Monthly Archives: September 2012

Essay Questions 12

1. What are the factors responsible for increasing economic globalization? Discuss the consequences of such a trend.

2. “The United Nations has proven itself incapable of solving both regional and global problems and should be dismantled.” Do you agree?

3. What changes, if any, would you like to see in the people of your country?

4. Describe and justify your philosophy of life.

5. How should the spread of AIDS be combated?

6. Do you agree that nuclear power is the only practical solution to the world’s energy problems?

7. “The modern woman has paid too high a price for equality.” Do you agree?

8. “The greatest danger of science is that it is seen by modern man as the answer to everything.” Discuss.

9. “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Do you agree?

10. Is it true that the promotion of the Arts is a luxury which only rich, developed nations can afford?

11. “Nearly all non-conformists are merely attention seekers.” Do you agree?

12. Discuss the purpose, value and effectiveness of any two recent government campaigns in your country.

13. “Some people need advice; most need orders.” How far do you agree with this view?

14. What do you understand by the concept of a mature person?

15. “All history is biased.” How far do you agree with this view?

16. “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” Is this a sound advice?

17. Do you agree that Western society has gone too far in its questioning of all forms of authority?

18. Is Science necessarily the key to the advancement of Mankind?

19. In what ways is statistical literacy important?

20. What do you consider are the advantages and disadvantages of having an armed police force?

21. Which three technological developments do you feel will have the greatest impact on mankind in the next decade? How and why will they change our lives?

22. “Censorship is always self-defeating and therefore futile.” How far do you agree?

23. “Economics is not a science but merely a form of modern witchcraft.” Discuss.

24. “American culture is having a pervasive and polluting influence on the rest of the world.” How far do you agree?

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List of good habits that you should practise every day…

Adapted from: ‘GP Power’ by Robert Wilks

1. Listen to the BBC World Service news on the radio every morning

2. Watch the news in English on television

3. Subscribe to English newspapers (e.g. The Straits Times) and current affairs magazines (e.g. TIME, Newsweek, The Economist)

4. Take an active interest in world events and topical issues

5. Speak English whenever and wherever it is appropriate

6. Buy and use a good dictionary (e.g. Collins, Oxford)

7. Compile a vocabulary list of new and useful words

8. Keep a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine articles relevant to G.P. and sort them accordingly (based on topics)

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Family and Gender Essay Outline

The author of this post has kindly mapped out the thinking process: http://h1-gp-words-words.blogspot.sg/2010/01/family-and-gender-essay-outline_03.html

Does tradition still have a role to play in modern societies?

Key words

Tradition: set of (cultural) beliefs, customs, practices, values long-established and passed down from generation to generation
Still: It is assumed that it had a role to play in the past. Consider the changes in society that might have led to the above viewpoint.
Role to play: Consider if it still serves a purpose, or if it is of value.
Modern society: Identify the distinguishing features of modern society and explain how they might have diminished or enhanced the roles played by tradition.

Possible stands:

Yes, but (acknowledge the effect globalisation has on attempts to maintain a unique culture/traditions)
No
(Yes) Prove that tradition still has strong value (for whom? In what ways?) even in our modern society (don’t merely list benefits and disadvantages)

————————————————————————-

Argument: Even as societies develop, they do not completely abandon their sense of right and wrong. Traditional value-systems are an important tool for government systems to keep people in check and a vehicle for passing on certain moral values

Reason: Pure reliance on a legal system to police a state is not always effective The use of value systems and the emphasis of traditions can become an educational tool that helps to breed pro-social behaviour in society, aiding the government in maintaining order.

Explanation: Asian, Confucian values ensure a disciplined, orderly and stable society and inculcates a healthy respect for authority and the state.

Evaluation: Furthermore, such traditions can keeps peace in society especially when sexual depravity, child abuse, theft, murder and other disruptive issues are reaching very worrying levels in more liberal societies.

