Outline of World History

by David P. Billington, Jr.

Copyright 2002
Updated February 2007

The outline below considers human experience from the standpoint of three magnitudes:

Change Over 1,000,000s of Years

The ancestors of human beings diverged from the other primates about 20 million years ago when the apes split into four groups as a result of drier conditions in Africa:

The proto-hominids underwent a succession of evolutionary changes that produced the modern human being by about 100,000 years ago. Over this long period of time, hominids began to rely more and more on learned behavior for their day-to-day survival.

The shift from instinctive to learned behavior made hominids more and more flexible. The elaboration of language may have been a key expression of this flexibility. As human mental capacity grew, though, hominids acquired a new relation to the future. Animals live in the moment and react only to stimuli that they can sense. This sensing does not extend far into the future. Humans began to imagine future needs and wants long before they could be sensed. This ability created new uncertainty as well as new flexibility. Religious beliefs met the most long-range needs for stability and certainty.

Human life by the end of the stone age was thus a paradox. We became human by becoming more reliant on learned behavior (on our minds), which made us more flexible. But we also wanted security, and we eventually felt a need for something eternal. When people settled into fixed and inflexible ways of life, they failed in the long run to achieve security. But people also needed a degree of stability in a world of change. Finding a path between the need for continuity and the need for change has been the challenge to human existence ever since. The path of human cultural evolution has been one in which the insecurity of daily life has diminished but in its place uncertainty about larger and deeper things has grown.

Change Over 1000s of Years

Human life entered an era of more rapid change at the start of the present interglacial epoch, the Holocene, ten thousand years ago.


The Holocene Epoch has divided into four phases of climate, each of about 2500 years duration, covering the period from 8000 BC to 2000 AD.

These four periods were not identical in degree: the Atlantic period was warmer than the Sub-Boreal and wetter than the Sub-Atlantic, which in turn was not as cool as the Boreal.

Climate change has disrupted Holocene civilization twice. The onset of Sub-Boreal conditions caused river civilizations to break down as pastoral peoples migrated into them from the grasslands. The great civilizations of the classical world emerged when environmental conditions stabilized after 1000 BC.

The northern hemispheric temperate rainfall belt shifted to the north between 200 and 1200 AD, drying out the grasslands again and causing a new wave of pastoral migrations. Since the rise of modern civilization after 1500, settled societies have had the upper hand. But the world may be affected by long-term climate change in the future.


Human life in the Holocene has had three cultural inflection points: the breakthrough to farming around 8000 BC, the breakthrough to civilization by 3000 BC, and the industrial revolution (c. 1800-2200 AD). Three shifts in outlook have coincided roughly with these points: a search for causality in the world, a search for lawfulness in causality, and a search for control over a lawful causality.

Material Life. Settled farm life seems to have emerged by 8000 BC. Over the next five millennia, larger towns developed around the world with more complex divisions of labor. These civilizations began to form territorial states after 3000 BC. A single global civilization has been emerging since 1800 AD that will probably take the form of a world state or government one or two centuries from today.

Outlook. Early farmers believed that arbitrary supernatural beings controlled the processes of nature and could be influenced through sacrifice and other ritual activity. This archaic idea that the world had meaning, that effects had causes, was a primary conceptual breakthrough. It began the process by which human understanding moved on in the classical period to notions of general lawfulness in the world. In the modern period, humans began to believe that they could understand and control a lawful nature. Today we must decide how to exercise this control responsibly.

Change Over 100s of Years


The three millennia from 1000 BC to 2000 AD sub-divide into three periods in which change can be measured in centuries. During a classical period beginning around 1000 BC, large areas of human settlement came together in great civilizations. These civilizations broke down, however, in the first millennium AD. During a medieval period from about 500-1500 AD, the major cultural areas of the planet developed more distinct identities of their own. In the five centuries of the modern period since 1500, the process of wider integration has resumed. Europeans dominated this process initially but a single modern global civilization is now emerging.

