The Big History of Civilizations: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Craig Benjamin, Ph.D.

The history of human civilization is an astonishing story of migration, innovation, and social development. Over 200,000 years, humans have populated the planet, adapted to environmental challenges, experimented with systems of government, and left such a strong mark on the earth that scientists now refer to our era as the Anthropocene—the era of humanity.

On this episode of the The Torch, we discuss the incredible advancement of civilizations, from the development of stone tools to space exploration.

Here to discuss that and more is Craig Benjamin Ph.D. Professor of History at Grand Valley State University.


The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability

What is Big History?

The Great Courses: What is big history? How is that different from just examining history as a historian.

Craig Benjamin: Big history looks at the whole of the past, including the past of our planet, all life on our planet, solar systems, galaxies, the entire universe.

In a regular big history course, you’d cover, really, hundreds of billions of years of history. From the origins of the universe through to the way stars form, shaping of our planet, emergence of life, evolution of life. Then human history unfolding in that context, in that background.

The Great Courses: Your new course is going to deal with the tail end, right?

Craig Benjamin: Correct. This new course focuses on the human part of the big history story.

The course begins at the moment that humans appeared on the planet, and then what sort of communities we formed, how we interacted with each other, the technologies we evolved and so on; the different ideas about governance, religion, whatever, right through to the present and then way off into the future.

The Human Part of Big History

The Great Courses: How do you define civilization?

 Craig Benjamin: Well, civilization, tricky word. It actually comes from Latin that has to do with cities and civic duty, and so on. We tend to say agrarian civilizations, huge states with agriculture as their core way of sustaining themselves, but with complex leaders, interconnected societies, hierarchies, warfare, monumental architecture. There are a whole bunch of defining characteristics of civilizations.

The Great Courses: OK. Is that the beginning of the human story though?

Craig Benjamin: No, the human story begins… In fact, the course begins with our hominid ancestors. Looking at Homo Erectus, and Homo Habilis, and so on. Then the emergence of humans, and what was unique about homo sapiens.

How do we define what it means to be human? What abilities do we have that even our closest ancestors did not have? How is it that these abilities have allowed us to go on and construct civil society, cities, and huge civilizations?

The Great Courses: What are those aspects?

Craig Benjamin: Well, it seems to boil down to human language. This ability, this sort of abstract, symbolic system we have created which allows us to share information and knowledge very precisely, to discuss very real, or very abstract concepts, and furthermore, to store and share that information amongst our species and over many generations.

My students have access to the knowledge that about 100 billion humans have accumulated. No other species can do that.

Learn More: The Rise of Humanity

Steps in the Development of Civilization

The Great Courses: Part of the course revolves around major thresholds in the development of civilization. Tell me a couple of them?

Craig Benjamin: The first is the evolution of language. Because this symbolic language ability is so important.

The next threshold is the transition from the long hunter-gathering period to agriculture. Once humans in a few select places make that transition, sedentism leads to larger populations, which leads to larger population densities. We start to acquire more resources, villages become towns, become cities.

Learn More: Origins of Agriculture

Then there are sort of smaller thresholds. The emergence of writing, of coinage, of bronze and iron tools and so on.

The next really big threshold is probably the modern revolution ushered in by industrialization just a couple of hundred years ago, which has really created the world that we live in today.

The creation of human language is key in the development of civilization. Click To Tweet

The Great Courses: So, we began as hunter gatherers, and in the course you often relate back to environmental factors and how they influenced what humanity became. What made us become hunter gatherers, and then moving into agrarian societies?

Craig Benjamin: Yes, you’ve touched on the mega theme of the whole course there. Which is the relationship between human history and the environment in which it plays out. For a long, long period, hunter gathering was the only viable option for survival.

When we emerge 200,000 years ago the earth was in the grip of an ice age which continued for almost the next 100,000 years. It made it impossible to farm or to stay in one place. Temperatures were terribly cold and constantly shifting, animal migration paths constantly shifting. The only option to survive was to be flexible yourself. To be mobile, to be able to follow these animals and species.

Only with the end of the last ice age and the warming of the environment did agriculture become possible. Thereafter really from that point on, right through the history of our species, you can see the critical role that the environment has played in directing, if you’d like, influencing changes in human history.

Of course it brings up a huge question about the environment right now and how our species will respond to the clear environmental challenges we are facing right now.

In that context, this course, although it looks at huge distances of the ancient past, is very much about the present. Sort of giving you some ideas of how human civilizations in the past have coped with dramatic climate change. Perhaps giving us some ideas as to how we can cope as well.

The Important Role of Pastoral Nomads

The Great Courses: What is it about the nomads that you present in the course?

Craig Benjamin:. Why they appeared where they appeared, what languages they spoke, what forced them to move, and what impact these huge migrations had on the sedentary civilizations that they interacted with.

