My View of History


Filename: essay086
By: Paul R. Martin


Since everyone has had different experiences, including what they have heard and read, it is inevitable that each of us should have a different view of History. This essay will be an attempt at documenting mine.

First, a little explanation about my experiences in learning about History. I have not taken a formal course in History since High School, so I am not very well academically qualified to comment on history. I have, however done some reading on the subject, and have had a life-long interest in it. The books that probably influenced my view the most were Will and Ariel Durant's "The Story of Civilization" series, and William H. McNeill's "The Rise of the West". (I will be forever grateful to Professor Roothan of The University of Chicago for introducing me to the latter.)

Incidentally, I am curiously in search of others who have read the Durants' series completely through from covers to covers. Beside myself, I am only aware of one other person who has enjoyed that experience, although I am sure there must be many others. I would be pleased if you would let me know about any others you know about.

In addition to what I have read, I think I bring an unusual perspective into the mix. I am inclined to look at things from the highest vantage point, or from the largest perspective possible. I like to understand things from the top down. I get less interested (and less competent) as I get closer to the details.

This generalist view could be taken as a sign of weakness, and sufficient cause for academicians to dismiss my ideas, but, as you might have read in my essay, "Abstraction Itself", I think there may be some value in my point of view. You probably won't learn any new historical facts from me, but you might find a new way of thinking about facts you already know, or will learn from others more qualified than I.

This generalist viewpoint is also why I found McNeill's book to be so engaging. To paraphrase McNeill, I 'took aspects of what he thought and said in order to develop, twist, and reinterpret his ideas to fit my own predilections and answer my own problems and, as a result, the cold type of his printed pages leapt to life for me'. By thus 'misunderstanding' it, I embody a single example of his hope for the influence of his book. (To understand this a little better, read the 2nd paragraph of page v of "The Rise of the West".)

That's about enough introduction; now lets talk a little about the madness in my method..


From my point of view, the place to start is at the very highest level, so I'll start with some basic principles. The first principle, contrary to Toynbee's view that 'History repeats itself', is that

A. History follows a more or less inevitable, predictable, course that is determined by circumstances.

Think of History as being similar to the course of a stream of water after you turn on a garden hose at the top of a hill. The water will find its way down the hill, twisting and turning as a result of factors like the slope and shape of the hillside, rocks and things that might be in the way, the volume of water coming down, and so on. It's not exactly predictable and may even branch into several different rivulets, and after a little erosion, may even change course, but you get the idea. It's not exactly precise, but it is understandable at a high level, and predictable within certain limits. That is the way I like to look at history.

So to understand History, I think we need to know about those circumstances. This leads us to a few more basic principles:

B. Human beings are animals driven to survive, both individually and as a species.

C. Survival requires nourishment (food and water) and protection (from weather, predatory animals, and competitors for these same requirements.)

D. The geographic and climatic features of the Earth determine, in the main, the patterns of success and failure in meeting the requirements of C.

At this point, the premise is that, in principle, if we could know the details of B, C, and D with enough precision, we could, by principle A, compute the History of humankind. Of course, this precision is not available, nor is the computing power available if the details were. Nonetheless, I think it is fun and potentially useful to ponder how such a prediction might go. That's essentially how this essay will proceed.

Now for an explanation of the inevitable history of the world.


From B, we see that human beings are animals. We can start by looking at the natural history of other animals, which preceded humans on earth by many millions of years according to modern science. During these millions of years, the patterns of success among the various species changed over time in response to changes in geography, climate, and previous success patterns of the various species.

During most of human history, humans were just another animal competing for survival and in the big picture, wouldn't be distinguishable from the other animals of that time.

But something happened in the relatively recent past. I don't know, nor do I think it is very important to know, exactly when the change occurred. It might have been 300,000 years ago, or it might have been 30,000 years ago. Either number makes it relatively recent compared to the multi-billion year history preceding it.

What happened was that, somehow, humans acquired, and began to apply to their problem of survival, unusually large brains. This marked the beginning of human pre-history.

The change from other animals was that instead of just finding and taking advantage of the nourishment and protection available in the environment, humans began doing something active to provide them. Of course many, if not most all, other animals also took deliberate actions to change their environments to provide for their requirements, it's just that humans did it on a much grander scale with the help of their new large brains.

For example, ants developed organized societies, agriculture, including both cultivated gardens and animal husbandry (farming and ranching), and antibiotics with which they treated both their captive plants and animals tens or hundreds of millions of years before humans did. But humans have developed much more variety in the methods and implements and such and we feel we have a right to claim superiority, if not priority, over the ants.

