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5 big questions in global history

Professor Odd Arne Westad introduces five major themes in humanity's wider story that strongly divide academic opinion

Antique double-hemisphere map of the world, complete with landscapes and mythological scenes. (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Published: October 1, 2012 at 12:00 am
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What do we mean when we say ‘global history’ – or indeed ‘world history’, ‘transnational history’ or ‘international history’? These are surprisingly tricky terms to pin down.

Here’s what historians do agree upon: we are dealing with issues that are bigger than those contained within one state or one nation. In most cases, we’re also talking about issues that have participants from different societies.
To be more specific, global history has come to mean an emphasis on comparative aspects of human activities in the broadest sense. World history is often about histories that take a particular view as to what connects humankind over time. Transnational history is about how ideas, money and people travel, and about how communities are constituted outside the frameworks of empire, state or nation. International history centres on relations among communities, peoples and states.
These are vague and contested definitions. But it is at least helpful to know a little about where we’re starting from in these debates…

Why have Homo sapiens proved so overwhelmingly successful?

The story of humankind is at root the tale of clever apes spreading across the globe. We know that the first humans of our own species, Homo sapiens or anatomically modern humans, walked out of their African homeland around 65,000 years ago. What we know less about is what happened to them during the first few millennia of their odyssey. The speed with which they spread is astonishing. Within less than 20,000 years they had reached Australia, which they began to explore at around the same time as they spread to most of Europe.
What accounts for our massive and almost instant success as a species? Our capacity to learn and to adapt is, of course, at the bottom of this. But the size of our brains, historians agree, is not enough in itself to explain what happened. Diet most certainly played a role. The first humans chanced upon the protein-rich foods of the coastal zone, and it’s quite likely that their colonisation of the world was linked to their dietary needs (or preferences). This explains why they followed the coasts everywhere and why it took a long time before they began to penetrate the interiors.
Life on the beach certainly pushed humans in the direction of life on the water, not just along its edges. Within a hundred generations or so of them first venturing outside Africa, simple boats had made their appearance, although historians disagree over how far the first humans could travel by water. It is likely that our forebears’ maritime skills developed incrementally, but that this knowledge spread fast. Our ancestors could communicate through language, and it is quite possible that the idea of a boat may have been familiar to people who had never even seen one.
Some historians claim that even in our early history similar tools appear in different population groups, with the knowledge of how to build these tools spread via word of mouth rather than through hard-and-fast experience.
But could all humans communicate? We do not know when language differentiation appeared (‘very early’ is most people’s guess), although we know a bit about how languages developed. It’s a subject complicated by the fact that our immediate ancestors were not the only humans around in the new territories they colonised. In Eurasia, at least one of our genetic cousins was already resident. Recent advances in human DNA research have deeply influenced our view of – and our debates about – early humanity. We know that Homo sapiens and humans of what we broadly call Neanderthal groups interbred – up to four per cent of our own DNA is of Neanderthal origin. But was such intermingling also common with other groups, whose identity we still cannot trace for certain?
It will take a bit of time before we can determine where and with what results different groups of humans interbred after our ancestors left Africa. This is one of the most exciting fields of prehistorical research and one that is going to have great consequences for our understanding of humans living today.
After the Neanderthal genome was mapped a couple of years ago, it became clear that some of the most important disease-fighting genes humans now carry originated from outside our own sub-species. Some researchers think the very fact that we could interbreed with other human groups contributed massively to the peopling of the Earth, because it provided ‘hybrid vigour’ to help us become ubiquitous on all continents save Antarctica.

Why did we swap hunter-gathering for farms and villages?

The first humans were all hunters and gatherers. There is no doubt that our steadily increasing abilities to hunt large animals – based on our tool-making and communication skills – contributed significantly to the increase in our intake of nutrients. We therefore became bigger and this also enabled our brains to develop to their full potential. We probably became healthier too, because we had a more regular intake of food. But did the next step in human food production, agriculture, which started about 10,000 years ago, also lead to improvements in human health?
Agriculture has been seen by historians in the past as possibly the biggest breakthrough ever for humankind. In terms of civilisation, this is undoubtedly true. In order to sustain agricultural gains, a large number of people had to congregate in villages. They co-operated and innovated. Out of this process arose states and empires.
However, historians have recently found that a move to agriculture did not necessarily improve human health. On the contrary, the first villages or towns, like our cities today, were not very healthy places. Hunter-gatherers were, in many areas, likely to have longer and healthier lives than farmers.
This raises two big questions. The first is, of course, why on Earth did people embrace agriculture if it didn’t improve their chances of survival? The answers here vary. Some historians stress the push factor: lords and nobles forced the farming population together by using authority and force. And life in the wild was, after all, a pretty brutal kind of existence. Another group could easily attack you and take your food stores. Villages offered protection, even if safety often came at the price of subservience.
Others stress the pull factors: villages provided the opportunity to acquire goods that a hunting band could not make for themselves. Villages also maximised resources. Grain stores – as the story of Moses tells us – could help large groups of people pull through lean times. But recent research shows that, just as nomads led healthier lives than settled peoples, for a long time hunters got the better of bartering exchanges with farmers because they got more calories in return for their meat than they provided.
So how did settled societies manage to overcome this health deficiency over time? This has a lot to do with our ever-increasing resistance to epidemics. Like those of other animals, the human immune system is adaptive, it ‘learns’ a lot about illnesses that have been around for a while and this increases our chances of survival.
Ironically, human cohabitation in large units therefore, over time, strengthens our immune responses. Sustained levels of nutrition, even in hard times, also helps protect against illness. And perhaps most important of all, increasingly these groups of villages did not live in isolation. Instead, they became part of networks that eventually would come to cover much of the Eurasian continent.

