Jared Diamond, author of "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," (see below) is one of today's most well-known scholars who has attempted to answer these fascinating questions. The reader is encouraged to look into his insightful and sometimes controversial ideas on the ultimate causes of human prosperity.