From a much higher perspective, it might be hard to make the case that humans are in any way superior, more advanced or successful, or even much different than say ants, or dinosaurs, or any other species that might lay claim to those distinctions. But I'm with you. I am a human also, and I think that we are somehow different, and yes, even superior to other animals. I just hope our survival doesn't end up depending on our being able to prove it.

So let's proceed under the assumption that somehow our large brains have made human history different from natural history. The question is how, and why, did human history end up following the course that it did. Let's apply the principles and see what we get.


Even 300,000 years ago, the Earth's geography looked pretty much the same as today; the continents haven't drifted all that much in that time. So let's take a globe and look at it and think about principles C and D.

The best chance of finding natural comfortable living conditions with food and water supplies are in the middle latitudes, say between 40 degrees north and south. Closer to the poles it gets too cold.

So it is easy to suppose that people would populate those areas of the globe during the long hunting and gathering phase. That provides a starting point. When the large brain appeared, people had populated the good hunting and gathering ground in the middle of Africa and the southern strip of Eurasia. They probably hadn't gotten to the western hemisphere yet, and I don't know about Australia, Indonesia, and environs. Those are details.

The basic innovation at this starting point that set the course of history was the development of two separate strategies for doing something about providing more food. One strategy was to deliberately plant and cultivate the plants from which to gather food, and the other strategy was to deliberately domesticate the animals which will provide food.

These two strategies are fundamental to the course of history. I am trying to think of a way of expressing in this essay how significant I think these two strategies are, and I am having trouble. They are so important, that I think that if you throw in a little geography, you can almost derive all of human history just from the fact that these two different strategies for providing food were developed. Not quite, but I am trying to impress on you how important I think they are.

Let me digress, just to emphasize the point, and talk about some of the manifestations and consequences of the interplay between these two strategies. First, we could characterize the two different strategies as eating animals or eating plants. Or for more familiar pairs we could differentiate between meat and potatoes, or bread and milk, or farmers and ranchers, or even cats and dogs.

Yes cats and dogs. Think about the history of the domestication of cats and dogs. In the early days of farming, the granaries were probably not rat proof. As a consequence, rats found a huge unnatural supply of food in them, and so there were a lot of rats around. Of course this meant that there was an unnatural supply of cat food around in the form of rats. And so there were probably a lot of cats around. The farmers, seeing the cats and rats, realized that the rats were enemies (competing for the same food as the people) and the cats were friends for killing the enemy. The cats may also have realized that people were responsible for the abundance of rats, and may have been grateful. In any case, the cozy relationship between cats and people naturally developed from this situation.

On the other side of the fence, so to speak, were the ranchers. These people maintained flocks and herds of various animals which they milked and/or slaughtered for food. In order to feed the flocks, they needed to let them roam over large tracts of grazing land, and they had to keep on the move as they ate up the grass. The animals competed with wild grazing animals for this grass and provided targets for the natural predators of grazing animals. As a result, the ranchers had two major problems: protecting their herds from predators and keeping their herd animals from wandering off and getting lost.

This is where the wolf, and possibly other dog ancestors enter. This grazing land had been hunting ground not only for predators like wolves, but also for human hunters as well for many thousands of years. During this time, wolves and humans had been competitors for the same prey. We don't know much about how they got along.

There is reason to believe that there was mutual respect, and maybe even cooperation between them. Whatever the case, when the humans figured out how to domesticate herds of animals, there would be a big incentive for wolves to cooperate with people because of all that food. The humans would also have a big incentive to cooperate with the wolves because they could help with the two major problems. They could help keep other predators away from the flocks, and they could help keep them in a group by rounding up the strays.

That's roughly the way it worked out. You can still find sheep dogs and barnyard cats doing the same jobs today.

So, yes, cats and dogs developed into our most favored pets as a result of the meat vs. potatoes split in our food supply strategies.

Now let's look at each of these strategies in turn and draw some inferences.


Let's ask the question 'What is required in order to grow plants for food?' You need dirt, water, sunlight, protection, elbowgrease, cooperation, and patience.

Dirt, water, and sunlight conditions are best near the coast lines where the river deltas provide the dirt and water. The sunlight conditions are probably best in latitudes between 20 and 45 degrees north or south. Or if you like, you could include the equatorial strip in the middle. I don't think it makes much difference.

Looking at our globe again, we see that the obvious places to find those conditions are along the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the South China Sea. These form a nice line or corridor across the lower part of Eurasia. Except for the Mediterranean, Africa doesn't have much coastline in those latitudes. The Americas don't count because people hadn't gotten there yet, and Australia I don't know about. Indonesia has a lot of coast, but it is probably too hot and full of jungles to be very good farm land.

So the obvious places for farming to develop would be places like the Nile delta, along the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus delta, and the rivers flowing to the coast of China. And, sure enough, that's where farming started.

