What is History 1: Introduction

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Ishtar Gate Relief, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Ishtar Gate Relief, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  8 December 2015

What is History? An Introduction

A confession

I am not a historian. I didn’t study it at school or university. But as with most things I am interested in history, particularly its process. I am also interested in the general rather than the specific.

E.H. Carr What is history? 1961Most historians encourage their students to study primary documents and not accept secondary sources. I think that is good advice for those studying the specific and the detailed, but it is not good advice for the generalist wanting to tease out the process. (Not that I am denying the pitfalls the generalist is up against, including the dismissive criticism.)

As a scientist I began with some strange views about history, including a major heresy that history could be studied scientifically and understood, if we merely had enough information. Isaac Asimov pushed a similar idea in his science fiction Foundation Trilogy. However, I no longer believe this, as one cannot, once one begins to approach and analyse history and also when one looks at historians as historical objects and scrutinises their endeavours.

Science is going gangbusters with data posted on the Internet and third party analysis of that data, but despite the wonders of Wikipedia, history isn’t. Although we have more information on history than ever before, no one is connecting the dots.

Nevertheless, I still have some rather naive ideas and suppositions about history and the way it ought to be understood, which I’ll sneak up upon in this series but not in this article.

However, I do believe that I should give you some hints so that you won’t fall into my strangeness without warning. If you are a professional historian, please proceed with caution, as some of the things I say now and later may make your blood boil.


First off, I think to understand history one must firmly embed it in the history of planet Earth (age ~4.5 billion years). I think that life evolved on Earth independently. (Because of Occam’s Razor and despite Fred Hoyle, I don’t believe that life was seeded from space because it is unnecessary. And, until the opposite is proven, I’ll keep to the simpler theory.)

J. D. Bernal The Origin of Life 1967Early in the twentieth century, JBS Haldane and Alexander I Oparin independently came up with the idea of how life could have evolved on Earth in warm shallow seas. Since then various issues have come up which confirm some aspects of the problem and find difficulties in others. The shallow seas idea has moved to clays and other substrates, even to sub-oceanic vents. When one moved beyond the beginnings, there was one great problem, that is, at the molecular level, the chance that randomness could have worked to create the complex molecular systems required seemed impossible. Recent advances in molecular biology, however, appear to have solved these difficulties.

Richard Fortey Life an unautorised biographyLife we think began relatively early. Simple life took a few billion years to evolve into something noticeable, though in the interim creating the oxygen atmosphere (cyanobacteria). By noticeable I mean the Cambrian explosion (~542 million years ago), where hard-bodied organisms appeared for the first time and left vast traces in the fossil record. (There are some slightly earlier large fossil beds that represent soft-bodied organisms.) The Cambrian is where the variety of complex life radiated in all directions (and most modern phyla appeared). Complex life continued to evolve to the present. Life moved onto land. There were some hiccups called extinctions and some galactic events did impose on Earth. A large asteroid is now generally accepted on good evidence to have put paid to the dinosaurs and opened the way to the age of mammals.

However, one mustn’t think that evolution is progressive. Nor, must one think that it inevitably led to a pinnacle, we humans, and that that is the end of the process or that we are the most important beings on the planet. Humans are only a part of life. All living things are not our servants. Evolution is messy!

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House, 1996As the late Stephen Jay Gould used to say frequently, if you restarted the process at any stage and replayed life’s tape, the result would be different each time. Stephen Jay Gould also pointed out that complex life is not the be all and end all of evolution. In terms of numbers, biomass, variety, etcetera, etcetera life and evolution is still dominated by single-celled ‘so-called’ simple creatures and complex life today is the mere tail of a very large curve of life.

Somewhere between 8 and 13 million years ago ape and human lines began to diverge (chimpanzees maybe 8 million years ago). Around 2.6 million years ago proto-humans began to use tools regularly (the earliest use may be 3.4 million years). The tools did get better but not much, and in the last 100,000 years they began to improve slowly. About 12,000 years ago tool making took off and became much more sophisticated. Agriculture began around the same time. But, agriculture was not a progression to better things, as 19th century hubris would have us believe. Hunter-gatherers who were already very knowledgeable about plants took on agriculture reluctantly. Agriculture began probably as a result of local stresses and shortages, rather than with glad cries of eureka. Agriculture probably evolved independently at least five times and its inception was different according to different circumstances.