What drove the great migrations of the first millennium AD?

We all ‘know’ that the Roman empire collapsed because of ‘barbarian’ invasions. Those with an interest in matters outside Europe also know that the Han empire in China collapsed around the same time for the same reasons. What historians are debating today is what caused these massive migrations, which centre on the years AD 400–800. We also don’t know why theses exoduses lasted so long, or why some groups settled (often in places that seem incongruous based on their origins) and others went on almost to the other end of the Eurasian landmass. What drove people to act as they did?
Some historians emphasise fear. Changes in climate or epidemics may have made aggressive neighbours more powerful and forced tribes out of their native lands. When fleeing, these tribes in turn came across others less skilled in war – or maybe simply unaccustomed to the kind of warfare they were facing. These groups could then be robbed and plundered, and in some cases subjugated to form new states. The Huns, who hit Europe and the Middle East in the late third century, were probably driven west. But having previously lost the contest for resources in their native central Asia (somewhere around where the western part of Mongolia is now), they were victims no more. Attila, their chief, became one of the greatest (and most brutal) conquerors the world has seen.
Other historians talk about the push of groups coming out of central Eurasia (roughly the area between Mongolia and the Caspian Sea), which forced other nations east, west and south. This may explain the Germanic invasions of western and southern Europe. Forced from their homelands in the east, the Germanic peoples invaded other territory occupied by peoples who seemed weaker – or at least a less fearsome alternative to those pushing from the east. It was as if there was a great central Eurasian conveyor belt of peoples sending different groups off east towards China, west towards the Roman empire and south towards India. These invaders in turn pushed other peoples ahead of them, which then – in some cases – broke into established empires for protection.
The Völkerwanderung, as the Germans call it, or the great migration of the peoples, made some groups fetch up in the strangest of places, as modern DNA research reveals. Persian-speaking Alans ended up in what is today north-eastern France and Belgium – their genes are still left in the population, although their language has disappeared. Germanic Vandals went to north Africa, where they constructed an empire; the local Berbers still carry a very high percentage of their genetic composition. For a while migration became the done thing – even peoples who had been settled for a very long time got the taste for it, as opportunities opened up.
The ‘conveyor-belt’ idea isn’t universally accepted. Another group of historians argue that the weakness of empires created the migration period, rather than events working the other way around. People began breaking into the rich lands of the east, west and south because they could, because the empires that held these lands had become too weak to defend their territories. In this reading, a combination of climate change, epidemics and shifts in military power caused imperial instability. This decline of empires in turn created unwanted immigration. Power protects. Weakness invites others in.
Looking at the great migrations after the Völkerwanderung does pose a few questions about both of these general explanations. What, for example, did non-material factors, such as culture and religion, have to do with what happened?
If we look at the creation of the Muslim empires, or – before them – of the Turk expansion of the fifth to the eighth centuries, it seems that material factors may have been less important than a religion that inflamed the minds of men or a culture that seemed trendy and inclusive. Muhammad’s armies swept everything before them not because of their military innovations, but because their commanders knew they were right. And for a brief moment many young people in a vast area – from Manchuria to Anatolia – wanted to be Turks.

Why did the Chinese stay at home?

