What are the "big shifts" that have changed humanity?
June 5, 2014 4:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to explore the big shifts and major revolutions that have made a historical impact. Examples in the modern age: the rise of democracy, the proliferation of capitalism, and the Information Age / Internet. What other big shifts and major revolutions have changed humanity?

And is there some sort of area of study that examines these? An offshoot of anthropology, maybe?
posted by markbao to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
The germ theory of disease.
posted by lakeroon at 4:26 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

In the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn called such things "paradigm shifts". That wiki link has some examples. I'm not sure what the area of study would be called.
posted by Rob Rockets at 4:28 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would say the birth control pill without a doubt! I realize people have known for ages how to avoid conception, but to me this method seemed more discreet, more accessible, easier to use correctly, and gave women greater control over their bodies and sexuality
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 4:30 PM on June 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Both the development of agriculture and widespread salt production/trade allowed humanity to become less mobile. Less hunting and gathering/foraging, plus salt allows for the preservation of foods. Both are often linked to the development of large-scale state societies.
posted by thebots at 4:33 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, man, don't even worry about making a list, just go find all of Eric Hobsbawm's "The Age of..." series. At least for anything within the historical record and dealing with Western Europe. Deals with the Enlightenment, the European political revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, the evolution of the Nation as a political and cultural identity, etc. There may be an installment or two that is about pre-Enlightenment cultural shifts.

Your go-to subject areas are going to be history and anthropology.

History is good for stuff that happened after humans were already writing things down, among cultures that write things down.

Anthropology is good for stuff that happened before humans were writing things down, and among cultures that don't write things down. (Obviously there is anthropology about things that are within the scope of the historical record, but that's going to be less germane to your question.) Here, you're looking for the rise of agriculture, the development of cities and other complex human societies, and the onset of written language. If you want to go further back and deal more with evolution and physical anthropology, you're also to an extent looking at the shifts to art, ritual, and language.
posted by Sara C. at 4:37 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Bubonic Plague

The Green Revolution
posted by Rhaomi at 4:52 PM on June 5, 2014

The Industrial Revolution. In particular, widespread use of fossil fuels was a real game-changer.

Gunpowder weapons.

The development of radio.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:05 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Establishment of public library systems and postal service systems.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:08 PM on June 5, 2014

Check out "Punctuated equilibrium in social theory".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:45 PM on June 5, 2014

Gun powder
Written alphabet

This is sort of a broad topic. I mean nearly anything can be shown to have impacted us in the past in a major way.
posted by chasles at 5:56 PM on June 5, 2014

According to Freeman Dyson, (scroll down), the invention of hay:

In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay. Civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later to Moscow and New York.
posted by neroli at 6:06 PM on June 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

The Western rediscovery of Classical scholarship (along with the reception of Islamic scholarship).
posted by mr. digits at 6:44 PM on June 5, 2014

Also, the basic term for (a big chunk of) this area of study is Intellectual History.
posted by mr. digits at 6:47 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Arguably the single most important invention in history was paper.

And movable-type printing was a revolution, with widespread cultural effects in Europe over the following hundred years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:59 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton
posted by Flood at 7:01 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
posted by sallybrown at 7:19 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The invention and development of air travel
Discovery of DNA
Writing of the U.S. Constitution
posted by sallybrown at 7:23 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The development of agriculture
posted by peacheater at 7:24 PM on June 5, 2014

posted by aetg at 7:32 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Running water, indoor plumbing - sanitation improvements, so much healthier.

And to learn how the world changed, get into some James Burke, like "Connections".
posted by Rash at 8:59 PM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

What other big shifts and major revolutions have changed humanity?

The late 19th and early part of the 20th century had a series of dramatic advances in physics that were all linked together -- the discovery of the atomic structure, electromagnetism, relativity and quantum mechanics, which basically led to all of modern technology from the atomic bomb to the internet.
posted by empath at 10:56 PM on June 5, 2014

The early attempts to formalise math and logic by the greeks were hugely important -- a process that's been ongoing until today with stuff like lambda calculus and category theory and so on.
posted by empath at 11:00 PM on June 5, 2014

Artificial fixed nitrogen for both fertilizer and explosives. Before then, wars were fought over islands of bird crap due to their fixed nitrogen content. People talk about the green revolution and Borlaug, but Fritz Haber's discovery keeps 3 Billion people alive these days.