Following the development of agriculture, domestication of plants and animals followed within a few thousand years. Human health and nutrition declined initially with agriculture. Hunter-gatherer families and clans evolved into hamlets and villages. In the old world, agriculture led to settlement and to defence of crops. In the new world, agriculture evolved without permanent settlement. Pastoralism, which also developed quickly in the old world, was less settled and led to conflict between nomads and farmers that lasted for thousands of years.

Clans grew to societies and city-states. Politically, ‘big men’ became chiefs, who evolved into princelings, kings and then empires. Animism developed into organised religion, which supported the ruling elites.

Australian aborigines settled in Australia between 35 to 40,000 years ago or maybe as early as 60,000 years ago. Climate change profoundly influenced indigenous Australians, as it did all early humans.

External forces that shaped history

Sumerian Clay Tablet, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Sumerian Clay Tablet, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Felipe Fernández-Armesto who wrote Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years in 1995 (to celebrate the up-coming millennium) says that he tries as a thought experiment always to see history from the viewpoint of an alien galactic museum keeper in the remote future. This keeps him centred on trends, rather than becoming bogged in specifics.

My leanings are towards understanding the basics of history as Jared Diamond attempts to in Guns, Germs and Steel 1997. Diamond looks at human history through biology, the distribution of plants that became seed crops, the geographical layout of continents and other environmental influences. Similarly, I am interested in human disease and its impact on history (examples of epidemics once populations rose sufficiently are the Athenian plague, the Justinian plague, the Black Death, the impact on indigenous peoples from 1492 onwards of Western expansion, and the world-wide influenza outbreak of 1919). Environmental degradation (e.g. in the fertile crescent and Greece) and climate change have also had profound effects on history.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997Alfred Corby wrote The Columbian Exchange: the biological and cultural consequences of 1492 in 1972, which looks at the impact on human history of the meeting of the old and new worlds. Brian M Fagan wrote The Little Ice Age How Climate made History, 1300-1850 in 2000 and several other books on archaeology and climate. Jared Diamond details in Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive 2005 how the Vikings established themselves briefly on the American continent and settled Greenland in 984 during a global warm period, but their settlements on Greenland failed to survive 500 years because they would not adapt their lifestyle to that of the Inuit in the cooling that began in the 1300s. They all died out in the 1400s.

John McNeill wrote Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World in 2000 another amazing book mentioned in Large Dams 1: an introduction and in Large Dams 2: Aswan High Dam demonstrates how humans utilised for the first time in the twentieth century machinery and technologies capable of transforming the planet.

Other recent histories by outsiders and specialists deal with the impact of external forces on history. Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: the epic quest for oil, money and power 1991 is a history of the impact of oil on the twentieth century. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world 1997 is similar. Niall Ferguson (mentioned in The Last Days of Osama bin Laden 1: Abbottabad) wrote The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 in 2001 and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World in 2008. Both are analyses of the impact of money on world history, particularly recent world history.

Mark Kurlansky, Cod, 1997There are a plethora of books beginning in the mid-1960s by outside specialists that expand rather than challenge our view of history.

These books were not inspired by nor directly related to the mid-sixties revolution in science caused by plate tectonics, but are perhaps the children of the general challenge to the status quo that began in the 1960s. I remember my school geography text A N Strahler Earth Sciences 1965 edition said of Wegener’s Theory of Continental drift (that we’d been taught in geography) as interesting but unlikely, in the absence of a mechanism. Strahler’s comment was swept away within twelve months by plate tectonics — the mechanism. Plate tectonics was a theory that became accepted, from complete rejection, without much additional evidence. We forget that geology didn’t really make sense before plate tectonics.

Hence history is based on biology, geography and other external causes, which have influenced human events. I also believe that some of the general evolution of history is predictable based on the development of a naked ape into a creature with a big brain. The ape manipulates tools, uses fire and reluctantly develops agriculture, domesticates plants and animals, and evolves defence and political systems, as a necessary consequence.

Mainstream history

I have no intention of neglecting published history or historians. They are the ones who developed the discipline and researched the primary material and many of them did it brilliantly. However, I am not going to delve into the works of the great historians in any detail in this series, as it is not my area of interest.

By the twentieth century, history as the exploits of kings and queens was no longer thought of as the only way that history ought to be written. But, more critique of the methods of historians was to come. E.H. Carr wrote What is History? in 1961 based on a series of lectures given in Cambridge. What is History? raised a storm of criticism from historians at the time, including by some who criticised his work on Soviet Russia and called him an apologist for Stalin. Nevertheless, over time What is History? became more accepted into the mainstream and is now the basis for many other books that have examined the methodology of history as a discipline, now called historiography.


