Big History and The Modern Revolution: Humanity Enters the Modern Era

From a lecture series presented by Professor David Christian, D.Phil.

In the last millennium, the pace of change accelerated sharply and decisively. The isolation of the world zones was breached in the 16th century. Then, from 1700 on, the pace of innovation began to accelerate so rapidly that, within just three centuries, the entire world had been transformed. This is the time of the Modern Revolution.

image of city lights for article on the Modern Revolution

It’s tempting to think that if the appearance of the first cities and states parallel star formation, the “Modern Revolution” is like a supernova. It’s breaking down existing structures, and it’s scattering new elements into space. But even this image doesn’t really capture the creative aspects of the Modern Revolution.

Learn more: The World That the Modern Revolution Made

A Time of Astonishing Changes

Here are some of the more astonishing changes that have occurred during this period. One of the most astonishing has been changes in the number of human beings on our planet. In 1000 C.E., there were 250 million humans on Earth; by 1700, there were almost 700 million; by 1900, there were 1.6 billion; and by 2000, there were 6 billion of us. In my own lifetime, human population has increased by 3.5 billion. Just a thousand years ago, the total population on Earth was just 250 million.

We’ve seen huge cities begin to light up around the world and, by some estimates, total global output of goods and services may have increased by 100 times in just 250 years. That helps explain why, despite rapid population growth, somehow most of those people are still being clothed, fed, and housed—and though many live in dire poverty, considerable numbers live at higher material living standards than ever before.

What is it about this new world that allows it to support such staggering numbers of human beings? Clearly we’re no longer in the agrarian world. We’ve crossed a new threshold—the eighth and final threshold—called the “Modern Revolution.”

Learn More: Threshold 8—The Modern Revolution

1700 and 1900: Two Important Periods

The “Modern era” is the third of three human eras—the first two being the Paleolithic era, which lasted about 200,000 years, and the Agrarian era, which lasted about 10,000 years. The Modern era has lasted, so far, just a few hundred years.

Learn more: Threshold 7—Agriculture

I suggest that we define the Modern era as having started about 300 years ago, in 1700. Now that’s a slightly symbolic date. But I picked 1700 because that is when we first begin to see, in some regions of the world, a transition to radically different types of society that are capable of extraordinarily rapid rates of innovation and change.

The roots of change, however, lay in the previous millennium or so, and our explanations of the appearance of the Modern era will begin almost 1,000 years earlier, sometime in the 1st millennium C.E. As for the period after 1700, it can be divided into two main sections. The first extended approximately from 1700 to 1900. In this period, parts of the world, particularly in Europe and the Atlantic region, were transformed. As a result of that transformation, they acquired unprecedented wealth and power.

Picture of Seattle Train Station, c.1900
Picture of Seattle Train Station, c.1900

The second period began in about 1900, and it embraced the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century. In the second half of this period, modernity began to transform the rest of the world as well. The speed and comprehensiveness of this change is itself one of the most striking features of the Modern Revolution. Remember, it took 200,000 years for Paleolithic populations to spread around the world. It took 10,000 years for agrarian civilizations to transform much of the world. The impact of the Modern Revolution has been felt within just three centuries.

Learn more: A Second Industrial Revolution after 1850

Exchanging Information on a Global Scale

Concept of global fast internet connection network . World provided by NasaLet’s zero in on the meaning of the phrase the “Modern Revolution.” First and foremost, today’s world is simply radically different from the world of 1,000 years ago. There are a million examples. Let me just pick one random but spectacular example. Our unique ability to adapt and change as humans depends on what I call “collective learning”—the ability to swap information with great efficiency. This trait is fundamental to our ability to adapt and change.

Eight hundred years ago, the fastest way of transporting information over a large area was along the courier systems established throughout the Mongol Empire. Marco Polo gives a wonderful description of these. Marco Polo estimated that couriers could travel, if necessary, as fast as 250 miles a day, changing horses perhaps every 25 miles. But frankly this was really no faster than the post-horse systems of the Achaemenid Empire, which we heard Herodotus describing.

The thought that just a few centuries after Marco Polo, an ordinary citizen might be able to communicate instantaneously with another citizen anywhere in the world, or even fly to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours, would have seemed the purest fantasy. Yet that’s the world we live in today, where exchanges on a global scale of information can take place instantaneously around the entire globe.

Learn more: Satellites and Satellite Communications

Four Aspects of Our Complex Society

I’ve called the Modern Revolution one of our eight main thresholds, and this is because it does, indeed, count as a revolution in complexity. In what ways does this revolution count as more complex?

First, modern society has more structure than any earlier types of human communities. Just one illustration is the huge variety of roles that are available to individuals in this world. It’s much greater than it was in the agrarian world, where the majority of people were peasants. In addition, the structures of the modern world now are not just modern or regional, they’re global. Think of the astonishing organizational and technological challenge of keeping a modern city like New York, Beijing, or Mumbai going. It’s staggering; there’s nothing like it in the Agrarian era. The modern world involves more complex components, more components, and they’re linked together in more complex ways.

Learn more: The World Economy since 1950

Second, modern societies mobilize and use energy flows many times greater than those typical of earlier eras of human history. Here’s just one calculation that tries to give some feeling to this: Ian Simmons estimates that humans today may be using, on average—per capita, that is to say—about 230 kilocalories a day. That’s almost 10 times as much energy as his calculation for humans who lived 1,000 years ago. Yet, in the same period, human populations have risen by about 24 times, from about 250 million to about 6 billion. And what that suggests is that total energy use today, if these figures are right, is about 10 times 24, or about 240 times what it was just 1,000 years ago. And, of course, the key to this is the use of fossil fuels.

Third, we see a spectacular range of new emergent properties. This is where an analogy with supernovae works quite nicely. Supernovae spill new chemical ingredients into the universe. These modern properties include the ability to fly, the ability to communicate instantly across the globe, and the existence of cities of 20 million people.

And what about stability, the fourth key element in complexity? How stable is the modern era? Now that’s an interesting question that we have to leave hanging in the air, because all of this change is so rapid that as yet we don’t really know the answer to that question.

Keep Reading: The Big History of Civilizations: The Torch Podcast
In The News: Globalization Isn’t New

The Origins of Agriculture

From the Lecture Series: Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity 
Taught by Professor David Christian, D.Phil.