Why did China, when it was the most powerful country in the world, not expand? Why did Europeans, in another great migration, populate three continents, while the Chinese mostly declined to travel?
One key line of discussion on this question concerns technology in comparative terms, and we will return to this in box 5. However, it’s a discussion that needs to be seen in conjunction with controversy over interpretations of Chinese history – controversy focused on the Song dynasty, when China was at the peak of its power in terms of culture and administration. Later Chinese dynasties were more militarily powerful (the Ming and the Qing) but it was the Song, many historians now claim, that set China on the path to prefer domestic finesse over limitless conquest.
In all of China’s long history, there is something special about the Song dynasty, which ruled, in one form or another, from AD 960 to 1279. It came to power after a long series of destructive civil wars. The main aim of its leaders was to postulate and construct a comprehensive set of ideas around which society should evolve. The Song reformers wanted a reinvigorated economy, an integrated government and well-defined laws based on obligations and responsibilities. Most importantly, they managed to put many of their ideas into practice.
One thing that really stands out when looking at the era is Song technological innovation – gunpowder, movable type and the sternpost can all be traced to the Song period. Uniquely for the pre-modern world, economic growth in China seems for a long period to have outstripped demographic trends.
One change making this possible was certainly the discovery and adoption of a rice variety that permitted two crops a year. But China was also producing nearly as much iron as the whole of Europe six centuries later. Textile production too underwent dramatic development, and it is possible to speak of Song ‘industrialisation’ as a recognisable phenomenon.
But Song China did not have a missionary zeal to drive it towards militarisation and world conquest. Its focus was on growth at home and – first and foremost – on developing Confucian ideals as to how society should be organised and on how civilised people should live their lives. It preferred peace deals to conquest. Historians still debate how important these ideals were for what Song China actually did. Was the lack of expansion based on a Confucian emphasis on moderation and restraint, and therefore deliberate? Or was it the by-product of a love of luxury and a not insignificant portion of sloth, and therefore (at least in some ways) accidental?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Song empire fell to its more aggressive northern neighbours. In fact, it fell twice, because the northern part was conquered by the Jin in 1127 and the southern rump by the Mongols 150 years later. But the dynasty bequeathed to its successors a Confucian ideology, which would remain largely intact until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century. Is it possible that the culture and the ideals the Song created prevented China’s expansion even in those later dynasties when such immoderation would have been militarily plausible?

Why did Europe dominate the world from the 18th to 20th centuries?

In contrast to China, many European states expanded globally. But why precisely have states of European origin largely dominated the world since (at least) 1700? There are plentiful explanations for this, all of them contested. The historian Niall Ferguson sets out what he calls the west’s six ‘killer apps’: competition, science, property, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. But it is hard to see how these – even in combination – should propel the kind of extraordinary expansion that created the global European empires.
One key issue here is religion. Together with Islam, Christianity has a missionary zeal at its core, the kind of zeal that historically has often pushed ideologies of conquest. Gaining territory overseas was not just about material advantage, it was about winning souls for Christ. This provided a justification for expansionist foreign policies and imperial ambitions. Unlike China, European states in the early modern era became skilled at warfare through inter-state competition. But as China shows, a motive was needed that went beyond skills and weapons. Christianity supplied such a motive in abundance.
But even if religion and bellicosity spread trouble-making Europeans around the globe by the 18th century, the era of total European predominance still lay in the future. Here, the view that European science, medicine, consumerism and attitudes to work somehow predestined global dominance does not hold up to scrutiny. The Chinese economy, on its terms, was doing at least as well as the European in the early 18th century. But then something happened. Between 1750 and 1850, parts of Europe went through cataclysmic change, which made states of European origin able to impose the first global order, an order that has lasted up until our own time.
Again, what happened? Some historians, such as Kenneth Pomeranz and Bin Wong, have tried a comparative approach between China and Europe, which emphasises the unique advantages the most advanced European states gained from the middle of the 18th century onwards. One key factor seems to have been cheap energy in the form of coal. Another was access to plentiful resources from the Americas. Both these factors favoured new technologies over old and spurred the expansion of integrated capitalist markets. An age of political ferment and massive inter-state wars may also have led to the main European countries, Britain and France, looking outwards rather than inwards.
It was, in other words, not decline and fall elsewhere that made Europe’s global expansion possible. The stress, at least in historians’ debates at the moment, is on parts of Europe being an exception to what had gone before. In this context, Ferguson is right about Europe’s strengths, but these were also available elsewhere, albeit in slightly different forms. By themselves – even in combination with religious zealotry – such strengths cannot explain how the European world system came into being. Something truly exceptional in other fields (such as an energy revolution and access to virgin lands, such as the Americas) had to happen for these advantages to develop as they did.
Our debates about the rise of Europe must also be influenced by how relatively brief the European age turned out to be. By the late 19th century, non-European peoples had acquired much of Europe’s military technology and were gradually learning how to use it. By the late 20th century, even the most powerful European offshoot, the USA, was feeling the pressure of an Asian resurgence. If the debate on the causes for the rise of the west teaches us anything, it is that in history even the most exceptional advantage tends to be transient, transformable and transitional.
Odd Arne Westad is professor of international history at LSE. He is the author of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (Bodley Head, 2012).

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