Milestones in the development of human society

The history of human development runs over some ten thousand or so years. I use the word 'history' to apply to that part of humanity's existence during which there were written records.

The understanding of human development before the historical period is much more speculative and vague.

Of course any listing of humanity's milestones will be, to a large extent, a personal point of view. How could it be totally objective?

This page was started 2020/08/30, last edited 2020/10/23
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

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The rise of renewable/sustainable energy mostly in the early twenty-first century was a promising milestone.
North Brown Hill Wind Farm
Humanity could, and should, be changing from fossil fuels to clean sustainable energy far more quickly than it is.
Photo taken by my Phantom 3 Advanced drone, 2017/09/15

During the writing of this page I came to realise how important were the many milestones that discredited the so-called 'revealed truth' of religious delusion. For centuries or even millennia the advancement of human discovery and learning was held back by accepted religious dogma.

When I started on this project I thought that I might pick out about ten of the most important milestones. After a couple of day's work the list had reached 40.

In the prehistorical period a few of the biggest milestones were:

  • Development of spoken language;

    Ages defined by materials used

    Stone Age (early [Palaeolithic], middle [Mesolithic], late [Neolithic]), Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Steel Age.

  • Tool making;

  • Use of fire at will;

  • Attempting to explain the observed world (which would include the development of religion);

  • The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals.

The main milestones in human development in the historical period

What were the main milestones in the development of human society during the historical period as we see it in 2020? In approximate chronological order:
  1. The development of written language made possible the beginning of the historical period. Wikipedia states that: "Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BC), Egypt (around 3250 BC), China (1200 BC) and lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala (by 500 BC)." Some human cultures did not develop a written language at all until coming into contact with others in modern times and adopting their written languages;

  2. Development of civilisation (different times in different places, starting about 5000 BCE). Was this also the beginning of the subjugation of the majority by an elite minority, king, dictator or tyrant?;


    Recording of knowledge

    Attempts to record what was known, or what was thought to be known, started with people like Herodotus in ancient Greece and Marcus Terentius Varro in Rome. See the history of encyclopaedias in Wikipedia.
  3. The use of rational thought to explain the world was a long and faltering process. The beginning of the displacement of religion and other delusions with reason and observation came about the sixth century BCE with people like Pythagorus, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece. Before this it was typically taken that everything that happened in the world and the Universe was controlled by gods;

  4. There were, no doubt, many cases of tribes run along democratic lines earlier, but the rise of Athenian democracy in the sixth century BCE was the first time it was applied on the scale of a city state. (It still was not a true democracy, slaves and women had no standing). What legitimacy can any government claim if the people governed have no say in the appointment of that government? (See a word on China.)

  5. Spread of civilisation (through the rise and fall of ancient empires: Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Athens, Alexander the Great, Carthage, Rome, China);

  6. The Golden Age of Islam (8th century to 14th century) the bridge that allowed the knowledge of the ancient world to reach Renaissance Europe following the Dark Age in that continent;

  7. Age of exploration (started by Prince Henry the Navigator, early to mid 15th century, and continuing to the present);

    Faith–the greatest enemy of reason
    How very true John. It could equally well be said that faith – the holding of beliefs without supporting evidence, or even contrary to the evidence – is the greatest enemy of reason.
  8. The rise of science (Perhaps first in the Renaissance, 15th and 16th centuries, starting in Italy then spreading through Western Europe). The adoption of science as a way of understanding the World was probably the greatest of all human achievements. It was also another step toward the irrelevance of religious belief;

  9. The Copernican revolution started with Nicolaus Copernicus himself, especially with his publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. Other important participants were the Danish (naked eye - there were no telescopes at the time) astronomical observer Tycho Brahe and the mathematician Johannes Kepler who used Brahe's observations and Copernicus' theory to devise the laws of planetary motion.

  10. Galileo Galilei developed the refracting telescope for astronomical use starting from 1609. Importantly for the acceptance of the Copernican Revolution he demonstrated that Venus passes through phases and the Jupiter has its own moons. The work of Kepler and Galileo demonstrated the fallacy of the 'official' church-supported theory that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe.

  11. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was the great pioneer of microscopy and has been called "the Father of Microbiology" for his study and description of microbial life forms and microscopic plant and animal parts. Galileo and Leeuwenhoek were either the first or at least among the first to use instruments to aid the human senses in the development of science.

  12. The Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the realisation that the Universe was amenable to reason went further than the steps taken in Ancient Greece. This was another step in the displacement of religion by rational thought. Isaac Newton (born in the year of Galileo's death) was a hugely important figure in the Age of Enlightenment especially with his laws of motion, law of gravitation and studies on the nature of light;

  13. While some form of inoculation seems to have occurred in China much earlier, vaccination was used against smallpox in China in the 16th century. It was much later, 1796, when Edward Jenner developed a safe vaccine for smallpox based on a related disease, cowpox.

