The Penguin History of the World tells the story of humankind. Of necessity, it is a selective telling of our species’ story. The focus is on civilized society – a term which the authors recognize as being difficult to pin down. Rejecting typical criteria of civilization, such as writing, cities and monumental buildings, Roberts and Westad settle on complexity as the defining characteristic of the people they chose to write about. They recognize from the outset that this means a focus on the most recent 1/8th of our time on this planet and even then this means leaving the peoples of over half the planet’s surface unmentioned. My Irish ancestors feature almost not at all in this epic, despite their proximity to one of the shifting centers of power and complexity in the British Isles. Indigenous people who have lived comfortable, productive lives attuned to their landscape for thousands of years are not the stuff of world history. What is needed is not only complexity but momentum; great accumulations of wealth and power that build rapidly and then decay.
Judging by the Table of Contents, this book written by Europeans focuses on Europe,with over 60% of the pages . The Middle East and East Asia share most of the rest. South Asia claims 5% of the coverage while Africa and the Americas get very little attention. There is more to this than hometown boosterism, however. The Europeans were late to establish civilization and after the flowering of Rome, they were easily dismissed in other parts of the world as the “Franks” – a singular and backward people. Yet the Europeans managed to lead two great transformations that changed the world. The first, in the 1400s, was of exploration and colonization. The second, 400 years later, was a demographic shift that instilled the idea of progress into world history.
Ironically, Europeans were inspired to navigate the world’s oceans by their envy of all things Asian, from spices to silk to precious metals. Beginning with humble and somewhat crude efforts, they were motivated to invest lives and resources into mastering the seas so that they could trade with South and East Asia. By the 1700s, the Europeans had learned to navigate by longitude as well as latitude, discovering three undeveloped continents in the process and claiming much of Africa.
The second transformation was primarily one of declining death rates and longer lifespans. Though medical advances became a part of this transformation, the initial changes were in sanitation. By addressing the spread of infectious diseases and reducing infant mortality, European populations began to swell. This was greatly assisted by the harnessing of fossil fuels, which made transportation and heating efficient and allowed increasing urbanization.
Throughout our story, ideas -both rational and spiritual- have been important in conveying complexity from one generation to the next and from one culture to the next. The era of progress is now coming to an end. It is not clear what and who will replace European domination. Whatever it is, it is bound to be interesting.