Next is protection. The protection farmers needed wasn't a whole lot different to start with than the protection they needed before they started farming, with the exception I already mentioned of the protection against rats. Protection plays a bigger role later on. We will get to that.

The next requirement is elbowgrease. Somebody has to do a lot of work to get food by growing your own plants. You have to plant it, water it, weed it, harvest it, store it, distribute it, grind it up, and cook it. You don't find a lot of people willing to do all this work, so in order to make it work, you have to get someone to do it against their will or at least against their inclinations.

Different strategies work to get people to do this work. One is to use force to get slaves to do it. Another is to use logic to persuade people that it would be beneficial to do it. Another would be to use the fear of God to get them to do it.

If all of these strategies are used in a mix, you get pretty much what the history of those regions was for the first thousand years or so.

Since a lot of people had to be involved in the process of producing bread from seeds and dirt, they needed to live close together so villages, and later cities, grew up to accommodate them.

Since it took a long time between planting and harvest, both cooperation and patience was required. This meant that a fairly elaborate organization had to be developed to control who did what, who owned what, who was entitled to what, and who was in charge of making decisions about what to do. It also meant that information had to be recorded somehow so you could refer to it later, or so someone else beside the originator of the information could look at it. In short, civic and/or religious organization and writing were almost a necessity for a successful farming community.

From the high level that we are looking at history, you can derive almost all of the characteristics of early civilization from the principles we have talked about.

Now for the ranchers.


Again, let's start by asking, 'What is required in order to raise animals for food?" Well, you need the animals, grass (assuming they are grazing animals), water, and protection, and a means of confining the animals. Early humans obviously learned how to breed strains of docile animals that were suitable domesticated herd animals. The grass grew wild in huge tracts. Water was available in rivers and lakes in or near the grasslands. Protection from predators was achieved by spears, bows and arrows, fire, and, after a time, the help of dogs as we have already noted. Protection from the weather was provided primarily by the hides of the animals both for clothing and for shelter. Confinement was achieved not only by the help of dogs, but also by the domestication of the horse. This would have been a natural by-product of the ability to breed and domesticate the herd animals. Horses could be used as a food and hide source, but they were also used for transportation. By riding a horse, the ranchers had an effective means of ranging as far as their herds in order to keep them confined, but also a more effective way of fighting off threatening predators.

Thus the ranching strategy naturally evolved all across the vast steppes and grasslands of Eurasia. And that strategy naturally produced individuals which were adept at riding horses and in using weapons like the bow and spear. Since the ranchers were compelled to move frequently in order to find greener pastures, there was no benefit in building permanent structures. Instead, they traveled light, bringing their tents and other belongings with them. The nomadic life was the natural outcome of the ranching method of providing food and shelter.

There was not much division of labor required for ranching. Each individual man did about the same job and required the same skills. Women, of course, had to bear the children, so their role obviously differed from that of the men. But the men naturally developed into mounted fighters, in addition to having other skills such as milking, butchering, tanning, cheese-making, etc.


As I indicated earlier, the basic theme of this view of history is the juxtaposition of the farmers and ranchers. So let's summarize the situation as it naturally evolved as these two separate strategies were pursued.

In general, you had the farming communities with their cities, large populations, division of labor, complex hierarchical organizations of power, complex technology, accumulation of wealth, and writing. These communities were located around the four major centers of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, India, and China because that is where the good farmland happens to be.

On the other hand, you had the ranchers who populated the vast grasslands generally to the north of the farming settlements all the way across Eurasia. They were nomads living in small mobile groups normally tending their herds. But they were also a community of mounted fighters.

From this general description of the situation, it is easy to predict that if a group of nomads came in contact with a civilization, that is if the ranchers came across the farmers, the ranchers would be tempted by the wealth of the city. And, having horses, which were much more scarce in the farming community, and generally being better fighters than the cultivators, bakers, administrators, and other members of the civilized society, the ranchers could pretty much take what they wanted by force.

As a result, the cities, with their wealth, technology, and organization, were vulnerable to "barbarian" raids. In defense, they would erect walls around their cities intended to keep the ranchers out. This can be seen to have happened. Virtually all early cities were walled against intruders.

If it came to a fight, the cities could pretty well protect themselves, but they could not pursue and destroy the invading nomads. The nomads, on the other hand couldn't take a walled and defended city without organizing large numbers of other nomads to help, and this kind of organization was not naturally found among the nomads. So for the most part, history was a pattern of standoff, with the nomads always lurking and threatening from the north, and the cities taking refuge within their walls going about the business of running their farms and accumulating their wealth and power.

