The moon landing isn't the only "giant leap for mankind" that can be celebrated. From meat-eating to microscopic discoveries, historians select their great moments of human progress…


Carnivorism – probably Africa, c2.5 million years ago

I don’t believe in human progress but if you held a pistol to my head and said I had to come up with something of evolutionary advantage to humans, I would say that among other primates the relatively early carnivorism of our hominid ancestors was of enormous importance.

If you are carnivorous it gives you access to fats and proteins that are not available in such concentrated form in non-meat food sources. Not only that but although the first hominid carnivores were almost certainly scavengers, in the very long run meat-eating launched them on the trajectory that led to hunting.

Hunting stimulates the faculties of anticipation because you need to have the ability to see what isn’t there, to see what’s behind the next tree or over the next hill. I believe that an accidental by-product of this faculty of anticipation is humanity’s super endowment of the imagination. It is our imagination that has given humans the capacity to change with greater rapidity than other species and the ability to form a really astonishing range of cultures. The features of the human past which are different from those of the past of other animals are traceable to our imagination, which is traceable to anticipation and in an indirect way you can trace it all back to carnivorism.

Nowadays there is a very broad consensus that carnivorism began about 2.5 million years ago. We don’t know why it happened but I’d postulate that it was an evolutionary consequence of our lack of other advantages compared with rival species.

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Actually we are pretty poorly designed animals because we’re slow, lack agility, have only one stomach, weak fangs and don’t have tails. We’re behind in almost everything and that’s why we need more plentiful abundance of anticipation than other creatures similar to ourselves.

Chosen by Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of Notre Dame

The advent of politics – Greece, seventh century BC

I understand ‘politics’ in the very strict sense, that’s to say taking it from the Greek word polis meaning ‘city’, ‘city-state’ or (best of all) ‘citizen-state’. The ancient Greeks invented the idea of the citizen and also the idea of citizens coming together on the basis of some sort of political equality to take decisions about matters of communal concern.

We don’t know much about who the early politicians were, but we do know that for example in the little city of Dreros on Crete there was a public assembly passing communally binding decisions in 600 BC, so politics must have been flourishing already.

Without the invention of this citizen state and the politics and procedure it entailed, democracy would be unthinkable. We do our politics very differently today, more in a Roman way, but nevertheless the very idea of the ‘political’ – people coming together and taking decisions, not by divine right but because they are citizens – goes back to the ancient Greeks.

Chosen by Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge

Democracy – Greece, 507 BC

Democracy was invented in 507 BC by an Athenian called Cleisthenes. Over the course of the next 100 years in Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world it developed into a full-blown radical system where all male citizens over 18 took all decisions about the running of their own state.

The consequence was that there was no such thing as politicians. Even a great Athenian political figure like Pericles had no authority over the people’s assembly. All he could do was try to persuade them that his view of things was right but if they didn’t like it then they could reject it.

Athenian democracy has been heavily debated but I think that it was remarkably successful. It ran for 180 years until it was destroyed by the Macedonians in 323 BC and while the charge has been made that it was like mob rule, the Athenians strike me as having been admirably governed. I believe the people were perfectly capable of taking sensible decisions. To give one example they could, being the people who made all the decisions, have voted themselves bags of gold and pensions for life – but they never did.

Modern ‘democracy’ can be traced back to Athens, yet what we live in today is actually an elective oligarchy where we choose 650 MPs to make decisions on our behalf. There is nothing wrong with elective oligarchy per se but I wish that it were not called democracy because it seems to me that the Athenian experiment was so remarkable, powerful and appealing compared to the feeble version we have today. Evidence: the handling of the MPs’ recent expenses scandal.

Chosen by Dr Peter Jones, formerly of Newcastle University

Ptolemy's the Geography – Roman Empire, c150 AD

In around AD 150, Ptolemy was working in the library of Alexandria, then one of the greatest repositories of Greek learning. He wrote the Geography, which defined the discipline of geography and laid down the principles of global mapping.

