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What Is World History? Essay

4790 words - 19 pages

What is world history? Bruce Mazlish contends that "world" history, as opposed to "global" history, is the study of systemic processes of interaction among diverse peoples, best typified by the work of William H. McNeill. By contrast, "global" history is the history of globalization, a process that Mazlish argues did not begin to occur on a significant scale until at least the 1950s, and, more plausibly, the 1970s. Citing prominent economic historians, Nicholas Kristof asserts that globalization actually started in the second half of the 19th Century, when steamships, the telegraph, the railroad, and European, North American, and Japanese empire-builders brought humankind into a single densely interwoven community of trade, investment, culture, and political rivalry for the first time. One of the founders of world-system theory, Immanuel Wallerstein, traces the invention of capitalism and the beginnings of what he calls the "Modern World-System" to the late 15th and 16th Centuries. His co-founder and worthy competitor Andre Gunder Frank argues that capitalism originated some five thousand years ago and that at least the Afro-Eurasian ecumene has been in continuous interactive existence ever since. As that ancient forerunner of postmodernist relativism, the Roman playwright Terence, once said, Quot homines, tot sententiae: "as many men, so many opinions." [1]

All of these contentions make sense, given the definitions of terms and the frames of reference of each writer. They do not necessarily conflict, and they all make their contribution to our understanding of the dimensions of world and global history. But from my own perspective, there is no hard and fast distinction between world and global history. I accept the evidence of contemporary anthropology that the career of Homo sapiens commenced in Africa more than a hundred thousand years ago, that tribes of biologically human men and women swiftly spread northward and eastward from their African homeland, outbred their hominid rivals, and in due course populated the whole planet. To me, this is globalization, the global diffusion of humankind and human cultures. In only a few thousand generations, Homo sapiens was everywhere, and everywhere essentially the same, despite superficial differences such as skin color or width of nose or degree of hirsuteness. Globalization outran evolution. The sheer mobility and versatility of Homo sapiens precluded significant differentiation.

Accordingly, I would like to define world history as the history of all the doings of the species Homo sapiens on (and off) the planet Earth, the globe Earth, since its emergence in Africa more than 100,000 years ago. In all these millennia, humankind has swarmed over the whole planet and has exchanged ideas, institutions, technologies, and languages back and forth and every which way, often making it difficult if not impossible to ascertain which idea, institution, technology, or language first arose where or when. In...

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