He was also the father of the German chemical warfare group in WWI, and his discoveries allowed Germany to stay in the war much longer than it should have in the first world war because of the extra explosives they were able to create and gave BASF/IG Farbin enough money that it could produce artificial gasoline for Germany in the second world war. Without him, it's questionable whether Germany would have been able to sustain itself through the wars, another big shift.
posted by Hactar at 5:08 AM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

The filling of the Mediterranean.
posted by mr. digits at 6:04 AM on June 6, 2014

The Wheel
Bronze working
Iron working
Steel working
Domestication of large animals
Food preservation
Various methods of navigation

If you're after cultural revolutions too, I guess the feudal system is the most important societal change from a Eurocentric view. And in terms of scientific paradigms the introduction of the scientific method (which is difficult to pin down to a place or time, but if pushed I'd go for Bacon or Descartes) is the most fundamental.

I think one has to be a little careful with this kind of exercise though (or at least define very carefully what it is you're after): looking back at history every piece of the tower looks important as it bears the weight of the pieces on top of it. However, if a piece were missing from the start it's likely that the structure still would have grown, just in a slightly different direction. For example, I’ve heard a theory that stirrups are one of the most important inventions in history as they enabled people to fight from horseback more easily, and thus the Middle Ages happened. I’m completely unconvinced that in the counterfactual world where the stirrup never existed, the human race would have stood around without advancing; I’m sure there are loads of workarounds to the social and military problems that lead to the creation of the mounted knights that would have been taken up instead.
posted by Ned G at 6:57 AM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Discovering global traderoutes, colonies.
posted by kudzu at 7:01 AM on June 6, 2014

Space exploration, walking on The Moon, landing on Mars.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:14 AM on June 6, 2014

As a student of Victorian Literature these are the three that shaped that era:

Industrial Revolution
Darwin's theory of Evolution

Or just read Guns, Germs, Steel. That's pretty interesting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:56 AM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read in the Times quite a while back that anthropologist believe that there were two major events that rapidly changed the brain size of early humans: 1) eating meat, and then later 2) cooking the meat.

Also, I would say the advent of DNA manipulation, discovery of restriction enzymes, cloning genes into bacteria, the gamut of the Biotech boom, which really wasn't that long ago (I would say late 80's is when it really took off as a usable platform in research.
posted by waving at 8:27 AM on June 6, 2014

The concept of zero.

posted by cccorlew at 9:09 AM on June 6, 2014

The Scientific Method.
Feminism/Women's Lib.
posted by PickeringPete at 11:05 AM on June 6, 2014

You might check out the book or PBS series The Day The Universe Changed, done by James Burke back in the 80's.
posted by sapere aude at 1:45 PM on June 6, 2014

It's almost certainly wrong, but Julian Jayne's theory of the bicameral mind is weird and ambitious enough to deserve a mention. Jayne's gist is that humans weren't sentient until about 3000 years ago. Before then, thoughts were processed unconsciously by one hemisphere of the brain, which then passed its decisions to the other hemisphere in the form of auditory hallucinations.

In other words, everyone had an inscrutable god living in their head who told them what to do.

In other other words, everyone exhibited a sort of schizophrenia; everyone lacked the capacity for reflective thought and metacognition.

At some point around 1000 BC, social breakdowns prompted by earthq[LOTS OF HANDWAVING OMITTED]nd Asia. Society was reorganized around the capacity for introspective thought, and the few throwbacks with bicameral minds were either treated as conduits to the now distant gods or killed.
posted by Iridic at 2:46 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dogs. The gray wolf migrated west and humans migrated east. They seem to have come together in the Middle East. Did we domesticate them or did they domesticate us?
posted by seanfkennedy at 7:55 PM on June 6, 2014

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