There were no maps in the book but what the Geography offered was a geographical description of the world and an explanation of how maps could be drawn. It allowed scholars to map the world for the first time in history.

Interestingly the text wasn’t really taken up initially. This was in the late Hellenistic, early Christian moment and Christianity had no interest in the rather abstract geometrical mathematical notion of how you plot the world on a map. It was the Arabs who kept Ptolemy going in places like Baghdad until it reappeared in Italy in the 14th century. Renaissance geographers produced new editions of the Geography and employed Ptolemy’s principles to try to map the expanding world. It was also used by the likes of Christopher Columbus and some of the Portuguese explorers who were sailing east, such as Vasco da Gama.

Ptolemy is known as the father of geography and for 1,500 years everything pivoted around him. Even the modern map is based on the kind of projections that Ptolemy offered. In a way Ptolemy was a kind of classical Google. Google gives you the tools to map as you want – whether to see your own home, or Washington DC, or Korea. Well in a sense that is what Ptolemy did. He didn’t proscribe what geography is but said here are the tools to understand your place in the world, and that for me is why he is so enduring.

Chosen by Professor Jerry Brotton, Queen Mary, University of London

Alexander of Villedieu's Doctrinale – France, 1199

Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the early modern period, literacy was inextricably associated with Latin. However, until the end of the 12th century, the methods of teaching Latin were extremely long and drawn out, based on a system whereby pupils read and memorised Latin texts for years. It was a scheme that was largely suitable to the clerical elite.

Then along came Alexander of Villedieu, a French grammarian and teacher who was private tutor to the nephews of a bishop in northern France. He devised a fast-track method to teach Latin using simple rules and written in verse so that his pupils could memorise it more easily. When the bishop asked his nephews how they were doing in their learning of Latin, they quoted back a few verses given to them by their teacher. The bishop thought it was such a good idea that he encouraged Alexander to write a whole grammar.

That book was Doctrinale, which became one of the great medieval bestsellers. Its influence and use spread throughout Europe and, on the basis of such simplified methods for teaching Latin, a great movement of mass literacy began. This new type of education was much more rapid and better suited to the aspirations, intentions and professional needs of the laity. Doctrinale therefore marked the first major step in the move towards a wide-ranging and extended secular lay education.

Chosen by Professor Robert D Black, University of Leeds

Magna Carta – England, 1215

Magna Carta was a turning point in British and world history because it was the first time a ruler was subject formally to the law. It became a great barrier against arbitrary rule and arbitrary kingship and it is that fundamental principle that resonates down the ages.

Parts of the Magna Carta
Parts of the Magna Carta remain on the United Kingdom's Statute book to this day. (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Magna Carta seemed very important in the 17th-century struggle of the parliament against Charles; it seemed equally important to the founders of the American constitution, and of course it still reverberates today.

The background to the charter was a society that was becoming more cohesive, with a greater sense of community. There were political ideas about rulers who should be subject to law and govern for the benefit of their society not just themselves. These came up against a very intrusive form of kingship, which extracted huge amounts of money from England on the one hand but gave little in the way of peace and justice on the other.

King John was the final straw. He spent many years and large sums trying to regain Normandy after it was lost in 1204 – and once he failed to do so in 1214, with his treasure spent, he was a sitting duck. He was also a murderer and a lecherous womaniser who evoked fear and loathing on a very personal level. There was a huge degree of animosity against him, which doesn’t explain the broader grievances but helps to explain why it all came to a head with the rebellion in 1215.

You can see how important Magna Carta was by the fact that when John tried to renege on the deal in the immediate aftermath there was a great civil war. The only way the minority government of John’s son felt they could win this war and secure the peace after he died in 1216 was by reissuing the charter. Throughout the 13th century the charter was constantly cited and referred to. It became then what it has always remained: a touchstone of just and lawful rule.