Conclusion: If traditions are not harmful nor do they strip away any fundamental rights, if maintained and abided by, tradition helps to maintain proper social conduct in society.

Other possible arguments (agree)

Tradition makes us unique (provides us an identity) and adds variety to a world that celebrates diversity.
+ An economic argument: maintaining tradition adds to uniqueness  tourism.
Traditional values and practices help us to better appreciate our ethnic cultures and understand the workings of our own societies

Traditional value-systems have been present in societies for centuries, keeping people in check and passing values on to the young. E.g. Asian, Confucian values ensure a disciplined, orderly and stable society. If maintained and abided by, tradition helps to maintain proper social conduct in society.

Balance (BUT)

Show that unique traditions tied to a country may not hold much value/purpose in a rapidly changing, borderless /globalised world

In a globalised world, tradition continues to put in place differences that are barriers that impede development and global co-operation (economic, social, even educational reforms)

An over-dependence on traditional values may inhibit the growth and dynamism inherent in national cultures – especially in younger, still changing nations.

Traditional values can continue to discriminate women in a patriarchal society. (or lead to other forms of intolerances and disapproval)

The strict maintenance/laws/censorship to “protect” conservative traditional beliefs may preserve the integrity and good behaviour of the people but may restrict expression and growth in some of the arts.

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5 Qualities of a Great Social Media Manager

I would recommend you to read this very good article about the understanding of social media: http://www.socialnomics.net/2012/08/31/5-qualities-of-a-great-social-media-manager/

By Amy Kattan

If you stay up to date on the latest trends in social media, I’m sure you’ve read Cathryn Sloane‘s article on NextGenWhy Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25Cathryn argues that since “under 25ers” were teenagers when social media exploded (aka when Facebook started), they have a superior understanding of social and are therefore, most qualified for social media positions. Needless to say, this strong opinion was not so well received by many social media professionals. Whether you agree or disagree, I’m here to argue that the age of your social media manager is insignificant: Your social media manager needs to be not only the voice of your brand, but someone who accurately represents your brand’s core values and has an understanding of the company’s overarching strategy. When hiring your social media manager (or any type of social media position), here are a few things you should look for (besides age):

1) Knowledge of major social platforms: Although there are definitely a few points Cathryn made that can be disputed, she did touch on one very important point: your social media manager needs to understand the major social platforms (or, at the very least, have the ability to learn the platforms quickly). Part of understanding social is understanding the platforms and how they can be most effectively used to benefit your brand.

2) An understanding of how people work: Social media is not a broadcasting tool: It’s a way for brands to tap into people’s natural socializing processes. In order to do this, your social media manager must understand your consumers’ typical behavior patterns, including how they communicate with one another and interact with brands they support.

3) An understanding of how business works: Understanding social media is great, but it means nothing if these efforts aren’t providing any value to your business. What are you paying your social media manager for? What results can you show? Your social strategy should tie into the brand’s overarching business strategy. It is essential for your social media manager to understand your company’s challenges and goals so that he/she can build your social strategy around that.

4) The capacity and eagerness to learn: Social media is an industry that is constantly changing. Regardless of the amount of experience your social media manager has, the willingness to learn is one trait that cannot be overlooked. This person must be willing to stay on top of changes on current social platforms in addition to staying up to date on emerging platforms that will be a good fit for your brand. Your social media manager must also be able to determine if your current social strategy is benefiting your business and identify challenges on a regular basis.

5) Adaptability: Since social media changes every day, your social media manager must not only stay up to date on all of the changes, but also be willing and able to alter your social strategy accordingly. Making sudden changes to a plan is never easy but in this industry, it is essential. It is important for your social media manager to be driven by the success of your brand, which often means re-evaluating tactics when new opportunities emerge.

Overarching question to ponder: What do you look for in a social media manager?

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To what extent should freedom of speech be a guaranteed right?

