Civilization, social development, east-west geography

Dear students,

in a recent lesson I talked a little about the ways that historians understand the idea of civilization (see also this week’s reading).

The archeologist and historian Ian Morris argues that we can compare societies in terms of the extent of their social development (we might think in terms of developing complexity).

Social development—basically, a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done.* Putting it more formally, social development is the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational, and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power. Social development, we might say, measures a community’s ability to get things done, which, in principle, can be compared across time and space.

Measuring and comparing social development is not a method for passing moral judgment on different communities. For example, twenty-first-century Japan is a land of air-conditioning, computerized factories, and bustling cities. It has cars and planes, libraries and museums, high-tech healthcare and a literate population. The contemporary Japanese have mastered their physical and intellectual environment far more thoroughly than their ancestors a thousand years ago, who had none of these things. It therefore makes sense to say that modern Japan is more developed than medieval Japan. Yet this implies nothing about whether the people of modern Japan are smarter, worthier, or luckier (let alone happier) than the Japanese of the Middle Ages. Nor does it imply anything about the moral, environmental, or other costs of social development. Social development is a neutral analytical category. Measuring it is one thing; praising or blaming it is another altogether.

Jeffrey Sachs describes 7 drivers of change and development

  1. Technology
  2. Physical environment
  3. Demography
  4. War
  5. Ideology
  6. Political institutions
  7. Cultural institutions

He argues that societies develop through different combinations of some or all of these drivers via innovation and/or diffusion (spreading). We can see that these driver scan be used to make sense of historians indicators of civilization (complex societies).

These ways of understanding social change can be applied to our understanding of the development of western civilization (and also to eastern civilization).

Ian Morris argues that the idea of ‘the west’ has been problematic for historians, as it has involved picking on some supposedly uniquely “Western” values such as freedom, rationality, or tolerance, and then arguing about where these values came from and which parts of the world have them. That ‘picking’ potentially involves discriminatory judgements about different societies.

Instead, he proposes that social development can be thought of in terms of geography (combined with biology and sociology). In his approach “the West” is simply a geographical term, referring to those societies that descended from the westernmost Eurasian core of domestication at the end of the Ice Age, in the Hilly Flanks.

Hilly Flanks

“The East,” means those societies that descended from the easternmost core of domestication that began developing in China by 7500 BCE.


e-w shifting cores figure3.2

“The West” emerged as a distinctive region before about 11,000 BCE, when cultivation began making the Hilly Flanks unusual. The core areas have shifted and changed across time. The Western core was geographically actually very stable from 11,000 BCE until about 1400 CE, remaining firmly at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea except for the five hundred years between about 250 BCE and 250 CE, when the Roman Empire drew it westward to include Italy. Otherwise, it always lay within a triangle formed by what are now Iraq, Egypt, and Greece.

Since 1400 CE it has moved relentlessly north and west, first to northern Italy, then to Spain and France, then broadening to include Britain, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

By 1900 it straddled the Atlantic and by 2000 was firmly planted in North America.

In the East the core that began around 7500BCE remained in the original Yellow-Yangzi zone right up until 1800 CE, although its center of gravity shifted northward toward the Yellow River’s central plain after about 4000 BCE, back south to the Yangzi Valley after 500 CE, and gradually north again after 1400. It expanded to include Japan by 1900 and southeast China by 2000 (Figure 3.2)

Other cores developed in the New World, South Asia, New Guinean, and Africa. But it is the east-west cores and the relationships between them that are most useful for thinking about the origins and development of western complex societies/civilizations.

Part of the reason for this is geographical. The western and eastern cores emerged along the lucky latitudes of Eurasia where knowledge diffused from west to east and east to west.

lucky latitudes

This … map that has roughly defined the so-called lucky latitudes, because an enormous amount of human history, population, and technological innovation has occurred in those lucky latitudes. It is in those lucky latitudes that ideas have not only been innovated, but have been able to diffuse within a band that shares enough commonality of climate zone, of transport conditions, of disease burden and other characteristics to make it similar enough to be not a homogeneous region by any means, but a region that can share ideas and that has exchanged ideas for millennia (Sachs, ‘Eurasia’)

The historians Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury (2014, 4) note that

one of the hallmarks of Western civilization was that it never developed in isolation. Throughout its recorded history, the peoples of the Mediterranean basin traded with other societies, and the resulting cultural diffusion strengthened all the cultures involved. For example, crops from the ancient Middle East spread westward as far as Britain as early as about 4000 B.C.E., and by the second millennium B.C.E., wheat, barley, and horses from the Middle East reached as far east as China. In fact, the trade routes from the Middle East to India and China, and west and south to Africa and Europe, have a permanence that dwarfs the accomplishments of conquerors and empire builders. These constant and fruitful interactions with other cultures perhaps gave Western civilization its greatest advantage.

One example is the diffusion of technology from Song Dynasty China to Europe (Sachs, video, the Chinese Medieval Miracle, 6-11mins).

perhaps one of the most remarkable periods of human history, technological innovation, and technological diffusion, in a way forgotten now in our common discussion, but one of the pinnacles of civilization was the period of the Chinese Song Dynasty from 970 A.D. till 1279 A.D., until the Song Dynasty fell to the Mongol conquest. And what makes this period of Chinese history, the Song Dynasty so remarkable is that it was in its way an apogee of global technological innovation and the diffusion of those technologies, which took centuries in many cases, was absolutely fundamental to the rise of Europe that would follow. (Sachs)

Professor Sachs is suggesting the some of the origins of key components of Western civilization are Chinese. We are currently looking further west than that, at the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean (which Professor Morris identifies as the sometimes core of the West), where we can also find some of the origins of Western civilization.


The Mediterranean turned into a new frontier, rising social development changed what geography meant. In the fourth millennium BCE the rise of irrigation and cities had made the great river valleys in Egypt and Mesopotamia into more valuable real estate than the old core in the Hilly Flanks.

By 2230 BCE the twin Western cores in Sumer and Egypt had massively eclipsed the original core in the Hilly Flanks. Responding to ecological problems, people had created cities; responding to competition between cities, they had created million-strong states, ruled by gods or godlike kings and managed by bureaucracies. As struggles in the core drove social development upward, a network of cities spread over the simpler farming villages of Syria and the Levant and through Iran to the borders of modern Turkmenistan.

In the second millennium the explosion of long-distance trade made access to the Mediterranean’s broad waterways more valuable still, and after 1500 BCE the turbulent Western core entered a whole new age of expansion. On Crete people would soon start building palaces too; imposing stone temples rose upward on Malta; and fortified towns began dotting the southeastern coast of Spain. Farther north and west farmers had filled every ecologically viable niche, and on the farthest fringe of the Western world … the most enigmatic monument of all … Stonehenge.


Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury (2014), The West in the World. A History of Western Civilization.

Morris, Ian, (2010), Why the West Rules for Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal about the Future, Profile and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, London.

Sachs, J. Globalization, EDX (online course).




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