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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.


Unanswered questions

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.



ItsMooseCraft on September 26, 2017:


tate on March 20, 2017:


Abraham Joseph on June 15, 2012:

Hi every one ! I am a (philosophic) seeker of truth !

Modern man, with his matter-obsessed science and mind, is not able to see 'sense' and reason in any other advancement except in the old hunter-gatherer realm. I have recently discovered after my 2 decades of research that man has a different center other than his usual mind that links him to the extra-matter realm. This knowledge could give man new dimensions of civilization.The book link is: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-...

secularist10 (author) from New York City on July 16, 2011:

Thanks, McHamlet. Glad you found it useful.

Paul Buckle on July 16, 2011:

Well done on this informative and interesting hub.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on April 07, 2011:

We have had our forest fires in Oz too. Probably the same reason behind them as the California blaze-ups.

Yes, Australia was never meant to support a large population but that won't stop some people from trying in on.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on April 06, 2011:

Seems like many developed countries are wrestling with immigration issues nowadays.

Australia is mostly uninhabitable, so it was never meant to support a large population. A similar situation is seen in the US southwest, where water shortages are becoming a real threat in the near future. This was an area never meant to support large numbers of people, never mind huge cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Inattention to the environment in southern California leads to clearing huge amounts of trees and underbrush to build houses. As a result, every few years there's a massive forest fire somewhere in California that burns down tons of homes and people are left like helpless babes wondering what happened.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on April 06, 2011:

Wars nowadays do too much damage to the land to be a solution to overpopulation as they were in the past. The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam during the Vietnam War is a good example of this. Lots of people killed, sure, but so much damage done to the land that it was more of a setback than anything else.

Sure, change the policy in Australia and you do change the outcome but where are the politicians with the sand to do that? Right now Australia accepts migrants into the country that don't respect our culture.

I mentioned one province in India where change over two decades made that province a lot better and a lot healthier than other provinces. It was simply a case of giving the women more of a future than just being housewives and having children.

In Australia Dick Smith is the voice for an Australian population that doesn't get so large that it outstrips its resources.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on April 05, 2011:

Again, most problems are solvable. And whatever is not solvable, is adaptable. History shows us that humans find a way one way or another. Tens of millions of people were killed in the bloodiest wars the species has ever seen. Entire generations were erased, landscapes obliterated.

Yet here we are, less than 100 years later, bigger, brighter and thriving more than ever.

Ironically the immigration and reproduction issue you mentioned for Australia is a perfect example of a policy challenge. Change the policy, and you can change the outcome. Some European governments have made great progress in incentivizing more or less reproductive activity through policy mechanisms.

I'm certainly just as critical of government leaders and their corruption and shortsightedness as you. And again, the point is that we are not trapped on a one-way street to devastation. The solutions are out there, and change is possible. It has happened before, time and time again.

Whether people will actually summon up the will, the courage, and act--only time will tell. But there are plenty of objective facts supporting such an outcome.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on April 05, 2011:

secularist10, the Punjab in India, the bread basket of that country, is in trouble. Farmers are finding it more and more difficult to sink wells deep enough to hit good water. The demand for water is just way too great. There is, however, a province in India promoting the idea of education and work opportunities for girls. In this province the girls don't want a lot of children when they do eventually marry. Just one or two will do. This province is thriving whereas the provinces around it are in a miserable state and, as far as I am concerned, deservedly so.

In Australia the Murray Darling river system is in trouble and has been in trouble for a long time. The government has augmented a plan to buy back water rights from some of the farmers to try to save the system. But the demand fore water and food is increasing in Australia and not decreasing mainly because of migration and the baby bonus. Australia has been hit by a number of natural disasters of late and it is only the mining sector propping up the economy. Yet we will still bring in the migrants and we will still pay out a baby bonus as if we are short on people. Only in recent years has the word gotten out that, even though most Australians only have one or two children, we are encouraging people from overseas to have lots of children and to dump the excess on our doorstep.