  14. Abolition of slavery and serfdom (different times in different places; slavery is still not entirely wiped out);

  15. Industrial revolution (from about 1760 to 1830) started in England and then spread through Europe and the world;

  16. The Industrial Revolution could be considered to be the beginning of the coal age when humanity started to use fossil fuels rather than natural fuels and muscle power. Coal had been used for thousands of years, but its heavy and widespread use started around this time.

  17. The recognition that all humans should have equal rights, that the class society was unjustifiable and morally wrong. The French Revolution, beginning in 1789, was an important step in this. The ruling classes of Britain and many other European nations clung to a class system much longer, and forced it onto all because it was to their advantage. The somewhat similar cast system is still strong in India;

  18. Widespread gas lighting, using coal gas for both street and domestic lighting, began in the early 1800s. Its use in enclosed spaces came with the problems of smoke, grime and fumes from the burned gas and the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning (coal-gas, AKA producer-gas, contained a high percentage of carbon monoxide with is odourless and highly toxic). Electric lighting came later, in the early 1900s. For a long while tungsten filament light bulbs were dominant; they were very effective but also very inefficient, converting only about 10% of the electricity into light. Fluorescent lighting (mid 1900s) was a big step forward in efficiency. Light-Emitting-Diodes (LEDs) as highly efficient and long-lasting lights became common in the second decade of the twenty-first century. LEDs have the advantage over fluorescent of coming on at the full brightness immediately; the older large tube fluorescents flickered for a few seconds before coming on, the later compact fluorescents came on dimly immediately, but did not reach full brightness for a couple of minutes.


    Animal rights

    The recognition that animals should have rights, just as humans have rights, is of fundamental importance, but it is very difficult to say that it came at a particular time.
    The possibility of Man causing climate change has been recognised for over a century.
    CC warning

    Anthropocene epoch

    The Anthropocene is defined by Wikipedia as "a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change."
  19. The beginning of the oil age (about 1850) added again to the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere;

  20. Charles Darwin published his most important work on organic evolution, On the Origin of Species in 1859. Alfred Wallace shares the credit with Darwin. Organic evolution made nonsense of the Biblical story of creation.

  21. The germ theory of disease had a very long history. Ignaz Semmelweis showed that hand washing prior to the delivery of babies reduced puerperal fever (Wikipedia). Joseph Lister did important work in aseptic surgery. But the germ theory became widely accepted gradually following, in particular, the work of Louis Pasteur in the late 1850s.

  22. Refrigeration, using heat pumps, started to become widespread commercially in the late 1800s. Domestic refrigerators did not become common until the mid 1900s, refrigerated air-conditioning in the late 1900s. Evaporative air-conditioning can be more energy-efficient than refrigerated for home cooling in drier areas. Reverse cycle air-conditioning, that can both heat and cool, also came into common use in the late 1900s.

  23. The recognition that women should have equal rights to men (some progress was made in the French Revolution, but the movement didn't progress far until the 19th and 20th centuries);

  24. The rise of the internal combustion engined (ICE) motor vehicle; early twentieth century. It began adding significantly to the greenhouse carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;

  25. Plastics, so ubiquitous and so environmentally disastrous in the early twenty-first century, started with the invention of Baekelite in 1907;

  26. The recognition that dumping billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year could eventually have disastrous consequences to the Earth's climate came at least as early as 1912 as shown in the newspaper article on the right. (Human-caused climate change is named anthropogenic climate change; climate change caused by humanity.) The almost universal failure of governments to act with sufficient urgency and effectiveness in the late 20th and early 21st century has to be one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity and is condemning future generations to life in a very damaged environment;

  27. The recognition of the importance of vitamins in the diet was slow and faltering. It began in the early nineteenth century but was not understood until the early to mid twentieth century. Of similar importance was the recognition that a number of minerals are essential to human health. Typically the vitamins and minerals that have caused serious disease are needed in very small amounts and increasing the dose beyond the low levels required gives no advantage and can be toxic;

  28. Albert Einstein published his theories of relativity in 1905 (special relativity) and 1916 (general relativity). Another of his hugely important discoveries was the equivalence of matter and energy (E=MC2). His work lead to great advances in the understanding of how the Universe works and opened the possibility of nuclear power and bombs. General Relativity implied that gravitation waves would pervade the Universe and could, in theory, be detected, but that detection didn't come for about a hundred years. Einstein received the Nobel Prize in 1922 "for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." This discovery eventually led to solar photovoltaic power;

  29. Quantum mechanics allowed humanity to get a far better understanding of the very small, atoms and sub-atomic particles. It started in the mid-1920s with work by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and others;

  30. A great advance in observational astronomy came when people learned to produce devices and techniques that could use other wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum than the very small visible part. First came radio astronomy (with Karl Jansky's work in the 1930s), X-ray, Gamma-ray, infra-red and ultra-violet astronomy came later. Many of these required the lifting of instruments above the Earth's atmosphere. Around the same time microscopy made similar advances by using electrons instead of visible light, with electron microscopes and tunnelling electron microscopes;

  31. Antibiotics had been used for millennia without knowledge of how they worked. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of the fungus Penicillium notatum had antibacterial properties. It was Howard Florey and Ernst Chain who went on to develop penicillin in 1941.