During the classical period, societies went beyond notions of arbitrary causality and looked for a more general lawfulness in the world. Classical societies also sought a picture of the world that was essentially complete. In the medieval period, western Eurasia embraced a new sense of the source of lawfulness but societies everywhere still looked for completeness in their views of the world. Modern civilization has tried to understand the world in general and lawful terms but with two changes: the idea that nature can be brought under human control and the idea that truth is contingent or forever incomplete.


A revolution in iron metallurgy transformed the material basis of life in the eastern hemisphere after 1000 BC, although new civilizations also arose in the western hemisphere without iron. Societies everywhere continued to depend on renewable resources and most people continued to work in self-sufficient agriculture. But populations and towns grew in size, and market forces penetrated life to a significantly greater extent.

Classical China and India rested on self-sufficient agriculture. Trade grew but society did not depend on it. In their outlook, Asians came to believe that people were accountable to a supernatural reality governed by law and that time was cyclical. The major Asian philosophies believed, however, that reality was indeterminate in its ultimate nature (neither x nor not-x, with x being any attribute).

On the southern coastline of Europe, people grouped into towns that depended on trade for their livelihood. The people of these towns came to believe that time was linear and that society was largely free of supernatural authority. But these townspeople felt the need for an ultimate philosophical or legal determinateness that could provide a grounding for their way of life. The Greeks looked for determinateness in natural philosophy, while the Romans made their own determinateness in the form of a secular law code.

In their respective outlooks, the two ends of Eurasia represented opposite experimental maxima along a continuum of belief in determinism. Societies elsewhere in the world tended to follow more of a middle way, or they followed ways that resisted the polarizing of truth.

In the first two centuries AD, the terms of trade in the classical Mediterranean changed from favoring the Italian center to favoring the periphery. The classical civilizations of the Mediterranean and China both collapsed when the rainbelt shift after 200 AD increased migratory pressure from the grasslands. Environmental pressures may have played a role in the collapse of Meso-American civilization a few centuries later.


During the medieval period, the locus of American civilization shifted from the lowlands to the highlands of Mexico and Peru. African civilizations spread across the savanna and grew in the mountains of eastern and southern Africa. Arabs created a new civilization over northern Africa and western Asia. Persians and Turks pressed into southern Asia, and both Hindus and Muslims spread into southeast Asia. Feudal societies developed in Japan and Europe, while China reconstituted itself several times under successive dynasties.

A new religiosity appeared in western Eurasia with the spread of Christianity and then Islam. In continuity with earlier Jewish belief, the two later monotheisms conceived the supernatural in terms of determinate entities (personal souls and a personal God) and affirmed a linear view of time. But where Islam emphasized an undivided community of believers, Christianity distinguished between the community of believers and society.

While Christianity and Islam spread in the West, the new religion of Buddhism spread in the east. Buddhists affirmed earlier Asian ideas of a supernatural reality governed by law, in which time was cyclical and ultimate truth was indeterminate. Buddhism simplified the path to this truth. Pre-Buddhist traditions in Asia reasserted themselves after 1000 AD, however, driving Buddhism to the periphery, while pre-Christian and pre-Islamic traditions in the linear West made no such comeback.

Helped by agricultural improvements, population recovered in Europe and grew in Asia after 1000 AD. The Islamic Middle East under the Abbassids (c. 800 to 1000) and China under the Song dynasty (c. 1000 to 1200) became magnets of trade in the eastern hemisphere. The last great migrations out of the northern Eurasian grasslands were the Mongol conquests of the 1200s. The Black Death further decimated Eurasian populations over the next two centuries.

From the crisis of the late medieval period, Asia and Islam emerged with a renewed commitment to their traditional outlooks and social norms. Instead of recovering from the crisis of the late medieval period, the Christian faith began to lose its influence over what had been the Latin West.


The rise of modern civilization and its integration of the planet is the major global event of the last five centuries. Although modern civilization depended on interactions with the non-European world from its inception, changes in Europe were crucial to its launch in the 1500s.