We won't take care of the challenges in an appropriate way because no government in power can tackle the population explosion problem and very few can afford to acknowledge it. I think over use of a river system and concreting over land that should be used for agriculture and selling off good dairy land to overseas concerns are as much if not more structural as they are policy problems. Oh, we have the imagination but not the will. The will to act is drained away by the holy rollers among us and our so-called representatives who are too afraid to act in our best interests.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on April 05, 2011:

Rod, Malthus was on the right track only in a very general or esoteric sense. Technically, there is a limited amount of resources, which imposes constraints on human expansion, surely. But in terms of specifics, we are nowhere near a Malthusian apocalypse, despite many people's quasi-masochistic chicken little-ism.

What we have is a number of challenges that, if not taken care of, may very well lead to our ruin. But these are policy problems, not structural ones. Destruction is only guaranteed by inaction and lack of imagination.

See my previous comment on food and water. It's not the end of the world. At least it doesn't have to be.

Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on April 05, 2011:

For my money Thomas Malthus was on the right track. And there are lots of parts of the world in trouble food-wise today. Also fresh drinking water has become a major issue.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on March 31, 2011:

I wouldn't call myself an optimist, so much as someone who looks at the facts and concludes there are positive signs, or no reason to panic.

I actually basically agree with much of what you say. Sustainability is important for every society, no question. More energy needs to (and easily can) come from more sustainable or renewable sources.

Europe is already leading the way in population stagnation or slight reduction. With a few tweaks, this is a model for the whole world at an advanced stage of development.

I only call them "bumps in the road" because it's not as if we are incapable of solving these problems.

I think a lot more people could survive in this world than you think. For instance, this statement comes from Wikipedia, and is well sourced:

"There were 925 million malnourished people in the world in 2010, an increase of 80 million since 1990, despite the fact that the world already produces enough food to feed everyone - 6 billion people - and could feed the double - 12 billion people."

Another estimate from a different source is that about 10 billion people could be fed on current cereal production.

Moreover, some estimate that half of all food is wasted globally, and up to half of all drinkable water is wasted too (http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/aug2008/2008-08-22... )

Of course average American levels of consumption could never be replicated on a global scale. But that is because most Americans are overweight--in other words, they are already eating TOO MUCH, on average. Who would want to see a planet of fatsos!

A third of American adults are not just overweight, but obese. Reduce those millions of people's consumption to normal human levels, and you probably have enough food to end malnutrition in several small developing countries.

And this is before rectifying the waste issue, or other solvable issues. Together solving all of these problems--with minimal increase in actual food production--would likely solve all of the malnutrition problems in the world today.

While the majority of people are indeed well-fed, more or less, the remaining roughly 1 billion could be well-fed if their governments were not predatory (e.g. North Korea), if the rich countries were not economically destructive, etc.

In terms of material goods, this is the beauty of a market system: as the supply of the good falls, the price rises, and people adjust their consumption accordingly.

One can point to the disaster in Japan or many other horrors (the world wars, the Holocaust, modern genocides, etc), but that simply does not change the total, overall positive state of the human race today relative to where we started.

I suppose the Neanderthals were "doing fine" if by doing fine you mean a life expectancy of 30, being riddled with curable diseases since birth, subject to the elements, having no knowledge about their world or how it works, and essentially living like animals. Not a very appealing lifestyle if you ask me.

Eileen M Antolino from Central New Jersey ~Trenton/Princeton area on March 31, 2011:

Hi again,

I can see you are a techno-optimist!! I understand that Malthus didn't know about the technological advances that would intensify agricultural output, but even with that, I find it hard to believe that the vast majority of this planet's population are pretty well-fed.

The U.S. only comprises 5% of the world population and we are using 27% of all energy consumption with Americans consuming resources at TWICE the rate of Europeans and those are the folks on this planet who, for the most part, are living well!! Altogether, these 6.9 billion people currently living on the planet are consuming 50% more resources than the Earth is producing so we are very much in an energy deficit.

Check out this website that says "If all of the world's 6.9 billion people consumed as much as an average American, it would take the resources of over five Earths to sustainably support all of them."


