The Course of History


By Rochelle Forrester


Ó All Rights Reserved


Publication Date 2006


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The principal paper on this website is that called How change happens: A theory of historical development, social change and cultural evolution. There are also a number of case studies on the website designed to show the ideas in How change happens in some detail. The case studies, dealing with stone tools, fire, agriculture and pastrolism, pottery, metallurgy, writing, glass, astronomy, microscopes and telescopes, printing, the periodic table, organic chemistry, steam power electricity, the electric telegraph, telephone, radio, television, photography, motion pictures, the internal combustion engine, motor car and aeroplanes, cover a number of the most significant events in human history. They show that these events occurred only because of the characteristics of certain materials and matter that exist within the human environment. The development of stone tools was only possible because certain rocks, when hit with another rock, would break in a conchoidal fracture to provide a flake with  a sharp edge. The discovery of how to use fire was only possible because organic materials would ignite and burn when subjected to sufficient heat. The domestication of plants and animals was only possible because a small number of plants and animals had a particular genetic make-up that gave them certain characteristics which made it possible for humans to domesticate them. If no plants and animals had the particular genetic make-up for agriculture and pastrolism, then humans would have forever been hunters and gatherers. The invention of pottery was dependent upon the particular qualities of clay, that it can be molded into a variety of shapes which it will retain when dried. Metallurgy became possible due to the ability to smelt metals from their ores and to melt the metal to make alloys and to allow casting of the metals. Smelting and melting were only possible due to the particular temperatures at which ores would smelt and metals would melt. Writing was only possible due to the ability of humans to give symbolic representation to the things they see and the sounds they make in their spoken languages. Glass could only be made due to the presence of materials such as silica, soda and lime in the human environment and to their particular characteristics that when they were heated and mixed together they produced the solid transparent substance we call glass. Microscopes and telescopes were dependant upon the prior invention of glass and upon the way in which light changes direction as it moves through one medium to another. Different shaped lenses using the law of refraction enable the light to be focused at different points allowing magnification of the object being observed. The steam engine and the internal combustion engine are only possible due to certain characteristics of gases and vacuums. Gases expand when heated and vacuums in a cylinder will cause a piston to move to reduce the size of the vacuum. Aeroplane travel was only possible due to the internal combustion engine (and later the jet engine) and because an appropriately shaped wing will cause the air pressure under the wing to be greater than air pressure above the wing causing wing and aeroplane to rise. Electricity is only possible because certain materials reasonably easily lose electrons to allow an electric current to be created. Electricity generators and electric motors were able to be developed due to the ability to turn motion into electricity, by means of a moving electro-magnet, and the ability to turn electricity into mechanical energy. Photography was possible due to the camera obscura effect and because certain chemicals could make an image permanent. Motion pictures were only possible due to the persistence of vision and the ability to produce photographs with very brief exposure times. What could happen in human social and cultural history is controlled by the structure of nature, the properties of the materials in nature and the laws of the natural sciences. If nature was structured in a different way, or the materials in the natural world had different properties, or the laws of physics, chemistry and biology were different then human social and cultural history would have been different.

The properties and characteristics of the materials in the human environment do not just allow human beings the opportunity to do certain things like making tools, pottery, glass, engines and scientific instruments, they also have a great effect on the course of human history, in that the order in which such discoveries and inventions are made is effected by how easy or how difficult it is for humans to make the inventions or discoveries. It was a lot easier to invent stone tools than metal tools, so inevitably stone tools were invented and used long before metal tools were invented or used. It was a lot easier to use and control fire, than to learn how to make it, so people learnt how to use fire, long before they learnt how to make it. Some discoveries and inventions can not be made without certain prior discoveries or inventions being made. Glass and most pottery and metallurgy required the prior discovery of how to use and control fire. There is a considerable range of inventions and discoveries that either could not or would not have taken place without the development of widespread sedentism which was dependent upon the domestication of plants. Those inventions and discoveries include mathematics, writing, substantial permanent buildings, metallurgy, pottery and glass manufacture. Pottery and substantial permanent buildings could have been made by hunter-gatherers but were not, as it would have been uneconomic for nomadic people. Printing could not have been developed without the prior development of writing and printing with moveable type could not have been developed without the invention of the alphabet as it would not have been economic without an alphabetic writing system. Telescopes and microscopes would not have been possible without the prior discovery of glass making and some knowledge of the law of refraction. Without the microscope we would have no knowledge of micro-organisms and the cause of many diseases. Without the telescope we would probably still believe the sun and planets orbited an unmoving earth. The change from an earth centered universe, the common sense theory for societies with unassisted vision, to a sun centered theory such as the Newtonian system, and then to general relativity was inevitable. This was because the knowledge provided by unassisted vision, naturally lead to an earth centered universe, the knowledge available from 17th to 19th century telescopes and mathematics lead naturally to a sun centered system such as the Newtonian system and better telescopes and new mathematics such as non-Euclidean geometry lead naturally to a theory such as general relativity. The steam engine could not have been invented without prior scientific discoveries concerning the behavior of gases and vacuums. Those discoveries would not have been made without the prior invention of the scientific method and the idea of systematic experimentation. The petrol driven internal combustion engine required the same knowledge of gases and vacuums as the steam engine and also the prior discovery of oil exploration. The internal combustion engine was a necessary prior invention for the invention of the motor car and the aeroplane. The electric motor and the electric generator could not have been invented without the prior discovery of the electro-magnet, which was dependent upon the prior discovery of the voltaic pile, which itself was dependent upon previous scientific investigations of electricity. The history of chemistry reveals many examples of discoveries that could only have been made after certain earlier discoveries had been made. The modern idea of the elements in chemistry could only have been developed after traditional elements such as air and water had been shown to have been composed of other substances. The periodic table could only be discovered after the modern concept of elements had been made and a significant number of elements had been identified. The identification of the elements depended upon prior inventions such as the pneumatic trough, the voltaic pile, potassium analysis and spectroscopy. The development of the periodic table was also dependent upon a means of calculating atomic weights, which was provided by Avogadro’s theory. Photography was dependant upon the prior discovery of the camera obscura and the appropriate chemicals that would allow a picture to be preserved. Motion pictures were dependent upon the persistence of vision and photography with very low exposure times allowing the taking of many photographs per second. The order of discovery concerning the materials in the human environment and of technology that resulted from such discoveries was not haphazard or accidental. The order of discovery followed a logical order and an order that it had to follow. The easier discoveries were made before the harder discoveries; discoveries that were dependent upon prior discoveries being made, were only made after those discoveries; and inventions that were not economic or did not meet human needs were not made until they made economic sense or until a need arose.