Very importantly, they helped connect a lot of these huge, somewhat static civilizations. The Romans are here, Indian civilization here, the Chinese are here. Who is going to connect them together, through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet? It’ll be pastoral nomads who can move with their flocks and herds and survive in that environment and thus facilitate the great sort of linking up of all these civilizations into huge exchange networks.

Pastoral nomads move and facilitate linking various civilizations. Click To Tweet

Plus, of course, they are beautifully adaptive to the environment in which they survive, the steppe grasslands. They learn to sort of colonize these vast regions of the planet that were otherwise unavailable for humans, because they won’t support agriculture. In so many ways, pastoral nomads are critical to human history.image of nomad dwelling for the big history of civilizations articleLearn More: The Importance of the Nomads

Agrarian Societies

The Great Courses: Let’s talk about agrarian societies. Why do they last for so long?

Craig Benjamin: Agrarian civilizations, as long as the environment stayed stable, and as long as these societies did not abuse the environment, and thus sow the seeds of their own destruction, were very sustainable. You could evolve new strains of plants, and domesticate different animals and so on. But if the environment changed, then they were not sustainable.

History is littered with stories of civilizations that crashed and burned because they abused their environment in some way, often inadvertently. They didn’t realize what they were doing and the entire civilization just disappeared.

The Great Courses: Talk about some of those.

Craig Benjamin: Rapanui, Easter Island. It’s hard to believe but humans living in these villages along this remote Polynesian island got into some sort of competition between the villages to put up larger and larger statues. The great Ahu of Rapanui. I’m sure you’ve seen them. To get them up to their position, they slowly cut down all the trees on the island.

Even as they are cutting down the last tree, they must have known that their society could not survive. How could you build boats, how could you build houses, firewood. They couldn’t stop.

It was a competition even as they were destroying the final resources they needed to sustain themselves. They went blindly to their own environmental self-destruction. That story actually terrifies me sometimes when I think about our situation today.

Conflict and Competition

The Great Courses: Conflict and competition is another recurring theme.

Craig Benjamin: No question. It leads to incredible innovations in so many ways. Everybody knows that warfare leads to incredible technological innovation. Just think of the inventions that came out of the second world war, radar, the computer, sonar, and so on.

So– It turns out, in the big history of humanity, that living in a unified, sedentary, agrarian community is not necessarily the best thing in terms of driving change, driving progress.

We see, in western Europe for example, after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Western Europe was never unified. You’ve got this series of small competitive city states and kingdoms fighting each other all the time, using Chinese inventions, taking them to a much higher level of technological development through conflict. Turns out conflict is what drives rapid change.

From Steady Progress to Rapid Industrial Changes

The Great Courses: Are you amazed by what we have achieved in this last epoch of human existence?  It seems so rapid now.

Craig Benjamin: You are absolutely right. You think of nearly 200,000 years of the paleolithic, the stone age, hunter foraging. Tools barely change over 200,000 years. Then the transition to agriculture, a few things change, but then nothing much changes for a long period. But think what’s happened since the industrial revolution a mere 250 years ago. Think of the 20th century, and the rapid change, the rapid innovation in every technology.

It’s almost terrifying. It’s like a train wreck in slow motion that no one can control. What’s driving it is capitalism. Capitalism has been the main engine of the modern world, this desire to produce more efficiently, more cheaply, increase profit, and so on. There has been nothing like the 20th and 21st century in all the vast eons of history before it.

Capitalism is the main engine of the modern world: produce more and increase profit. Click To Tweet

The Great Courses: Is that a permutation of competition?

Craig Benjamin: It is, isn’t it. Because capitalism, if you’ve got two large corporations competing, creating the same product, of course you are going to see more efficient production and constant change.

The Great Courses: If you were to take a look at our modern times, how do you look at it as a big historian versus saying, “Here is the history of the 20th century,” as the regular historian?

Craig Benjamin: The role of the environment, the perspective on the 20th century and the 21st century. Seeing this as part of this much larger process. The incredible innovation at all levels, social, economic, cultural, and so on. But also seeing this as a moment, if you’d like, in this much larger story.

Learn More: The Industrial Revolution and Modernity

Also, looking at the impact of our species on the biosphere. Our success in the 20th and 21st centuries has been at the expense of pretty well every other species on the planet.

This is something that I think big history is very quick to point out, as humans have flourished, the rest of the biosphere has come onto incredible stress. Where is this going to lead us in the future?

No ancient civilization had to deal with the sort of stresses we are having to deal with right now.

So the decisions we make today will affect our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s lives. We need to be thinking clearly about the present and the future if we are to give them anything like the sort of lives that we’ve enjoyed in our generation.

From the Lecture Series: The Big History of Civilizations
Taught by Professor Craig Benjamin, Ph.D.

Keep reading:
The Origins of Agriculture
Ancient Astronomy—From Stonehenge to the Great Pyramids
Cuneiform: The Invention of Writing