"Earth's 29.6 billion acres of biologically productive land and water could sustainably support only about 1.5 billion people at an 'American standard of living and consumption'...at the opposite end of the spectrum are the 1.3 billion people in the world's poorest countries and even THEY are overshooting and depleting their resource biocapacity by over 10%"!!!

I'm not so sure that we are in a "better place than we were 10,000 years ago"...Yes, we have fantastic communication capabilities and medical innovations, and as long as Comcast is providing me with an internet connection and television and Verizon's giving me a cell phone, I'll be using them. But those poor folk in Japan would be more than glad to be able to hunt and gather to stay alive right now.

I'm just saying that when you compare SUSTAINABLE societies in the history of humanity, it is those, as in many undeveloped cultures today, who just take what they need and move on that will find there is still plenty of food and water around, given the more advanced "developed" cultures haven't demolished their habitats.

I believe the Homo species that lived the longest were the Neanderthals and they were doing fine until Cro Magnon came along with their propensity for domination. I think we've hit a little more than just "bumps in the road" when it comes to living sustainably, within our means, in peace and harmony with the natural world that nurtures us, providing significant longevity to our "Thinking Man" species. I believe it was the need to protect our surpluses, particularly our food stocks, that brought about the need for war.

These "bumps in the road" are about to bring us to the brink of extintion...which makes sense, that natural disaster and/or war would bring about mass demise. According to the World Population Balance website, TWO BILLION is the number of people that could live sustainably (at the European standard of living) with the current Earth resources. I'm just saying...

secularist10 (author) from New York City on March 31, 2011:

Eco_Ali, welcome, thanks for coming. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Oh, Raquel Welch and cleavage? Hmm... I still don't get it, lol. ;)

Anyway, I studied Malthus in college some time ago, and of course what he failed to account for (among other things) was the rising food output caused by increases in technological advancement. When Malthus was alive, the human population was less than 1 billion. Today it is almost 7 billion, and the vast majority of these people are pretty well-fed. Malthus only works in a situation of finite wealth.

Indeed, the transfer to agriculture and then from agriculture to industrialization both marked exponential rises in food production, which is why so many more people were able to live. The hunter-gatherer system only supported several million humans, as records indicate. Now we have almost 7 billion and a thriving and dynamic world.

I agree that everything has costs. The agricultural societies were more hierarchical and unequal than the hunter-gatherer communities they replaced, as I wrote in the article (they were also far more sexist). And industrialization has resulted in pollution, among other problems. However on balance, of course, humanity is in a much better place today than it was 10,000 years ago. There are just a few problems that, while large, can be managed if people get their act together.

I certainly wouldn't want to lose Hub Pages, the internet, computers, air travel, space travel, the subway, modern science, modern literature, philosophy, iPhones, medical advances, or countless other things that compose our civilization, just because we've hit some bumps in the road.

Regarding war, humans had been waging war against each other long before the advent of agriculture--that's in our genes, lol!

Eileen M Antolino from Central New Jersey ~Trenton/Princeton area on March 30, 2011:


I loved your HUB but I think you missed Jane's little pun altogether..."cleavage" > Raquel Welch??? LOL

I would just add that most majoy civilizations in the history of humanity have gone under because they became population beyond their resources, much as we are doing today and now lie in ruins seen on most continents.

In the late 18th Century, an economist, Thomas Robert Malthus, in his Essay on the Principles of Population, had a theory based on exponential population growth that the human species would grow beyond the level of ample food and natural resources leading to misery and vice and 100 years later Darwin, basing his conclusions on his observations and Malthus, proclaimed the theory of Natural Selection, whereby the "survival of the fittest" would insure survival through competition.

There's no doubt that humanity took a wide turn off the rightous ethical path upon departing from the realm of hunter/gatherer. Agriculture and the competition for land and resources brought about the need for war while merchants were sure to separate the classes.

These problems are only seen in civilized and developed countries that have emerged from the Paleolithic age of hunter/gatherer and taking from the earth only what is needed at the time then moving on.

I believe that it will be these people who have escaped the lure of "STUFF" and capitalism who will guide the species through whatever is in store for us in the future and restore our interconnectedness with our natural world.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on February 14, 2011:

Tony--that's definitely an interesting topic as well. I've always felt that in order to facilitate and cultivate material development in the poor countries, we have to understand how the rich countries became rich--they were all poor at one time, too.

