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Specialized institutions emerging in world history


The development of specialized institutions in society is related to population size. In a small-sized society such as the family, each adult member is a generalist although some specialization occurs along gender lines. The head of household is, at once, an administrator of orderly relationships within the family, a provider of economic sustenance, a teacher of language and culture, and a provider of other functions necessary to support and raise children. Beyond the level of the family, society has assigned occupational roles to its adult members that represent specialized functions.

With respect to growth of population growth, it is estimated that the earth’s population grew from 7 million persons in 4000 B.C. to 14 million persons in 3000 B.C. when Pharaoh Narmer unified the two kingdoms of Egypt. The growth of human populations progressed to 50 million persons in 1000 B.C., 170 million persons at the time of Christ, 190 million persons in 500 A.D., 265 million persons in 1000 A.D., 425 million persons in 1500 A.D., 900 million persons in 1800 A.D., 1.625 billion persons in 1900 A.D., 2.5 billion persons in 1950, 3.9 billion persons in 1975, and around 7.5 billion persons in 2017.

Along with growth of population came urbanization. Scholars generally associate civilization with urbanized societies. City dwellers assume more specialized functions than people living in tribes. Therefore, civilization itself is associated with the progressive specialization of occupations in societies with large populations.

Pre-civilized societies consist of people related to each other through blood kinship. Originally they supported themselves by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Then agriculture was developed. With agriculture came larger populations and the formation of city states. From them came kingdoms and empires including residents who were not related to each other by blood.

The city-states of Sumer and Egypt, established in the period between 4000 B.C. and 3000 B.C., are considered to be the first civilizations on earth. Arbitrarily, the history of civilization can be considered to have begun in 3000 B.C. when the Sumerian city states were flourishing and the Egyptian empire was unified. In rough terms, this is the chronological dividing line between civilization and the preceding order of tribal society.

As the civilized societies emerged, society’s major functions became embodied in particular institutions. Those institutions developed at different times. According to the scheme presented in my book “Five Epochs of Civilization”, government was the first institution to emerge as a fully developed institution after city-based monarchies split from the temple priesthood. Then, in sequence, came others: world religion, commerce and secular education, the news and entertainment media, and the Internet and other computer-related institutions.

These various institutions each emerged at particular times in world history. Each was the dominant influence upon historical events in a period of time known as an epoch. And so, government was the driver of history in the first epoch of civilization. World religion drove world history in the second epoch of civilization. Commerce and secular education jointly drove history in the third epoch of civilization. The news and media drove history in the fourth epoch of civilization. And, in the fifth epoch of world history - our own - it is computer-based practices that drive significant historical events.

functions in society

Let us review these successive institutions by function.

The function of government is to maintain an orderly and peaceful society. The monarch is primarily a person who specializes in making war. Then, as his armies conquered and subdued communities of people, the emphasis shifted to the administration of society. The monarch enacted laws, issued coins, built roads and canals, and so on.

Then came world religion, a type of religion in which moral ideas replace ritual as the basis of worship. The philosophical revolution of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. is associated with such persons as Confucius, Lao-tse, Buddha, Zoroaster, Second Isaiah, Pythagorus, and (later) Socrates. The quasi-religious philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, messianic Judaism, and neo-Platonism proceed from their idea-centered writings. In a mature phase, this epoch is associated with the religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. With respect to function, religion creates a belief system that both instills purpose in individuals and allows the political ruler to exercise his authority by a means other than force; the political ruler gains the cooperation of his subjects by commanding belief.

The third set of institutions is associated with commerce and secular education. In this epoch of history, the significant events are dominated by business enterprise and the educational system. The function of commercial institutions is to produce and distribute materials and service needed for living. Secular education, once confined to the nobility, has become a universal system of preparation for careers. Through them, individuals strive for upward mobility. The so-called “meritocracy” of career success replaces social positioning based upon birth.

