Introduction: Thoughts on History

Perhaps the most difficult task faced by any teacher of history is how to provide an analytical structure within which students can first frame, then investigate and ultimately understand all the myriad questions generated by the story of our past – and in a manner that will impress and inspire them with the relevance of that vast and sweeping story for their own lives. The task is especially daunting for the historian who attempts to introduce his students to history in its broadest context. The chronological and geographic scope of virtually all history survey courses makes it almost imperative to narrow the field of analysis by concentrating on only a few of the possible themes. Thus some historians find themselves emphasizing economic or political history, while others may focus on cultural or social history. A few bold spirits have even ventured into the realm of environmental history as a means of achieving a more ‘global’ approach. And yet, each of these thematic approaches makes little sense without at least some reference to all the others. For the simple truth is that the history of human beings is comprised of and encompasses them all. Sadly, given the time constraints of the school year and the attention spans of their students, in addition to emphasizing only a few of these themes, most teachers also inevitably concentrate on some regions or time periods at the expense of others. The inadvertent result is a seemingly inescapable bias in favor of some aspects of world history over others – of some groups of humans or some cultures or some methods of human organization. Such a self-selecting bias is most notable in the titles of courses – “World Civilization” for example is a dead give away about where the bias lies.

But is such a bias necessarily inescapable?  Is it not possible to find a more integrated approach that will elucidate all of the major themes and how they are inter-related and in a way that will not skew the story towards some and away from others? History Online Now attempts to provide just such an analytical framework. It is a framework rooted in the presentation of human history not simply as a function of economics, politics, culture, or even social relationships, but rather as a function of the underlying source of all of these categories – the universal nature and experience of what it means to be a human being surviving and living on planet earth.

Who and what are we?

Human beings are unique creatures: we have both material and non-material characteristics. Materially we have physical bodies, biological organisms that must be maintained with air, water, food and shelter, and that must respond to certain biological imperatives, notably the urge to physical procreation. Non-materially, we have self-reflective consciousness – an interactive process of thought and feeling that gives us a sense or an awareness of being something rather than nothing. Whether this self-consciousness in human beings stems from the electro-chemical processes of the body or whether it is the gift of some overarching Creator (ideas that need not be mutually exclusive) is beyond the scope of this textbook. In practical terms, the effects for human survival in the world are in any case much the same, for this two-fold nature of humanity means that people must respond to the needs and demands of both aspects in themselves, the material and the non-material, the biological and the psychological, the physical and the metaphysical. In responding to these sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary and always interdependent demands, humanity has become the dominant life form on this planet, capable of transforming the planetary environment itself in significant ways – whether for good or ill. On this dual foundation rests the story of Human history. The following major themes of this volume reflect that foundation.

1. Adaptation to the environment is the primary prerequisite for sustaining human life.

Both physically and psychologically, human beings must survive by securing the necessities of life from their environment. Human existence, therefore, is essentially a matter of ‘security’ – ‘securing’ the necessities of life, whether physical or psychological, from the environment. The environment itself has two main parts: the essentially impersonal ‘natural’ world, broadly conceived; and the essentially personal ‘human’ world. In addition, human beings must interact with both aspects of the environment both physically and psychologically. At the same time, survival is not merely a matter of maintaining a secure status quo – life, as opposed to mere existence, is defined not in terms of stasis but in terms of growth. As the environment is dynamic and constantly changes, so too must human beings respond dynamically – constantly adjusting and improving their methods of adaptation in order to survive in the new environmental circumstances. Such adaptations are largely responsible for the types of cultures and civilizations they create.

2. An ‘Insecurity Index‘ generally drives Human adaptations to the environment.

In adapting to their environment, human beings are responding to what might be called the Insecurity Index – that is the level of insecurity, either real or perceived, that threatens the continued existence or well-being of an individual, whether physically or psychologically. The insecurity index is generally determined by the level of environmental challenge individuals face (or believe they face) in order to survive (again, either physically or psychologically). Human beings are creative and innovative in direct proportion to the Insecurity Index – the greater the sense of insecurity and threat to stability, the greater the level of innovation and creativity people will try in order to re-establish a sense of stability and security. This is not to say that creativity ceases in times of relative security, but such creativity tends to be primarily a further development of current forms rather than experimentation with radically new forms.

3. Flexibility is the key to adaptability. In responding to the Insecurity Index and challenges from the environment, the more flexible people are the more likely they are to overcome the challenge and survive. Flexibility is a function of human creativity and innovation in the face of changing circumstances, and depends upon the human capacity and opportunity to learn and to share knowledge and experience. Consequently, such flexibility is greatest when people interact and learn from one another, thereby extending the level of experience and knowledge on which they can draw to respond to challenges. For this reason people generally band together in groups, to sustain both their physical and their psychological security.