Chosen by Professor David Carpenter, King's College, London

Galileo explores the heavens with his telescope – Italy, 1609

When Galileo became the first person to turn a telescope to the skies, it changed our view of the universe. He discovered new facts about the Sun, Moon and planets, which were totally incompatible with the old theory that the sky above Earth was unchanging and perfect. Instead they strongly supported the rival and newer heliocentric theory of Copernicus.

Painting by Gatti of Galileo Galilei at a Florentine Court. Galileo lectures as a young man peers into a telescope and others watch in a darkened room. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A painting depicting Galileo, who lectures as a young man peers into a telescope. He "changed our view of the universe", says Professor Colin Russell. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Galileo’s telescope stimulated him to write his contentious book Two World Systems (1630), which more than anything else helped to establish Copernicanism. It also led to his trial and impeachment before the Roman Catholic church. The old system Galileo discredited had been almost unthinkingly adopted by the church and built into their picture of the universe. It fitted nicely with biblical data, so for hundreds of years it remained the accepted view. However scripture (unless interpreted woodenly) can also be compatible with Copernicanism. Galileo recognised this in a letter he wrote in 1615. But a scientific proof of Copernicanism had to wait till 1838!

At the trial Galileo was found guilty and it wasn’t until the 20th century that the Vatican finally came to agree with him.

Chosen by Professor Colin Russell, The Open University

William Harvey reveals the circulation of the blood – England, 1628

The circulation of the blood might sound like something we all accept but, in fact, it wasn’t discovered until 1628. Before that it was believed that blood came from food in your liver, then entered the heart where it was heated before it shot out into the veins, not the arteries. This is why Shakespeare and people like that talk about the blood “coursing through their veins” instead of their arteries.

William Harvey was the physician to James I. Through a meticulous study of what you might call the plumbing of the chest he came to the conclusion that the heart didn’t heat the blood, it pumped it into the arteries. He knew from Fabricius that the veins had stepladder valves in them, which Harvey realised helped the blood get back to the heart, completing the circuit. Harvey was working before the microscope and didn’t know how the blood got from the arteries to the veins but he made a very bold guess that this was done by tiny vessels so small he couldn’t see them. He was perfectly right of course and we call them capillaries.

An engraving from Harvey's seminal work showing blood flowing through the veins of the lower arm. (SSPL/Getty Images)
An engraving from Harvey's seminal work showing blood flowing through the veins of the lower arm. (SSPL/Getty Images)

It was a discovery of colossal importance. There have been numerous advances since but I’d suggest that circulation was so crucial because without it the others wouldn’t have emerged. You couldn’t undertake modern surgery or give an injection without circulation and can you imagine any modern medical discovery without the knowledge of the blood pumping from the heart?

Harvey’s theory was published in 1628 in a book called On the Motion of the Heart and Blood and you might think that he would have been inundated with patients afterwards. Yet it almost ruined his career as a doctor. In those days doctors were very conservative and wouldn’t make innovations – this was associated with quacks. Good doctors, it was thought, dispensed medicine and diagnosed purely in accordance with the way the ancients had taught.

So curiously enough, the greatest medical discovery of all time caused a considerable amount of financial distress to its discoverer!

Chosen by Dr Allan Chapman, University of Oxford

The founding of the Royal Society – England, 1660

When King Charles II was restored to power, a group of men who had been working in Oxford came back to London and decided to set up a society for carrying out experimental research. It was the first national scientific society to be created anywhere in Europe.

Although it was rather like a gentlemen’s club, it did allow people to come together specifically to carry out experiments, do research, disseminate new theories and collect data. Within a few years there was a similar society in Paris, and soon they started proliferating all over Europe.

Organisations dedicated to scientific research are very important and I think historians
should write more about how science is enabled, not just the great achievements. Too much history of science has been about heroes such as Newton and Darwin, and not enough about institutions. For me, the big overriding question is how science has become so integral to today’s society: I believe the Royal Society was the institutional foundation that made modern science possible.