The fourth epoch of civilization can be called the “entertainment age”. Yes, entertainment can become the focus of a civilization. This is, in fact, where we are now. Our American society is obsessed with entertainment. Although the media of news and entertainment are a particular type of business, their influence goes well beyond it as a means of advertising and selling commercial products. Institutionally, we have the radio and television networks, the Hollywood film industry, music recording studios, and other businesses that create and distribute the images of popular culture. Their productions have become a dominant driver of events in our age.

This entertainment-related culture is now being challenged by what the computer has created. The Internet may be the first recognizable institution of this new epoch. The computer also promises to transform political campaigns, education, medicine, consumer decision-making, and many other functions carried out in society. I am unable to predict how events in the fifth epoch of world history will ultimately play out.

Let me point out now that the scheme of civilizations presented in Five Epochs of Civilization has another dimension besides the institutional one. The epochs are also keyed to the introduction of new communication technologies. Here is the scheme:

The first epoch is associated with the development of writing in its original “ideographic” form. The second epoch is associated with the development of alphabetic writing. The third epoch is associated with printing. The fourth epoch is associated with a cluster of electric or electronic inventions such as the phonograph, motion pictures, radio, and television. The fifth epoch is associated with computers.

Each new communication device has a logical connection to the institution that is associated with the same epoch of history. To wit:

(1) The invention of ideographic writing met the record-keeping needs of the early government bureaucracies.

(2) The dissemination of alphabetic writing in the first millennium B.C. closely preceded the philosophical revolution during the Axial Age which, in turn, produced the world religions.

(3) The introduction of printing in Europe supported both popular education and commercial enterprise. Newspaper advertising was its supreme product.

(4) Electronic recording and broadcasting devices invented in the 19th and early 20th century supported a mass market for entertainment products.

(5) The personal computer facilitates globalized communication.

It is not my purpose to discuss this now. Instead, I want to establish the connection between the series of institutions just identified and the historical epochs. Those epochs are like successive chapters in a book. Each chapter has a unifying theme. If the book were written without chapters, the described events would be confused. It helps to divide the narrative into chapters whose themes are coherent and clear.

So it is with world history. It helps to understand what has happened in human history if we establish break points - i.e., new chapters - at the turning points of history. These set boundary markers for the “five epochs” of world history. The story of each epoch begins with the invention of a new communication technology and the development of a new institution of power. Once this framework of events is understood, we can see more clearly how historical events proceed.

World history can be conceived as the story of civilization which, in turn, describes how human society has developed from a set of small tribes to the large, complex communities that we have today. It is essentially a creation story. We tell world history most meaningfully when we can see progress from the old state of society to the new one. The separate chapters, describing events of each epoch, can exhibit this clearly.

As a word of caution, world history is not so clearly organized. Different groups of people develop so-called “civilized” societies at different times. The peoples of the Middle East developed civilization first. The peoples of India and China had well-organized city states by at least the end of the third millennia, B.C. On the other hand, civilization came to northern Europe with the Roman conquests of Julius Caesar and, in the case of Scandinavia, the conquests of Charlemagne. Tribal peoples in North America and equatorial Africa were not “civilized” - i.e., conquered - until the 19th Century A.D. In other words, the chronology is a bit confused.

Nevertheless, I will cater to the desire for simplified histories.

For the sake of simplicity, let us say that the first epoch of civilization began in 3000 B.C. with the emergence of the first political empire. It lasted until, say, 200 B.C. when the philosophical revolution of the “Axis age” was in full bloom. Alexander the Great’s successors were spreading the philosophically based Greek culture throughout southern and western Asia. A religious reaction was occurring in Judea that would blossom into messianic Christianity.

The second epoch of history, which began in 200 B.C., lasted until 1450 A.D. when the Renaissance culture of northern Italy challenged the medieval Christian order. There was a revival of interest in the pre-Christian classics of Greek and Roman literature as well as interest in the visual arts, philosophy, and the natural sciences.

The third epoch of history, which began in 1450 A.D., lasted until 1920 A.D. when the nations of northern Europe committed suicide in World War I, several imperial dynasties in Europe fell, colonialized peoples of Asia and Africa were encouraged to seek independence, and the high culture of Europe was replaced by popular culture disseminated by new media.