In this series of short articles, I’ll try to step lightly over some of the issues raised and give you some idea of what I think about the most interesting aspects of human history. Touching perhaps on the eternal questions: Where have we come from? Why is it so? Where are we going? Is there anything we can do about it?

But as Douglas Adams says, we already know the answer. The answer to life the universe and everything is 42!

Key Words: What is History?, E H Carr, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, JBS Haldane, A I Oparin, The Origin of Life on Earth, pre-history, mainstream history, Richard Fortey, Stephen Jay Gould, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Göran Burenhult, JD Bernal, Andreas Wagner, Alfred Corby, Brian M Fagan, John McNeill, Daniel Yergin, Mark Kurlansky, Niall Ferguson.

Further information

Books cited and further reading

Some of these books are the definitive or most widely acknowledged works in their field. For example, The Illustrated History of Humankind was an expensive undertaking, a snapshot overview of current knowledge in the field by experts. Although it is twenty years old, it is still current except for minor changes in our understanding most frequently slight variations in dates.

Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History Of Humankind Vol1Richard Fortey Life an Unauthorised Biography was the senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in the UK and a world expert on trilobites at the time of writing. There are many books on the same topic but this is a beautifully written and amusing account of life as suggested in the title. Again some minor details will have dated in twenty years but not the thrust of the book.

Jared Diamond has come in for serious criticism for his audacity in Guns, Germs and Steel but not for the content as much. I have heard Diamond lecture on Guns, Germs and Steel and he has been known to show some hubris on the topic, but deservedly so. I have been critical of his other books The Third Chimpanzee (too speculative) and Collapse (interesting but not new) but I think that Guns, Germs and Steel is just about perfect. Of course, because it is a generalist review of a vast array of research in different disciplines, once you read the source texts, there are elements to quibble at but that is to be expected in such broad ranging analysis. I think that he gets the major conclusions pretty much right. I’ll elaborate on this in a later article.

E.H. Carr’s What is History? is an enduring classic. It has stimulated a large number of good books on the same topic, but none that I’ve read do it better.

The books

Richard Fortey Life an Unauthorised Biography: a natural history of the first four thousand million years of life on Earth, 1997.

Göran Burenhult ed. The Illustrated History Of Humankind five volumes. Volume 1, The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 BC, 1993. Volume 2, People of the Stone Age: Hunter-Gatherers and Early Farmers, 1993. Volume 3, Old World Civilizations: The Rise of Cities and States, 1994. Volume 4, New World and Pacific Civilizations: Cultures of America, Asia, and the Pacific, 1994. Volume 5, Traditional Peoples Today: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, 1994.

J. D. Bernal The Origin of Life 1967 is a classic in the field, which deserves to be widely known in this generation. It contains as appendices Oparin’s long paper and J.B.S Haldane’s short one. I’ve always been sympathetic to Oparin who spent a lifetime’s work on the subject and whom I first discovered when I was 14; versus JBS Haldane who in a brilliant 8-page paper in the Rationalist Annual wittily espoused the same synthesis (with a few digs at the Church) from the limited contemporary knowledge that existed in contemporary but diverse fields.

Andreas Wagner Arrival of the Fittest: solving evolution’s greatest puzzle, 2014. Arrival of the Fittest covers the recent advances in molecular biology mentioned that overcome the problem of the chance evolution of complex molecules. Wagner’s laboratory combining research and massive computational models is at the forefront of this research related to recent work on self-organising networks and the like. It is pivotal research concerning evolvability, innovability and robustness at the molecular level, not explained by Darwinian evolution or the modern synthesis of Darwin. However, Arrival of the Fittest does not explain the breakthroughs very clearly and one can find better descriptions elsewhere in Wagner’s work (see Review). Watch this space as I’m sure better books will be forthcoming in the near future.

Stephen Jay Gould Full House: the spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin 1996 and in other books.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, 1995.

Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997.

Alfred Corby The Columbian Exchange: the biological and cultural consequences of 1492, 1972.

Brian M. Fagan The Little Ice Age How Climate made History, 1300-1850, 2000.

John McNeill Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World, 2000.

Daniel Yergin The Prize: the epic quest for oil, money and power, 1991.

Mark Kurlansky Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world, 1997.

Niall Ferguson The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000, 2001.

Niall Ferguson The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, 2008.

E.H. Carr What is history? 1961.


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