4. Just as individuals respond to the insecurity index, so too do the groups they constitute, all the way up to the level of a civilization. Consequently, the level of creativity and innovation in the development of a culture or civilization depends upon the same factors that affect individuals: an environmental challenge, whether natural or human, sufficient to spur adaptation without being severe enough to be insurmountable; and contact with other cultures or civilizations steady enough to allow ideas and even new technologies to be exchanged, thereby increasing the versatility of the civilization’s response to its challenges, and improving its capacity to achieve a greater degree of security. Both individuals and civilizations develop flexibility in response to perceived environmental challenges, whether physical or psychological. Consequently, growth depends upon environmental challenges that are severe enough to require adaptation, but not severe enough to destroy the individual (or civilization).


I. Human beings have a dual nature: they exist materially as physical bodies, and non-materially as consciousness. The history of Humanity is the story of Humanity’s efforts to survive in both aspects. It is a story in which certain key elements have combined to push Humanity along a path of evolutionary development. For survival is not simply a matter of maintaining stasis, but rather a dynamic process of constant change and growth. In this process the material and non-material elements of human nature have interacted to achieve the survival, and hence the growth, of both.

II. Adaptation to environment is critical to human survival, both physically and psychologically. Civilization represents the stage of human adaptability in which people begin to substantially change and take control of their immediate physical environment as the primary means of adaptation, rather than changing themselves to suit the environment.

A. The key to successful adaptation is flexibility, a function of the human capacity to learn and to innovate.

B. Like individuals, civilizations too must be flexible and adaptable in order to survive.

C. Civilizations develop creativity, innovation, and hence flexibility and adaptability, in direct proportion to their contacts with other civilizations and cultures.

III. Both individuals and civilizations develop flexibility in response to perceived environmental challenges, whether physical or psychological. Consequently, growth depends upon environmental challenges that are severe enough to require adaptation, but not severe enough to destroy the individual (or civilization).

IV. Both individuals and civilizations respond to environmental challenges in two ways – physically and psychologically. Physically they may develop new technologies; psychologically they may develop new philosophies and religions, new ‘worldviews’. The interaction between technological and psychological adaptive techniques, within a particular environment, gives rise to political, economic, social, and cultural systems.

V. Both individuals and civilizations achieve a greater level of flexibility, adaptability, and hence survivability, the more they are able to include and assimilate the experiences of others. Such inclusion constitutes an expansion of the self-identity of the individual or civilization, whether consciously or unconsciously, and may require both physical and psychological adjustments.

Given these basic rules of human growth and development the following themes emerge as fundamental to understanding both regional histories and world history:

1. Ecology and Environmental Adaptation

All human beings must extract certain basic material elements from their environment in order to survive physically: air, water, food and (where necessary) shelter from the elements (extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry). Consequently, the nature and affect of the physical environment, or ecosphere, and the methods of adaptation human populations establish to extract the necessary resources of physical survival are the sine qua non (‘without which, nothing’) of human existence. At the same time, all human beings must also extract from their environment that which is necessary to sustain their self-reflective consciousness – in effect, their sense of self. They accomplish this by relating their sense of who and what they are in relation to who and what they are not – in short, to their environment.

2. Identity and Hierarchies of Values:

The creation of individual and group identities constitutes the primary non-material means by which human beings adapt to their environment. In order to establish and explain their sense of identity, human beings inevitably establish ‘hierarchies of values’ or ‘worldviews’ that reflect and reinforce those identities.  These identities and the hierarchies of values that support them are the basis on which human populations establish varying forms of government and political organization, social structure, religion and philosophy, and art.

a. Physical adaptation to environment gives rise to material technology.

b. Psychological adaptation gives rise to religion, philosophy, science and the arts. 

c. The interaction of physical and psychological adaptation gives rise to economic, political and social organization.

3. Identity and the Insecurity Index:

The primary senses of identity that individuals, groups and civilizations establish for themselves will determine what they perceive as threatening or non-threatening from their environment. As the environment changes, individuals, groups and civilizations evaluate such changes in terms of an ‘Insecurity Index’, i.e. their perceptions of the level of threat such environmental changes may pose to their physical and/or psychological well-being. The Insecurity Index generally determines how and to what extent they respond to environmental changes politically, socially, culturally, intellectually and technologically.

4. Migration and Cross-Cultural Interaction:

The physical movement of groups of people inevitably precipitates increased levels of interaction among human populations with different environmental backgrounds and different adaptive techniques. Such movements constitute one of the principal sources of environmental challenge and changes in the Insecurity Index. They may result in the overthrow of one group by another, or by increased levels of adaptive change among all those involved that contribute to the growth and spread of new survival techniques. Interaction among well-developed civilizations with different world-views may take the form of communication and trade, of confrontation and war, or varying combinations of both. Such interactions often lead to the exchange or transmission of ideas and technologies (in other words, environmental adaptive techniques) that may also lead to transformations in identity and hierarchies of values. The level and type of such cross-cultural interactions may directly affect the level of creativity and innovation within a civilization, and hence its capacity to adapt rapidly to new challenges from the environment.