The fourth epoch of history, which began in 1920 A.D., lasted until 1990 A.D., when personal computers became widely used in the United States and other industrialized nations. The World Wide Web, otherwise known as the Internet, was created in 1991. The first search engine was introduced a year later. The television networks were meanwhile beginning to lose their share of entertainment audiences.

The fifth epoch of history, begun around 2000 A.D., is yet in its infancy. I am unable to predict how long this epoch will last or what will replace it.

In summary, we have this scheme put in neat boxes:


name of civilization dominant institution period of time
Civilization I government 3000 B.C. to 200 B.C.
Civilization II world religion 200 B.C. to 1450 A.D.
Civilization III commerce and education 1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D.
Civilization IV news & entertainment 1920 A.D. to 2000 A.D.
Civilization V the Internet and ? 2000 A.D. to --

elements of each civilization’s story

I came to this study of civilization by wondering how to tell the story of world history. I decided that this story could be divided into chapters that each told the story of the institution associated with its epoch. The significant events were those which described the development of that institution. The story itself concerned the rise and fall of a particular institutionally centered culture which I call a civilization.

In contrast, conventional schemes of world history tend to focus on the activities of government. They consist of royal chronologies or lists of presidential administrations, wars, treaties, laws, election campaigns, and other events connected with government. This type of history is rightly seen as meaningless. Even if there are compelling political figures such as Napoleon or Huey Long, what politicians did is less important to people than some of the other things happening in society. For example, more people today are interested in the fact that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in the 1927 baseball season than that Calvin Coolidge announced in the same year that he would not seek another term as President.

As I said, the history of civilization is ultimately the story of how human society was created and developed into the complex social organism that we see today. In part, it is the story of how pieces of the old order fell away as new growths took their place. For instance, the Papacy is no longer the politically powerful institution that it was in medieval Europe; the Protestant Reformation took care of that. Yet, the Papacy in its religious and moral capacity remains a powerful influence upon human society.

For simplicity’s sake, let us look at the five different periods of time and try to decide how their respective histories ought to be told. The first period is from 3000 B.C. to 200 B.C.; the second period, from 200 B.C. to 1450 A.D.; the third period, from 1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D.; the fourth period, from 1920 A.D. to 1990 A.D., and the fifth period, from 1990 A.D. to the present.

In the first epoch of world history, before 200 B.C., Christianity and Islam did not exist. Buddhism was starting to be organized as a religion that would challenge the Hindu order. There were, of course, no large corporations, universities, newspapers, radio or television networks, etc. Government was the only power center in society. Therefore, the story of humanity in this period concerned the activities of government.

I would ask you now to imagine the story that you associate with the history of this period. Would it not be with the succession of kings, the bloody wars, and the political empire-building that took place? These events are all associated with the institution of government. Relate that idea to the history that you take from ancient times. Relate it to the big events that you know in world history to see that my scheme is real.

Some of the highlights of this history would be:

the establishment of Egyptian imperial dynasties after Pharaoh Narmer of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt (3000 B.C.);
the building of the great Pyramids (c. 2589 B.C.);
the Akkadian king, Sargon I conquers the Sumerian kingdoms (2340 B.C.);
the illustrious reign of King Hammurabi in Babylon (1792 B.C.);
nomadic invasions of Egypt and Asia Minor (18th century B.C.);
the Hittite-Egyptian rivalry (13th century B.C.);
Chou kings overthrow the Shang dynasty in China (1027 B.C.);
Assyria’s emergence as a military power (745 B.C.);
the conquest of Assyria by Babylonia and its allies (606 B.C.);
Cyrus II conquers the Babylonians and Medes to establish the Persian empire (539 B.C.);
Cambyses of Persia conquers Egypt (525 B.C.);
Greek city states repel the Persian invasion (480 B.C.);
Alexander of Macedon defeats the Persians and conquering vast territories in Asia (333 B.C.);
Alexander’s generals create Greek empires in this area (c. 311 B.C.);
Chandragupta defeats Seleucus I in India (303 B.C.);
Arsaces I founds the Parthian kingdom. (247 B.C.);
Shih Hwang-ti, the first emperor, unifies China. (221 B.C.);
Construction begins on the Great Wall of China. (214 B.C.)