The structure and characteristics or properties of the materials in the human environment provide human beings with the opportunity to do certain things, like making stone or metal tools, pottery, glass, or various engines, or domesticating various plants and animals. Whether human beings take advantage of these opportunities depends upon the characteristics of individual human societies. Every human society will contain a wide variety of human personalities, some of them open to new and better ways of doing things. Other human personalities are by nature conservative and are inclined to cling to the established way of doing things. In societies where the conservatives are politically or culturally dominant, new ideas and techniques might be banned or simply not be able to be established in that society. In societies where innovators are politically and culturally dominant new ideas and techniques may well, if they are good enough, be adopted by the society. History provides many examples of conservative and innovative societies. Conservative societies would include Tokugawa Japan (1612-1868), Ming and Manchu China, Ottoman Turkey and 17th and 18th century Spain and Portugal. Innovative societies would include Great Britain since the 17th century, United States through its history, Japan since the Meiji Restoration (1868-to the present), Egypt under Mehemet Ali and Russia under Peter the Great. Some societies can be innovative in some ways and conservative in others. Europe in medieval times was conservative when dealing with ideas, especially those concerning religion, but was reasonably innovative concerning technology. Some societies may be conservative at some times in their history and innovative at other times. What is clear is that at one time or another there will always be some societies which are innovative. It is also clear that over the long term the innovative societies are likely to be more successful and dominant than the conservative societies. European dominance of the world since the Renaissance is largely because European societies or many of them were highly innovative. Ottoman Turkey’s decline into the “sick man of Europe” is due to it being a conservative state which was resistant to new ideas and technologies. The ideas and technologies were easily enough available to the Turks, being produced in abundance by northern Europeans. If the Turks had been as open minded to new ideas as were the Japanese after the Meiji Restoration the decline of the Ottoman Empire may never have happened.

The difference between European states and society since the Renaissance and Ming and Manchu China in attitudes to new ideas and technology was immense. Etienne Balazs in an essay Significant aspects of Chinese Society published in Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy states:


Chinese ingenuity and inventiveness ... would probably have brought it to the threshold of the industrial age, if they had not been stifled by state control. It was the state that killed technological invention in China. (Balazs, 1964, 11).


A crucial factor for the development of new ideas and new technology was the feeling that progress was possible; the belief that inventors held that if they thought about things enough and tried this and that, they might eventually be able to work out an answer to the problem. Such a belief would not exist to anything like the same extent in Confucian China as it did in Europe since the Renaissance. Etienne Balazs considered the intellectual climate of Confucian orthodoxy was not favorable to any form of trial and experiment, to any sort of innovations or to the free play of the mind. The imperial bureaucracy was quite satisfied by the traditional techniques which satisfied its traditional needs. (Balazs, 1964, 22). The Chinese mandarins had little interest in science, commerce and utility. Their principal field of study was ancient Chinese authors. A late seventeenth century Jesuit traveler noted that educated Chinese were more attracted to antiquities than modern things. He observed this directly countered the Europeans love of novelty for its own sake. (Basalla, 1988, 175). Chinese culture, compared to Europe, was static and conservative and lacked the sense of progress so strongly present in European culture.

One reason why a society may be conservative and opposed to innovation may be due to the activities of special or vested interests. In The Writing Systems of the World Coulmas suggested Egyptian hieroglyphics were:


“hard to learn and the privilege of an elite group. Naturally this group, the clerks and priests of the royal household of the Pharaoh had no desire to endanger their status. … It was in the best interest of those few to guard their privilege and make sure that writing was complicated and not readily available for everybody. … Indirectly the social privilege of writing may well have contributed to the stability and conservatism of the Egyptian script whose development stopped short of the alphabet.” (Coulmas, 1989, 70).


Special interests opposing change can often delay technological and other change in any society or culture.

Conservative societies or groups within societies can sometimes delay change, but they do not seem to be able to stop it completely. This is because competition from more innovative societies may force a conservative society to be more innovative. When Commodore Perry’s ships arrived in Japan in 1853 the Japanese realized their weakness and began a process of modernization. The loss of almost all Ottoman territory in Europe to Austria, Russia and newly emerging Balkan states caused Turkey to modernize in the early 20th century. The weakness of China in the face of European power in the 19th century and Japanese power in the 20th century caused China to begin modernization in the 20th century. Economic competition within a society may also force change as new technologies are developed. Business’s that fail to adopt new technologies may well find themselves uncompetitive in the market place and liable to go bankrupt and to be replaced in the market place by the innovative businesses. When states pass laws banning innovation such laws will often be broken by those who do not accept such laws or who simply hope to profit from breaking them. Even if a society was totally isolated from all other societies there would be periods when those who support innovation would be in power so that conservatives would tend to delay rather than stop change. In the longer term good ideas are almost certain to be adopted.


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