In fact, this pattern held sway from the very beginnings of agriculture, both farming and ranching, until the 15th century CE.

Now, to continue our approach of deriving history from the four principles I outlined at the beginning, we are nearing an end. What we have derived so far is this pattern of four major civilizations spread across Eurasia with nomads always threatening and sometimes interfering with the success of the civilizations. What actually happened depended in large part on the success, or not, of particular incursions of the nomads against the civilizations. And these successes and failures depended on the particular key individuals like Attila the Hun, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane, etc. So at the high level of our analysis, we can only predict that the four major civilizations would rise and fall more or less periodically with respect to each other (I imagine the image of the four pistons in a motor rising and falling as a result of the turning crankshaft.) as the nomads decide to invade and disrupt the civilization in an unpredictable sequence. I think a look at the actual history of the world during that period shows that pattern and identifies the particular nomads who actually determined the course of history.

As William McNiell explained in his wonderful book "The Rise of the West", the nomads pretty much determined the course of history by their actions up until about the 13th century. When the Indians developed the heavy draft horse which was strong enough to carry armor and an armed rider, the cities could finally decisively defend themselves against nomadic attacks. They still couldn't pursue and defeat the nomads, but at least they could stop them. Just a few armed warriors could drive off a much larger force of nomads simply by exchanging arrow shots. The advantage of the armor outweighed the superior numbers and horsemanship of the nomads.

This development slowly spread west at about one mile per year so that by the 15th century it was established in Europe. These armed mounted warriors were the knights which are so familiar to us. So, by the 15th century, the nomads ceased being the determinants of history on the large scale.

At about the same time, the Chinese invention of gunpowder was put to use in firearms which were then used by the farmers to systematically pursue and finally subdue all further threats from the ranchers. The course of history from then on was determined by other factors, although the "Range Wars" between farmers and ranchers left vestiges that reached into fairly recent times.


The period of history from the 15th century to the present is identified by McNeill as "The Rise of the West". In order to derive the history of this period from basic principles, we need some additional principles. The derivation based on the four principles we have used so far carry us only up to this dividing point, and as we saw, it left out considerable detail of what went on earlier.

Now let me introduce two additional principles which not only help explain in general what has happened since the 15th century, but also help explain many details of the previous twenty centuries.

D. The harnessing of additional sources of energy, in addition to the nourishment of themselves and their animals, increases the survivability and the happiness of the human species.

E. Freedom of both thought and action enables humans to achieve greater happiness and survival success.

We can apply Principle D to the entire span of human history and pre-history back to the time of Prometheus. When humans began using fire, they harnessed the energy available in the fuel and put it to use which no doubt helped improve survivability and happiness.

With more and happier people, the likelihood of discovering additional ways of harnessing energy increases. This is a positive feedback loop, so we would expect that the measure of energy used per person would follow a characteristic exponential curve over the course of history and pre-history. Looking back over all those years, that is exactly what we see. We see a painfully slow increase in the development of energy use for the first several millennia after fire was harnessed, and we see a constantly increasing rate of human energy consumption that continues to this day.

By considering what natural sources of energy are latent in the environment, and the technology required to harness it, it wouldn't be too hard to put a case together that would explain the actual historical pattern of energy use as well as the concomitant technological innovations. Predictions such as the medieval deforestation of Europe, the modern deforestation of South America and Siberia, the use of coal and the resulting Industrial Revolution, the demise of slavery as human muscle power becomes non-competitive, the harnessing of nuclear energy with its positive and negative consequences, would all seem to be fairly straightforward.

The major consequence of Principle E is a result of the societies that originated and developed the concept. And those are the Western Civilizations beginning with the Greeks and carried more or less continuously to the intervening western cultures to the free and democratic societies around the world today. Furthermore, we can see through a process of intellectual momentum, that the notion of free and democratic societies is destined to encompass the entire world. The societies that are so vigorously defending against the change, will, in my humble opinion, all finally embrace freedom and democracy in this, the 21st century.


Given the geography and climate of the Earth, and given the emergence of human intellectual capability some tens of millennia ago, we can roughly predict the course of history by using our five principles. This encompasses the gradual development of hunting and gathering techniques, harnessing fire, domestication of plants and animals, the rise of agriculture and the dichotomy of farmers and ranchers (civilizations and barbarians), the quasi-periodic rise and fall of the four major civilizations in response to barbarian incursions, the harnessing of chemical energy in gunpowder, the victory of civilizations over barbarians, the rise of the west as a result of individual freedom to explore, invent, and conquer, and the exponential rise in the harnessing of energy leading to our complex modern world. Details of names, places, and events can be added to this rough sketch to more-or-less correctly describe the actual history of humans.

Please send me an email with your comments.

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