Religion. After 1500, the cultures of China and India adhered to traditional religious and social norms, in which notions of cyclical existence may have discouraged belief in irreversible change. Islam affirmed a linear view of time but settled into an existence that valued continuity over change.

The culture of Christian Europe was much less stable from its beginning. Church and state had always been in tension as a matter of principle and in the medieval period the two were often in conflict in practice. After 1500, the Western Church broke up. But Europeans continued to believe that time was linear and irreversible and that there was only one life to live in this world. As Europeans became increasingly secular in their aims, these ideas transformed into a secular search for improvement.

Science. Traditional Asia tended to see determinateness in nature as transitory, and this belief may have limited interest in nature. Europeans believed until the 1600s that the natural universe was a fundamentally determinate place (a hierarchy of concentric spheres with the Earth at its center). This belief encouraged late medieval Europeans to study nature in a systematic way in search of determinate answers. The skills honed in late medieval scholasticism helped early modern observers discover that the Earth was not the fixed center of the universe and that no such thing as absolute position even existed.

To these modern notions Europeans added a new sense of contingency. Europeans began to see nature as transitory, but not in the same way that traditional Asians saw nature. The method of the new modern science, which held all ideas accountable to empirical testing and change, served not to emphasize that observable nature was impermanent, but that it could be understood determinately in a progressive if never final way. The goal of this understanding was control over nature, but the manner and degree of control were open to change.

Society. Europeans soon began to believe that, just as scientific hypotheses had to be accountable to empirical testing, so should social activity be accountable to public testing of some kind. Consequently, as a matter of principle and not just as a matter of custom, private economic activity came to be accountable to free markets, and governments and laws became accountable to free electorates.

Since about 1800, these new conditions have made possible an industrial revolution that has dramatically raised the standard of living. In advanced countries, nearly all of the population has now moved into non-farm occupations, and an increasing proportion is moving into non-manual occupations. World population has grown, and health and human lifespan have generally improved.

Liberal democratic governments are now the ideal of modern life, although most modern societies have had to struggle to achieve or live up to it. Non-modern or illiberal societies face the dilemma of preserving their character at the cost of becoming uncompetitive. As the planet has become more integrated, identity differences have sharpened, but notions of a common humanity have also grown stronger. Much suffering may continue to occur as market forces disrupt stable patterns of individual life and as tensions over identity and power bring larger groups and whole states into conflict. But if the underlying trend of modernization and global integration continues for another two centuries, a democratic world state is likely to evolve and bring peace and the rule of law to the planet.

Future. Modern civilization has given people more freedom and choice in their lives, but it has also challenged at deeper and deeper levels ideas of what is immutable and intrinsic. A sense of anomie and alienation has accompanied modern civilization and whether this is a transient or permanent condition is not clear. The world was fortunate to survive the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century, but the danger of alienated people armed with modern technology continues to be a fundamental threat.

The logic end of modern life is for humanity to understand and control physical nature, including human nature. A cure for aging as well as cures for lesser illnesses and injuries will probably be found. Traditional religious beliefs may become problematical if death can only occur by accident or if humans can be revived from death. The great question will be whether humans make contact with other intelligent beings in the universe or in some dimension or plane of existence beyond it. Such contact could give humans a new sense of meaning and purpose as well as a new sense of context.

The classical period was an age of expansion and integration. The medieval period was more stable and inward-looking. The modern period has been another age of expansion and integration that will end in a world government. Once global standards of living have reached a common average in about two centuries, society may value stability more than change. The result could be a more inward-looking culture in which intrinsic values are less besieged by utilitarian ones. But a yearning to explore new frontiers and to experience new challenges may revive a millennium later, or unavoidable astrophysical events may require humans to be more adventuresome.

Life seems to be an emergent property of physical nature under certain conditions, and consciousness seems to be an emergent property of life. As evolution has raised the level of conscious awareness, it has also generated a need to understand the world in terms of a causal order. This need has driven human beings to understand and control nature as far as possible. Human life may enter a more stable period in a few centuries. But the original tension between the need to be flexible and the need for certainty will probably continue as long as we live in a universe of physical change.

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