Also part of this history would be the subsequent establishment of the Mauryan, Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires that straddled half the earth. Those events occurred beyond our 200 B.C. cutoff.

Regarding the second epoch of world history, from 200 B.C. to 1450 A.D., we also have political empires but they play a less significant historical role than in the first period. Empires such as those of Charlemagne, Otto the Great, Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler dominate continental Europe but not with lasting effect. Instead, it is events concerning world religion that sway history. Again, think of events that you associate with this period of time. Weren’t many of them related to religion?

Some of the highlights of this history would be:

Buddha experiences enlightenment (530 B.C.);
Mauryan emperor Asoka converts to Buddhism (261 B.C.);
Jesus of Nazareth crucified and resurrected from the dead (30 A.D.);
Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans (70 A.D.);
Constantine legalizes Christianity (313 A.D.);
Council of Nicaea (323 A.D.);
Gregory I sends Augustine on a mission to England (596 A.D.);
Muhammad’s vision at Mt. Hira (610 A.D.);
Muhammad moves to Medina (622 A.D.);
the Byzantine emperor attack use of icons (726 A.D.);
Charlemagne crowned as Holy Roman Emperor (800 A.D.);
Qualuk Turks convert to Sunni religion (960 A.D.);
Vladimir of Kiev baptized in Orthodox Christian faith (969 A.D.);
Schism between Constantinople and Rome (1054 A.D.);
Pope Urban II announces first Crusade to recapture Jerusalem (1095 A.D.);
Muslims establish a state at Delhi in India (1206 A.D.);
the great schism within the Papacy (1309 A.D.);
Ottoman Turks capture Constantinople (1454 A.D.)
Martin Luther’s protest against the Papacy (1517 A.D.)

Regarding the third epoch of world history, from 1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D., this chapter of history begins with a revolt against the medieval Christian order and rediscovery of the natural world known as the Renaissance. European Christians become bitterly divided. The intelligentsia turns against theology to embrace the study of nature. Government and religion continue to exercise power in the society but they are joined by a new power center associated with money lenders, merchants, and manufacturers. They become the creative force in society.

Some of the highlights of this history would be:

Columbus’ discovery of America (1492);
Cortes and Pizarro conquer indigenous American empires (1521, 1530);
Elizabeth I charters the East India Company (1600);
establishment of the Virginia Company (1606);
Bank of Amsterdam and Bank of England founded (1609, 1694);
Charles I of England is beheaded (1649);
John Law’s Mississippi Company collapses (1720);
Wolfe defeats Montcalm in Quebec (1759);
American and French revolutions (1776, 1789);
Louisiana purchase (1803);
Parliament passes First Factory Act (1819);
end of Chinese opium wars (1842);
Gold discovered in California (1849);
Admiral Perry reopens Japan (1854);
Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation (1863);
last spike driven in U.S. transcontinental railroad (1869);
first May Day strike for 8-hour day (1886);
Carnegie’s steel company sold to J.P. Morgan (1901);
Henry Ford’s $5-a-day minimum wage (1914);
World Wars I and II (1914, 1939);
Bolsheviks seize power in Russia (1917);
stock market crashes in New York (1929);
India and Pakistan receive independence (1947)

Regarding the fourth epoch of world history, from 1920 A.D. to 1990 A.D., we turn from serious events to light-hearted interests centered in sporting events, films, popular music. After the bloodiest wars in history, people just wanted to have fun. Fortunately, new communication technologies allowed them to enjoy inexpensive pleasures. And so, historical events took a turn toward popular entertainment.