I might write a hub about the IMF and World Bank and others who, in the zeal for so-called "free trade" actually have wound up holding back these poor countries, whilst protecting the rich countries that compose them.

Thanks so much for visiting.

Tony McGregor from South Africa on February 14, 2011:

An interesting Hub indeed! I thnink my position on this is I am less interested in why the rich nations became rich as to how they perpetuate their growing wealth at the expense of the less developed nations.

I am somewhat sangine about the computer revolution which might just help break down the barriers of wealth and ignorance.

Thanks for an interesting perspective.

Love and peace


secularist10 (author) from New York City on January 01, 2011:

Thanks, James. Appreciate the compliment, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

This was probably my quickest hub ever. I composed it from start to finish in about 2 hours. I think it's still pretty good quality though.

James A Watkins from Chicago on January 01, 2011:

An excellent Hub! I enjoyed reading your work here. It is fascinating and well done. Thank you!

Baileybear on December 25, 2010:

Austinstar - LOL!

Secularist - I'm not interested in writing "how to" or sales hubs either. I've been happy with my gradual progress - many of my hubs are for a small audience, but that's what I wanted to write about

secularist10 (author) from New York City on December 23, 2010:

Jane, I have no idea what you're talking about... ?? Really, no clue...

secularist10 (author) from New York City on December 23, 2010:

Austinstar--Oh lord. I'm a guy and even I didn't realize that connection, LOL. Good eye. Well, it WAS a serious hub until that comment!

The key characteristic of the agricultural and industrial revolutions was their complete and total transformation of the social, political and economic order in human society.

So that is the main test of any potential revolution of this order. Will it fundamentally remake the relationships and power structures that underlie society, as well as placing society on a vastly higher trajectory of material prosperity (as the transfer from hunter-gatherer to agriculture did, or the transfer from agriculture to industry did), or will it simply constitute a new technical innovation within the existing framework. That is the question.

I think a good argument could be made that the computer/ information revolution has done something like that. Only time will tell.

Jane Bovary from The Fatal Shore on December 23, 2010:

A concise little summary secularist. I see evidence of that *major cleavage* in the hunter/gatherer photo.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on December 23, 2010:

Sex and attraction have a big hole to fill? Oh, I have to laugh now. and I thought this was a serious hub. Silly me.

Seriously, I think the next big advance will be called the "Energy Revolution". Without have to expend so much to obtain so little, we may even clean up the planet. Or destroy it all. It could go either way, I think.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on December 23, 2010:

Well velcro alone makes it all worth it, doesn't it? :)

I mean I could appeal to the masses and write about topics like "how to select the perfect backscratcher" or "how often to water your plants," and probably get to a 100 score pretty quick. But how friggin boring would that be.

I will be trying to expand my selection of topics in the near future, though. I'll be writing about things like sex and attraction, maybe relationships, etc. I think there's a big hole to fill when it comes to *intelligent* discussion about these kinds of things.

Baileybear on December 23, 2010:

Well, flush toilets and toilet paper would be hard to give up, wouldn't they? You do write at a slightly "higher" level than me, I think, which will narrow understanding somewhat?

secularist10 (author) from New York City on December 23, 2010:

Thanks Baileybear. It usually takes a while for my hubs to get up to a decent score. This one is perhaps a bit too abstract or specialized.

Honestly, I couldn't care less about racism. It's a dead ideology/ mindset that has been thoroughly disproven over the centuries. It's on par with a flat earth at this point. There are more important and interesting questions. Luckily, very few serious people entertain that concept.

But I may see about writing another one exploring the deeper causes I alluded to in the final paragraph.

I agree, there have been costs to everything. But overall it has been strongly positive, even with some drawbacks. I sure prefer the wealth, options and knowledge of modern rational civilization to the alternative.

Baileybear on December 23, 2010:

well done, pup! We need to attract more people to your hubs. Will you be exploring the racism factors? "Advancement" has come at a cost - more population & industry - we're swimming in waste

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