Philosophy of History/Civilization, Cultural Diffusion, and Innovation

Bradley Commissioner, William H. McNeill, discusses implications of the theme "Civilization, Cultural Diffusion, and Innovation."

The central theme of human history on earth is the accumulation of human skills and power over nature and over one another. This is the overriding theme of the history of the world. I believe history is the story of how one group of humans invented-then exploited-new techniques and ideas to attain superior power; of how that spread to other peoples across time until some new people, somewhere else, bringing new skills and ideas to bear, improved upon the first model and became in turn a center of radiation of their patterns of skill-and so on ad infinitum, with a plurality of centers arising very soon within the varied face of the earth, down to our own time. And now we have seen first the U.S. and then Japan take industrial primacy-and may be about to see Japan dethroned in its turn by other Pacific Rim countries. This theme of the accumulation of human skills and power, of Civilization, Cultural Diffusion, and Innovation, must be included in any history course. It is the human story on Earth.

The story is relatively straightforward: human beings first became the most efficient hunters and moved to the top of the food chain in ancient Africa by learning to use tools-and, probably, by using languages to assure cooperation and to sharpen observation. Next they learned to use animal skins to keep warm in colder climates, and so spread rapidly round the earth. This was a geographic shift without parallel in biological evolution.

Then, in agriculture human being in different parts of the world began to acquire knowledge of various plants and skills of cultivation. A noticeable series of improvements in agriculture occurred thereafter: from slash-and-burn to permanent fields with the plow and fallowing. Then there was the diffusion of crops from one part of earth to another, including as the most dramatic, the spread of American food crops after 1500.

The story of human expansion within the ecosystem is quite familiar. However, it is necessary to put the main landmarks together into a time pattern, and explain how they fit together into a pattern of increasing human power over nature, allowing larger and larger numbers of human beings to live at the same time on the surface of the earth. Yet it is also a story with setbacks, for instance: the salting of early irrigation fields or the erosion of the Mediterranean.

A goal of history is to show the consequences that flowed when people and ideas crossed previously insulating barriers from time to time. Of course other dimensions of human experience in the natural world could be added: the impact of infectious disease, for instance; the diffusion of skills; or the emergence first of a series of civilizations, then of an ecumenical interactive whole, beginning about 1,000 A.D.

An Example of how Civilization, Cultural Diffusion, Innovation might be stranded through the Elementary:

K: Children of Other Lands and Times Colonial children in America, pioneer children, children in Ancient Egypt, children in medieval Europe

1. Families Now and Long Ago Sumerian family, Roman family, family in feudal Europe and Japan, modern families in USA

2. Local History: Neighborhoods and Communities (adapt to your location) historic landmarks, oral history, field trips to historical museums

3. Urban History: How Cities Began and Grew life in colonial communities in NE, MW, SE, SW, FW; life in rural community in 1800s; growth of cities, suburbs; historical past of selected cities in USA today; history of selected cities of the world

4. State History and Geography: Continuity and Change early colonization of our state, growth of cities in our state, innovations in our state that have spread to other states, ideas from other cultures that have come to our state

5. National History and Geography: Exploration to 1865 cultures of American Indian groups, early American colonial settlements, growth of cities in our country, ideas explorers and colonists brought with them

6. World History and Geography: The Growth of Civilization Aztecs, Mayas, Incas; ancient Sumer, Egypt, Indus River Valley; Greece and Rome; development of cities in Indus Valley, Latin America, Sumer; Songhai, Mali, Benin of Africa; medieval civilizations of Europe, Africa, Asia.