Adapted from: http://gpessays.com/society/to-what-extent-should-freedom-of-speech-be-a-guaranteed-right

Basic rights, basic civil, human and political rights are the cornerstone of every democracy, from America to India, Singapore to South Africa, as set out in their various constitutions and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For examples, the right to live, the right to vote, the right to a life free from fear and the right to freedom of speech, have all been clearly set out as intrinsic rights which are inalienable and should be duly accorded to every human being. However, the right to freedom of speech has long been the subject of much controversy as to the extent to which this particular right should be guaranteed and to whom.

Freedom of speech, like all other rights, has intrinsic value. It, in particular, allows an individual the liberty to express his thoughts without fear of reproach, regardless of what he says. This has important implications for a country in the social and political arenas for it is only when citizens are able to freely express support for or speak up against certain ideas, be they political policies or even social norms, that progress can be achieved. For example, in a totalitarian or dictatorial state, it is only when people are allowed to speak freely and come up with their own political parties, that there can ever be political reform and progress within a country. This is something that is widely accepted to be true and this can be seen in the global community’s support of Burma ‘s possible release of opposition leader Aung Sung Su Kyi as a move steeped in foresight and with progress in mind.

Similarly, in the social sphere, it is highly beneficial to accord people their right to free speech because it not only breeds a more thinking, more creative societybu it also reduces dissatisfaction and may bring about social reform. If people are not allowed to speak their minds and can only meekly accept whatever comes their way, this is not only detrimental in terms of the type of society being bred, it also gives cause for worry in that citizens may feel deprived of their rights or suppressed, and this could breed latent dissatisfaction in the country. This latent dissatisfaction may result in violence and anger, disrupting stability within a nation. Conversely, if citizens are accorded the right to freedom of speech, this latent dissatisfaction would then have a constructive outlet and backlash would be more peaceful and less antagonistic in nature. This could lead to peaceful social reform, in contrast to the extreme measures that people would otherwise have to undertake in order to successfully put their point across. For example, Martin Luther King, a champion of equal rights in America was allowed to speak up for the rights of the minority, and this was pivotal in bringing about the paradigm shift away from white supremacy to that of equal rights for all. Hence we see that free speech can indeed improve society and enrich people.

However, despite its obvious benefits, we cannot be myopic or overly optimistic by failing to recognize the propensity for such a right to be abused. As such, we see that rights are not absolute and they cease to be ‘rights’ as soon as the exercise of that right infringes on the rights of another. Hence, we cannot assess individual freedom in a vacuum and must put it into a real world context. Free speech, like any other freedom, has the potential for abuse and such abuse results in a clash of interests between societal good and individual liberty. An obvious illustration is extremism. Extremists, who hold views widely divergent from those of mainstream, conventional thinkers, are famous for inciting violence, resulting in social upheaval and hence disrupting law and order. This occurs because certain individuals choose specifically to prey on simmering feelings of resentment, which may exist beneath the surface. This could shake the fabric of society and cause great confusion and possibly violence. This happened in Britain . In 1989, a new political party quickly gained popularity in areas north of London such as Birmingham and Westhampton. Being strongly nationalist, they managed to bring to the surface racist sentiments which ultimately culminated in wide-spread racial violence, the worst witnessed in England in twenty years. Hence we see that the abuse of freedom of speech threatened the security of the country and this is something that cannot be condoned, much less thinly veiled by the argument of it being a ‘basic right’. In such instances, it is in the best interest of society to contain, to some extent, the right of the individual for the good of society.

Thus, it is evident that while the intrinsic value accorded to rights is not entirely imagined, it is sometimes over-hyped and exaggerated and therefore must be taken with a pinch of salt. We cannot then blindly protect the right to free speech without properly taking stock of the wider implications of the actions of the individual. So, while it is a great injustice to deny people of their basic right to freedom of speech, it is justifiable to choose to curtail the rights of some for the good of society, and to avoid the case of possibly bringing about a breakdown of societal cohesion and a disruption of law and order and peace.

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Gender is no longer a helpful concept. Do you agree?

Adapted from: http://gpessays.com/gender/gender-is-no-longer-a-helpful-concept-do-you-agree

One of the most noticeable revolutions in this century is the Feminist movement. The first wave which began in 1854 was a fight for women’s rights to education and to voting by the Suffragettes. Conventional wisdom has it that the feminist movement is the rise of the female and the start of the road to equality of the sexes. However, on deeper analysis, it is actually the shift in attitudes of females that fueled this revolt. Sex is not the issue here. Rather, gender takes the limelight. Gender is the behavioural traits and attitudes of the sexes, not the biological characteristics of what defines us as male or female. This statement implies that attitudes of the sexes are absolutely not useful, nor is it beneficial. I do not agree with this totally. While gender may not be helpful in certain situations, it is definitely helpful in others.

The idea of gender not being helpful is exemplified in situations where women take on leadership roles and have responsibilities to fulfill. Traditionally, women are perceived to be reliant on their male counterparts and are expected to be subservient to them in all circumstances. If this is not the case, they will be deemed as defiant and are likely to be outcast. However, in the modern era women are not tied to their traditionally expected gender behaviour. Just look at the increase in the number of females having an active role in the political arena. In the recent issue of Forbes Magazine, Ms Wu Yi, the vice premier of China , is ranked as the most powerful woman in Asia . Ms Wu Yi has shown her credibility and abilities when she skillfully handled the SARS scare in China , outshining the previous male health minister. The latter tried to hide the burgeoning number of SARS victims under the proverbial carpet, much to the world’s disgust. Hence, the concept of women being less capable than men, and always playing a less important role than men so as to be seen as submissive, is not useful in the political arena as it prevents a level playing field for men and women.

Secondly, gender is not useful in defining roles for both male and female in the family unit. In the past, women were always stay-at-home mothers while men were the breadwinner, bringing home the bread and butter. Women played the role of mental support and care while men took on the role of financial support and discipline. Yet, now we witness a shift in roles – a growing proportion of fathers as homemakers and an exponential increase in the number of mothers who enter the workforce. The concept of gender is not helpful here because it imposes a restriction on men and women and on how they should carry themselves in order to fit the roles already defined for them, In fact, a ‘liquidification’ of roles allows fathers to establish a closer bond with their children and participate in their development in a more holistic manner.

However, gender can be a helpful concept when it benefits the individual. For a company that produces products, gender may be an essential concept. It gives the company some directions or some clues as to how they can better package or promote their products to cater to consumer’s demands. Take for example a beauty salon may wish to target primarily women since being image-conscious is a much acknowledged mentality of the female species. The cult of youth, especially emphasized by the media, is almost deep rooted in women due to their attitudes towards physical beauty and “perfection”. Beauty salons target women’s consumeristic nature and idealistic aims of reaching artificial “perfection” to help them yield profits. Of course there is now an increasing number of males who are image-conscious, but it is not a widespread phenomenon yet. Hence, how can anyone say that the concept of gender, which includes attitudes and behaviour, is not helpful at all?

To sum it up, gender can still be a helpful concept in situations where one’s aims can be achieved. In fact, it promotes awareness of the general behaviour of the sexes. However, the concept of gender is not as helpful as it used to be in the past as seen from the shift in the roles of male and female, and the increasing difference in the needs of the past and present societies. One thing we all know is that the helpfulness of this concept will diminish as time goes, and this is necessary for the progress of the world.

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Assess the view that the appreciation of the arts is only for the rich.

Adapted from: http://gpessays.com/art/assess-the-view-that-the-appreciation-of-the-arts-is-only-for-the-rich

The view examined here is one that states that only the rich are able to appreciate the arts. Is this true or false? It depends on our definition of ‘the arts’ Furthermore, who are we referring to when we speak of the rich? It is impossible to define the arts. Is a statue of Madonna covered with elephant dung considered part of the “arts”? Some could consider “Water lilies” by Monet a work of magnificent art, but others would consider it a mediocre painting, nothing more.

However, it is the general opinion that the arts are composed of certain key aspects: namely, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and other areas. But something must be said of the arts; whichever form it takes, art transcends boundaries: social boundaries. What I mean is that everybody is able to appreciate art, but in different forms. For example, a person from the middle-to-upper classes might view the musical “Miss Saigon” as a great work of art; however, someone of a lower socioeconomic class unacquainted with musicals might not be able to appreciate it, preferring to listen to folk songs which the middle and high class citizen may not be able to appreciate. Hence, I disagree with the above-mentioned view that only the rich can appreciate the arts.

Socially, people across all social classes are able to appreciate the arts simply because the arts appeal to different people in different forms. The asrt continues to sustain themselves because they satisfy the basic human need to express oneself – and in this expression, the arts appeal to the observer or force the observer to examine himself or the world around him. Furthermore, everybody views a work of art in a different light. Critics are divided about Rembrandt’s last self-portrait, “Self-portrait with two circles”. Does it display him in the weakness of his age, or does it show him seeing the truth of the world around him, stripped of its facade? Nobody can say for sure. Thus, it is this nature of art which leads to everybody being able to appreciate it: with the important qualification that they do so from different viewpoints, through different forms. Social class and wealth have no bearing on this.

When we speak of the “rich”, we are not merely speaking about people with wealth: we are speaking of an entire social class. Let us examine the rich: both in the economic and social sense, as to why it is untrue that only they are able to appreciate the arts. Economically speaking, it is conventional logic that the 18th century French aristocrat was able to take the time off his work and go into art galleries because he could afford to take leave from work, and could afford to pay the entrance fee into the gallery. On the other hand, the common peasant had to toil from morning to night, seven days a week, just to feed himself. Hence, he could hardly afford to appreciate the arts, in the monetary sense. However, the fault with this seemingly logical line of thought is that while the peasant could not afford to enjoy the same art forms of the noble, he could and did enjoy other art forms: folk songs, story telling, and the like. It would be biased to assume that the common peasant was culturally illiterate, simply because of his monetary status. As set out before,art can take any shape and form; lack of money need not be a barrier.

It is for this very reason that appreciation of the arts is not limited to the rich in the social sense. Going back to the above example, even if the peasant could afford to take a day off and go to the art gallery (which he probably wouldn’t, but for example’s sake), he would be rejected at the door simply because he was of a lower social class. His clothes, his manner, his accent, his very demeanor – these would all be out of sync with the social codes expected by the higher social class. Hence, he would be rejected because of the snobbish mentality of this form of art. There are two ways to look at this. Firstly, as mentioned above, he did not have to solely seek out this avenue of art – there were other forms of art available to him. In this way, appreciation of the arts was not beyond him. But secondly, I disagree with the snob rule that only a particular class may enjoy a particular Art form. It does not always hold true. Some particular instances of art truly transcend boundaries. For example, Vincent Van Gogh has long been regarded as one of the paragons of art. Mixing shades and hue, and the brilliance of colour, a Van Gogh painting can be worth millions of dollars on the art market – definitely a “high class” form of Art. Yet his paintings were never intended for the rich. One of his paintings, “The Potato Eaters”, shows a group of peasants sitting round a table, eating the potatoes their labour has borne. It is definitely an unglamorous painting, its hues being dark and subdued and its mood gloomy. Nobody of the higher class at that time would find it appealing – they had no need to be reminded of the lower class, those beneath them. Yet today, this image of the fruits of true toil appeals to all, as a reminder that life is not life without hard work and its results.

In conclusion, it would be absolutely misleading to say that only the rich can appreciate the arts. Anybody can appreciate art, and art can be seen, heard or sensed under virtually all conditions.

Categories: Arts, Essay, Music and Culture | Leave a comment

Useful Websites

Technology

1. http://news.cnet.com/

2. http://www.technewsworld.com/

3. http://www.wired.com/

4. http://www.socialnomics.net/

Gender

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/gender

Science and Ethics

1. http://discovermagazine.com/

2. http://www.sciencedaily.com/

3. http://www.livescience.com/

4. http://www.scientificamerican.com/

Environment

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment

Social Changes

1. http://www.historytoday.com/

General

1. http://www.humanevents.com

2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/

3. http://www.theonion.com/

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Essay Questions 11

‘Discrimination against women is still a global social epidemic today.’ Is this true?

‘There has never been a better time to be a woman.’ Is this true of the developed world?

‘Stereotypes are generalizations that should not exist.’ Comment.

‘A woman has to make an extra effort to succeed.’ How far is this true in today’s world?

‘A civilized society is characterized by tolerance.’ Discuss.

How far do you agree with the view that gender equality remains as a distant dream?

‘Gender is no longer a helpful concept.’ Do you agree?

“It is definitely more advantageous to be a diverse society than a homogeneous one.” Discuss.

“Minorities always suffer!” Is this necessarily true in today’s world?

How far do you agree that men are more discriminated against than women in modern society?

YEAR 4 ENGLISH FINAL EXAMINATION 2012

“Women do not need equality today, men do.” Discuss.

“Science is the root of modern society’s problems.” Do you agree?

“Technology makes us less able to relate to one another.” Do you agree?

“This has always been a man’s world, and none of the reasons that have been offered in explanation have seemed adequate.” Do you agree?

“The last bit of rainforest should not be destroyed even if there is no one left who values it.” Do you agree?

“Preserving the environment should be the responsibility of only developed nations.” Comment.

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Determining factor for Power

Latitudes not Attitudes: How Geography Explains

History

Many reasons have been given for the West’s dominance over the last 500 years. But, Ian Morris argues, its rise to global hegemony was largely due to geographical good fortune.

A schematic showing the spreading of humans in history. The schematic is made based on an image in the magazine "Natuurwetenschap en techniek", October 2009. By KVDPA schematic showing the spreading of humans in history. The schematic is made based on an image in the magazine “Natuurwetenschap en techniek”, October 2009. By KVDP

I am wearing your clothes, I speak your language, I watch your films and today is whatever date it is because you say so.

This is what Shad Faruki, a Malaysian lawyer, told the British journalist Martin Jacques in a 1994 interview. And he was right: for 200 years, a few nations clustered around the shores of the North Atlantic – ‘the West’, as we normally call them – have dominated the world in ways without parallel in history.

Most people, at some point or another, have wondered why the West rules. There are theories beyond number. Perhaps, say some, westerners are just biologically superior to everyone else. Or maybe western culture is uniquely dynamic; or possibly the West has had better leaders; or the West’s democratic politics and its Christianity might give it an edge. Some think western domination has been locked in since time immemorial: others that it is merely a recent accident. And, with many westerners now looking to China’s double-digit economic growth to pull the world out of recession, some historians even suggest that western rule has been an aberration, a brief interruption of an older, Sinocentric, world order.

When experts disagree so deeply, it usually means that we need fresh perspectives on a problem. Most of those who pronounce on Western rule – economists, political pundits, sociologists – tend to focus on recent times and then make sweeping claims about the past. Asking why the West rules, though, really requires us to work the other way round, posing questions about history, then seeing where they lead. As the masthead of this magazine puts it: ‘What happened then matters now.’

The shape of history

Explaining why the West rules calls for a different kind of history than usual, one stepping back from the details to see broader patterns, playing out over millennia on a global scale. When we do this the first thing we see is the biological unity of humanity, which flatly disproves racist theories of western rule.

Our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago and has spread across the world in the last 60,000 years. By around 30,000 years ago, older versions of humanity, such as the Neanderthals, were extinct and by 10,000 years ago a single kind of human – us – had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. This dispersal allowed humanity’s genes to diverge again, but most of the consequences (such as the colour of skin, eyes, or hair) are, literally, only skin deep and those mutations that do go deeper (such as head shape or lactose tolerance) have little obvious connection to why the West rules. A proper answer to this question must start from the fact that wherever we go – East, West, North, or South – people are all much the same.

So why have their histories turned out so differently? Many historians suggest that there is something unique about western culture. Just look, they say, at the philosophy of Socrates, the wisdom of the Bible, or the glories of Leonardo da Vinci; since antiquity, the West has simply outshone the rest. Such cultural comparisons, however, are notoriously subjective. Socrates, for instance, was certainly a great thinker; but the years in which he was active, during the fifth century bc, were also the age of the Hebrew prophets in Israel, of the Buddha and the founders of Jainism in India, of Confucius and the first Daoists in China. All these sages wrestled with much the same questions as Socrates (Can I know reality? What is the good life? How do we perfect society?) and the thoughts of each became ‘the classics’, timeless masterpieces that have defined the meanings of life for millions of people ever since.

So strong are the similarities between the Greco-Roman, Jewish, Indian and Chinese classics, in fact, that scholars often call the first millennium bc the ‘Axial Age’, in the sense of it being an axis around which the whole history of Eurasian thought turned. From the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea, larger, more complex societies were facing similar challenges in the first millennium bc and finding similar answers. Socrates was part of a huge pattern, not a unique giant who sent the West down a superior path.

From a global perspective, Christianity, too, makes more sense as a local version of a broader trend than as something setting the West apart from the rest. As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the middle of the first millennium ad and new questions (Is there something beyond this life? How can I be saved?) gained urgency, the new faith won perhaps 40 million converts; but in those same years, in the wake of the Han dynasty’s collapse in China, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism offered their own answers to the same questions and won their own 40 million devotees. Soon enough Islam repeated the feat in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Even such astonishing Renaissance men as Leonardo and Michelangelo, who refined the wisdom of the ancient West to revolutionise everything from aeronautics to art, are best seen as Europe’s versions of a new kind of intellectual which societies needed as they emerged from the Middle Ages. China had produced its own Renaissance men some 400 years earlier, who also refined ancient wisdom (in their case, of course, the East’s) to revolutionise everything. Shen Kua (1031-95 ad), for instance, published groundbreaking work on agriculture, archaeology, cartography, climate change, the classics, ethnography, geology, maths, medicine, metallurgy, meteorology, music, painting and zoology. Even Leonardo would have been impressed.

Over and over again, the triumphs of western culture turn out to have been local versions of broader trends, not lonely beacons in a general darkness and, if we think about culture in a broader, more anthropological sense, the West’s history again seems to be one example of a larger pattern rather than a unique story. For most of their existence, humans lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. After the Ice Age some hunter-gatherers settled down in villages, where they domesticated plants and animals; some villages grew into cities, with ruling elites; some cities became states and then empires and, finally, industrialised nations. No society has ever leaped from hunting and gathering to high technology (except under the influence of outsiders). Humans are all much the same, wherever we find them; and, because of this, human societies have all followed much the same sequence of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West.

Location, location, location

You may have noticed that all the historical examples I have mentioned – Italy, Greece, Israel, India, China – lie in a narrow band of latitudes, roughly 20-35° north, stretching across the Old World. This is no accident: in fact, it is a crucial clue as to why the West rules. Humans may all be much the same, wherever we find them, but the places we find them in are not. Geography is unfair and can make all the difference in the world.

When temperatures rose at the end of the last Ice Age, nearly 12,000 years ago, global warming had massive consequences everywhere, but, as in our own times, it impacted on some places more than on others. In the latitudes between 20° and 35° north in the Old World and a similar band between 15° south and 20° north in the Americas, large-grained wild grasses like wheat, rice and teosinte (the ancestor of maize) and large, relatively tame mammals like wild goats, pigs and llamas went forth and multiplied in the warmer weather. This was a boon for humans, who ate them, but in the process of managing these other species – cultivating and tending the plants, herding and culling the animals – humans unintentionally domesticated them. We unwittingly altered their genomes so much that they became new species, providing us with far more food. Genetically modified organisms had been born. Potentially domesticable plants and animals existed outside the lucky latitudes, but they were less common. Indeed many places, such as large parts of Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, had no domesticable native species at all. The consequence, given that humans were all much the same, was predictable: the domestication of plants and animals – farming – began in the lucky latitudes long before it began outside them. This was not because people in the lucky latitudes were cleverer or harder-working; nature had just given them more to work with than people in other places and so the task advanced more quickly.