Some of the highlights of this history would be:

Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London (1851);
first U.S. intercollegiate football game (1869);
Buffalo Bill introduces his “Wild West Show” (1883);
Olympic Games revived (1896);
D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” film (1915);
first broadcast on a commercial radio station (1920);
Babe Ruth hits 60 home runs in a season (1927);
gambling legalized in Nevada (1931);
Jesse Owens wins gold medals at Olympics in Berlin (1936);
Atlanta premiere of “Gone with the Wind” (1939);
Oklahoma! opens on Broadway (1943);
Bobbysoxers riot at Frank Sinatra’s appearance (1944);
opening of Disneyland park in California (1955);
Elvis Presley becomes a national singing sensation (1956);
Kennedy-Nixon debate on television (1960);
Beatles appear on Ed Sullivan show (1964);
Green Bay Packers win first Superbowl (1967);
Woodstock music festival (1969);
moon landing broadcast live on television (1969);
Evel Knieval tries to jump across Snake River (1974);
“Star Wars” movie (1977);
Ted Turner launches CNN (1980);
Johnny Carson retires from Tonight Show (1992)

Regarding the fifth epoch of world history, which began in 1990 A.D., its experience has been too brief to have a history. The creation of the World Wide Web in 1991, the Dot-com financial bubble of the late 1990s, the Y2K fears of 2000, and the emergence of Google, YouTube, Face Book and other popular websites in the first decade of the 21st century might be considered a beginning.

The point is that world history is a story or series of stories woven together into a coherent whole. How to select experiences and organize them into stories is the principal challenge. Each institution starts out with certain historical events. Other kinds of events become important as the institution develops. As this institution enters a period of decline in preparation for the next epoch, stories of error and decay become more frequent. The highlighted events proposed earlier for each epoch suggest which particular experiences might be included in their respective histories although the lists are not conclusive.

a pluralistic society

Keep in mind that the institutions of government, religion, commerce, education, and the entertainment media continue to exist in the age of computers. Each has a continuing history as those institutions develop. The thesis presented in Five Epochs of Civilization is that the new institution that emerges in an epoch is the one most dynamic and creative. The older institutions tend to be reshaped by it.

Take the institution of government. In the second epoch of civilization, political rulers sought the church’s endorsement because this signified divine sanction for their rule. In the third epoch, when commercial markets became fully developed, political power shifted to legislatures which were tax-collecting bodies. Monarchs needed moneylenders to finance their expensive wars. Then, in the fourth epoch of history, politicians were elected who presented an appealing image on television. Similarly, commercial products were most efficiently sold through television advertising. In the field of religion, televangelists became prominent during the entertainment age.

Computer technology is currently exerting an influence upon activities in many different sectors of society. We have sites such as or facilitating political activities on the left as talk radio, a relic of the entertainment age, continues to support conservative politics. We see becoming a dominant player in the book-selling industry We see its Kindle reader challenging books made of printed paper. We see online colleges such as University of Phoenix or Capella University entering the market for higher education. Computerized medical records and retrieval systems promise to revolutionize the practice of medicine.

The point is that modern society has become more complex as new technologies help particular functions become more fully developed. The old functions do not go away. Instead they are joined by new ones so that an accumulation of differing functions takes place. Government, religion, business, education, entertainment, and computer websites now share the power in society. Each keeps the other’s power in check.

In the first epoch of history, only government had power. The Ch’in and Roman empires were essentially totalitarian states. That arrangement would be too dangerous today. Then, in the second epoch of history, government and religion shared power. In the third epoch, business interests came to shape society as higher education created a privileged class. Today it is the entertainers who make the most money and are admired. They too have become a power center that works in concert with the rest.

To sum it up: With increased size of populations comes increased specialization of functions. Institutions associated with an earlier period of history do not go away. Instead, they remain to handle their function, albeit in an altered form. As the larger society fills up with an increasing number of institutions, its power structure becomes pluralistic. We can narrate the story of world history in terms of that process.


Note: This paper was presented on June 3, 2011, at the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations held in New Orleans, Louisiana, on the 50th anniversary year of the society's founding in Salzburg, Austria. Besides being a presenter, Bill McGaughey was program chair of this conference.