Chosen by Dr Patricia Fara, University of Cambridge

The discovery of the very small – Europe, 17th century

It is such a fundamental, taken-for-granted notion of modern science that we explain the properties of things by going beneath the superficial appearance to the micro-world. But like anything we take for granted, it was made in history.

The microscope was known from the earliest decades of the 17th century. At first it was just a toy that you could go and buy at a fair. It didn’t tell you anything about the natural world because although you could look at little things, nobody who was interested in explaining the world was yet saying that everything depended on them. Still, the microscope was the technology that made people believe there was a route to the very small. It was no longer just a matter of speculation. You could engage with it empirically.

A new mode of explanation that assumed an underlying micro-reality began later in the century and one of its principal exponents was Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia (1665). He articulated very clearly that the micro-world is a bit like a clock with lots of springs and wheels. Just like we can open up a clock, Hooke said we could open up the actual world to see how it works, and the tool for doing so was going to be increasingly powerful microscopes. A lot more had to happen before we got to where we are now in our beliefs about explaining the macro with the micro but I think it all started in the 17th century.

Chosen by Dr Jim Bennett, director of the Museum of the History of Science

The development of the steam engine – Britain, 18th century

Unlike the atom bomb, for example, there was no single invention with the steam engine. First you had the stationary steam engine where the most important person was Thomas Newcomen. Then James Watt improved its efficiency and its capacity to generate power. Later on, the stationary steam engine was transformed into the locomotive with George Stephenson.

What the steam engine enabled people to do was transform themselves beyond the existing constraints of energy use, meaning that human society could develop in all sorts of ways. Now we know that the long-term environmental consequences of industrialisation were detrimental but on the other hand life would have been totally different if we had remained shackled by the manufacturing, energy, and communication systems before the steam engine.

The long-term implications of steam power were everything we understand by modernity. It gave us the ability to speed up existence and overcome the constraints under which all other animal species operated. For much of human history we were not radically different in organisational terms from other animals, which have language, the capacity for acting as a group and systems of hierarchy. For much of human history that was how we were but we moved to a very different tune when we had everything that is understood by modernity. It was the steam engine that set that in motion.

Chosen by Professor Jeremy Black, University of Exeter

The Montagu-Chelmsford Report – British Empire, 1918

After the First World War there was a feeling in Britain that something should be done to recompense India for its war effort. At the same time there was growing political organisation and agitation in the country and the business of government had grown so much that the colonial authorities needed to involve more Indians in it.

These were the origins of a report written by Lord Chelmsford, viceroy of India and Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India. The report said the British should take definite steps towards giving Indians self-government. This was the first formal admission, at least by the British, that non-European people could rule themselves under a modern system of government. All subsequent discussions were not about whether India should have self-government but when India should have self-government.

Most British thought it would be sometime in the next 100 years. They didn’t imagine it could happen in 1947 but once you had got on that particular bandwagon it was hard to get off. Indians did not think enough was being offered, or that the offer was sincere; and so they were organising, especially under Gandhi, setting an example for future political movements.

Nothing like this had been done anywhere else in 1918 and no one had really conceded that it could be done. The whole trend of European countries then was to get more colonies. You certainly didn’t give them up. You might give them some rights but no one in authority was saying you should set them up as separate self-governing nations. But that is what the Montagu-Chelmsford report said they were going to do in India.

It was a profound psychological shift. In a sense, all British decolonisation flowed from that moment and from its idea that a new nation-state could be made by non-Europeans, who some people had thought were incapable of self rule. (Indians had, however, shown themselves to be adept at law and politics.)

India was the biggest country under European domination by far, so when it appeared that it was getting self-government everybody else started talking about decolonisation. The report gave strength to the view that empire was illegitimate and that it was possible to transfer power into new nations. The example was eventually taken up by other countries and India itself was a major force on the United Nations decolonisation committee.

Chosen by Professor Peter Robb, School of Oriental and African Studies

Interviews by Rob Attar, editor of BBC History Magazine


This article was first published in the July 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine