Collective Learning, which relies on population numbers and connectivity to produce new ideas, grew by leaps and bounds with the introduction of agriculture. By the year 1400, the human population had advanced magnificently, but the world was still divided into four isolated world zones: The Americas, Australasia, the Pacific, and Afro-Eurasia. From a Big History perspective, what makes the European explorations worthy of a place in an episode called “Modern Revolution” is that they eventually united all four world zones into a global system. An increasingly connected network of potential innovators was great for collective learning. But why did the Europeans feel so motivated to expand? Well, a lot of reasons. One, Ottoman dominance of overland trade routes with Asia, particularly after the conquests of Constantinople in 1453, made Europeans seek alternative routes to the populous and rich lands of the East. Two, European states were fairly small compared to some of the vast empires of Asia, and needed to compete for more resources to fuel their almost constant wars. And three, the fruits of exploration undoubtedly had positive effects. Whether it be the many advanced inventions and consumer goods imported from China, or the spices of India and Indonesia, or crops from the Americas. That last one should not be underestimated. Crops like the potato, which earned the nickname Ready Made Bread” because it was easy to prepare combined with maize, and squashes, and tomatoes, and various yams allowed farms in Europe to support more people. This was also good for Asia where these crops were introduced in the 17th century. And, let us not forget about the vast amounts of silver that the Spanish “acquired” from the Americas, or the many cotton, tobacco, and sugar farms that Europeans bolstered their economies with. The unification of world zones also had many, many negative effects. For instance, it was terrible for people who worked on those cotton, and tobacco, and sugar farms. Europeans increasingly relied on African slaves, the first of whom were granted to the Portuguese by African rulers, and then you know, several centuries of horror ensued with an incomprehensible number of African slaves dying in the appalling conditions of the Atlantic crossing. Life was also pretty miserable for the slaves that survived the journey, and generations of their descendants. Also, because Afro-Eurasia was a modestly connected, thriving cesspool of disease, Europeans had developed many immunities. When they started arriving in the previously isolated Americas in the late 1400’s and 1500’s, the indigenous inhabitants had no immunity to those diseases. This resulted in one of the most horrific events in human history. A cocktail of various European diseases — most notably smallpox — killed off an estimated 50 million people in the Americas in little over a century. A similar tragedy played itself out in Australia when Europeans started arriving there in the 18th century. Now, along with all this horrific stuff, the unification of the world zones was, nevertheless, a good thing for collective learning — which would eventually prove our salvation in many ways. And this global system continues to increase in complexity and connectivity today. Which is why people can now look at THIS on their smartphone. Anyway, the unification of the world zones did not in itself lead to a breakthrough in the way humans harvested matter and energy. The last major shift happened with the arrival of agriculture ten thousand years prior. The colonizing European societies of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries remained agrarian. But the explorations did allow for a network of exchange that eventually did lead to a major breakthrough in how humans harnessed more energy and produced more and more cultural complexity, The Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, as they’ll be happy to tell you, in the 18th century, but it was a global revolution involving collective learning shared across the global system. But a number of innovations that kick-started industry originated in Britain, like the more intensified use of steam engines, or the use of coke to refine metals. Not that Coke, yeah, that coke. Also, they invented many textile machines, and Britain had lots of coal and it was relatively easy to mine. Thank you trees that died hundreds of millions of years ago, we’re going to turn you into industry, and smog. But all those British breakthroughs wouldn’t have been possible without a huge global network of trade that supplied raw materials, like cotton, and that opened new markets where Britain could sell its goods. And it wouldn’t have possible to expand that network of trade in the first place without gunpowder, and the compass, which both came from China. The methods of porcelain manufacture that were important to the industrial revolution in Britain also came from China via Germany, and the improved methods of farming which freed up many British farm workers for industrial wage labour in the cities came from Flanders, in the Netherlands. Early designs for steam engines came from 18th century France, and much of the designs for these machines depended on mathematics preserved and transmitted by Islamic and Hindu civilizations. So up until the end of the 18th century virtually all production in human history was propelled by human or animal muscle power, or else, by wind and water power. But it turned out that coal and oil had stored energy from the sun that had built up over hundreds of millions of years, and using those resources dramatically increased the energy that humans could harness. Huge numbers of goods could be produced by factories at relatively low prices which meant that over many decades goods that had previously been seen as luxuries by common people, were suddenly viewed as necessities. By the 1900s most Europeans enjoyed a standard of living higher than the kings of the middle ages. Coal and oil also allowed mechanization of agriculture, which raised the carrying capacity, increasing the population. And new modes of connectivity beginning with the telegraph and then later the telephone increasingly bound the human species together allowing for swift and rapid exchange of ideas.
A new skill or trait open up new ways or ‘niches’ to extract energy