  32. Nuclear power and weapons physically started in December 1942 with the first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago’s football stadium under the direction of Enrico Fermi. Other nuclear milestones were the first nuclear bomb in the Trinity test explosion (July 1945), the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6th and 9th 1945) and the first fusion bomb test on November 1952. The world's first full scale nuclear power station, Calder Hall in England, opened on October 17, 1956. As of the time of writing nuclear power cannot compete economically with renewables such as wind and solar power.

  33. Development of electronics started with the invention of the vacuum tube (valve in British or Australian usage) in 1904. But the modern explosive development in electronics had to wait until the invention of the transistor in 1947, moving on to integrated circuits and computers, digital cameras, mobile phones, drones, autonomous vehicles, etcetera;

  34. The discovery of the genetic basis for life and its roll in evolution took place over a long period and many people were involved, but the recognition of DNA's fundamental place in genetics, inheritance and evolution by Watson and Crick in 1951 was a very important step;

  35. Space exploration by humans and probes started soon after World War II with rockets lifting instruments to high altitudes but the successful orbiting of the Russian Sputnik 1 in 1957 was a very important step;

  36. Others might disagree, but in my opinion the development of concept of the meme was a minor milestone in the development of human society. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Wikipedia defines it as "an idea, behaviour, or style" that "acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals." Very importantly memes evolve in much the same way as organisms or viruses evolve;

  37. The suicide of humanity got well underway in the second half of the twentieth century with the widespread destruction of the natural world and failure to act on climate change and related problems;

  38. The rise of large-scale sustainable energy including wind and solar power. Wind power had been used for thousands of years for things like pumping water and grinding wheat, but its use for generating electricity didn't get under way on a large scale until mid-late twentieth century. Solar photovoltaic power became a major contributor to human society in the early twenty-first century. Sustainable energy will bring about the end of coal and other fossil fuel use for energy production, but it can't happen soon enough.


    Remarkable Wikipedia

    The English language edition of Wikipedia had more than six million articles in 2020. The most amazing fact about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit an article, yet, in my experience, it is highly reliable.
  39. The Internet evolved from the 1960s onward. Perhaps it might be said that the Internet fully came of age around the time of the development of Wikipedia in 2001 and Google Earth at around the same time.

  40. According to Wikipedia the first electric vehicles (EVs) were developed in the 1830s, but viable EVs that could compete with modern internal combustion engined (ICE) vehicles had to wait until the early twenty-first century.

  41. Einstein predicted gravity waves in the early twentieth century but they were not detected until 2016. This discovery allowed humanity to observe events in the Universe in a new and totally different way. Previously observations were limited to the electromagnetic spectrum, sub-atomic particles, meteorites and space exploration;


    Unwanted people

    There have probably always been refugees, but in the past there were usually places for them to find refuge. In the late twentieth century, and continuing today, there are probably more refugees than ever (and climate change and associated problems will produce ever more) but there is nowhere for them to find refuge except in huge camps. No nation wants them. My nation, Australia, has 'solved' its refugee problem by locking away indefinitely anyone who comes without the right permits.

    This sad state of affairs is an unspoken recognition that there are too many people in the world.

  42. The worst crimes in history have been committed during the last few decades and continue to be committed as I write. The deliberate lying by people in positions of power in order to support the fossil fuel industry, delay action on greenhouse gas emissions and slow the introduction of renewable energy is condemning future generations and all life on Earth to a badly damaged environment. The recent federal governments of my nation, Australia, (1, 2) and the Trump administration in the USA, are a few who should be numbered among these criminals.

  43. The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, perhaps no worse than the flu pandemic of the early twentieth century, but is much more in the mind of modern people. There is a paradox in that Covid-19 is far less a threat to humanity than is climate change, and no threat at all to the biosphere, yet the response of governments to the pandemic is far greater than to climate change;

  44. The recognition that humans can, and should be allowed to, choose their own time of dying instead of leaving it to chance and natural processes started in late 20th century, but has not yet been achieved. Doctor Philip Nitschke has been a great proponent of this right.

  45. The end of the religion delusion (started, perhaps, with the rise of reasoning in Ancient Greece, certainly has not been achieved yet. Will it ever be achieved?)
I must have made a number of mistakes in the above. Have I missed any major milestones, my email address is recorded in the AboutMe page.

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Wind power in Australia