World History: Has society “evolved,” at all?

At the outset, of course, this is an ethnocentric question and even a human-centric question given definitions and connotations associated with “society” and “evolved.” But, this is an important question…

From one perspective, the form of life currently in existence that we call “humans” simply hasn’t been around that long. 

In JFK’s famous Moon Speech, he put it as:

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Another interpretation exists in this graphic: 


And lots of others are around, too.

Give the complexity of life and how it evolved for billions of years without humans, humans are still, as I always put it, simply babies on the evolutionary ladder.

In terms of biology and psychology, humans have not really “evolved” that much. That takes millions and then billions of years. Even if we look at the last three or so thousand years, have humans “evolved” that much? Look at the on-going realities of war and poverty and how those with power tend to abuse that power. In ways, one might say humans have done the opposite of “evolving.”


Look at how much of fellow life we neglect. (“Life” having a tremendously broad definition.) But, then too, can humans really be held responsible for their actions? 

This question initially came up in my Mexican American History I class about two weeks ago. We were spending a great deal of time exploring the roots of the United States in both Iberia and Mesoamerica. Society teaches us that “Ancient” peoples or pre-contact peoples in North and South America did not do anything and existed in a state of “savagery.” But, we discussed how Mesoamerica is just as much a “cradle of civilization” as is China, the Nile, and other place. And how the cultures of Mesoamerica used a more accurate calendar than the one in use in the West then or today and developed the number “0” over a thousand years before it was imported into Europe.

Ancient cultures around the world had various forms of heating and air conditioning and studied various forms of math, literature, rhetoric, history, sociology, and psychology. These are far from new inventions. 

Indeed, for the most part, our templates of ideas, philosophies, and practices–the cultural foundation of our society–are not that new or original to Modern societies. Studying ancient cultures is so important and always reminds me that they deserve so much more credit for their accomplishments than society gives them and reminds me that history repeats itself.

So when I ask “has society evolved,” I am thinking about the deep roots of society and how we haven’t “created” so much as we have adapted and sometimes expanded.

At the same time, as one of my students asked in the class activity detailed here, we need to look at it form a slightly different perspective:

How come we cannot answer questions that have not been answered for centuries? 

That we know so little of all that there is to know, suggests that we haven’t “evolved” that much. 

Given that lighting, computers, and cars dominate our lives and are highly visible, thinking we (in the last few decades, for example) have “evolved” may seem natural. We don’t encounter the rhetoric, math, and science that make the bedrock of our cultures in a one-on-one tangible way.

Concluding, we’re simply not that different–in terms of behavior, theoretical knowledge, hopes, and fears–than our distant, distant cousins and grandparents. Rather than discussing how peoples and cultures have “evolved,” we should always focus on the intertextuality between times, places, and peoples. Rather than arguing about what country is better and has “evolved” the most, we should recognize how we’re all connected and simply not that different on this Pale Blue Dot.