Nor was nature even-handed within the lucky latitudes. Some places, above all the so-called ‘Hilly Flanks’, which curve from what is now Israel through Syria, southern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran, were extraordinarily well endowed; China between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers and the Indus Valley in Pakistan were somewhat less so; Oaxaca in Mexico and the Andes in Peru somewhat less still. Consequently, the Hilly Flanks were the first to see farming firmly established (by 7500 bc); then came China and Pakistan (around 5500 bc); then Oaxaca and Peru (by 5000 bc); and then, over the next 7,000 years, most of the rest of humanity.

Farming spread from its original cores because it could support more people than hunting and gathering. The lives farmers led were often harder and their diets poorer than hunters’, but that was beside the point. The farmers’ weight of numbers, nastier germs (bred by crowding and proximity to domestic animals), more efficient organisation (required to keep order in larger villages) and superior weapons (necessary to settle constant quarrels) steadily dispossessed the hunters, who either took up farming in their own right or ran away.

The agricultural cores developed increasingly complex institutions as they expanded. Within 3-4,000 years of the start of farming (that is, by 3500 bc in Southwest Asia, 2500 bc in the Indus Valley, 1900 bc in China, 1500 bc in Mesoamerica and 1000 bc in the Andes) the first cities and states were taking shape. Within another few centuries, most had bureaucrats keeping written records and by 2,000 years ago a continuous band of empires, with populations in the tens of millions, stretched from the Mediterranean to China. By then imperialists and traders had exported agriculture, cities and writing beyond the lucky latitudes as far afield as cold, rainy Britain in the northwest and hot, humid Cambodia in the southeast. These great empires – the Han in the East, the Mauryan in India, the Parthian in Iran and Iraq and the Roman further west – had many similarities; but the biggest, richest and grandest by far was Rome, the descendant of Eurasia’s original, westernmost agricultural core in the Hilly Flanks.

Geography explains why farming first appeared towards the western end of the Old World’s lucky latitudes; and, if the West had simply held on to the early lead that nature’s unfairness had given it, geography would be the obvious explanation for why the West now dominates the world.

But that is not what actually happened. The West has not always been the richest, most powerful and most sophisticated part of the world during the last ten millennia. For more than 1,000 years, from at least 600 to 1700 ad, these superlatives applied to China, not the West.

After the fall of the Roman and Han empires in the early-to-mid first millennium ad, China was reunited into a single empire while the West remained divided between smaller states and invading Arabs. By 700, China’s capital at Chang’an had probably a million residents and Chinese literature was enjoying a golden age. Woodblock printing presses churned out millions of books, paid for with the world’s first paper money (invented in the 10th century). By 1000 an economic revolution had joined the cultural explosion: 11th-century China produced almost as much iron each year as the whole of Europe would be doing in 1700, on the eve of its Industrial Revolution. Chinese ironmasters produced so much, in fact, that they clear-cut entire forests to feed their forges, and – six centuries ahead of the West – learned to smelt their ores with coke.

For centuries, Chinese wealth and power dwarfed the West’s. Between 1405 and 1433, while little Portuguese caravels tentatively nosed down Africa’s west coast, Chinese emperors dispatched gigantic fleets across the Indian Ocean under the leadership of the eunuch admiral Zheng He (who, according to legend, was nearly three metres tall and 230 cm around the belly). Zheng’s flagship was on the same scale as its skipper. At 80 metres long, it was the largest wooden ship ever built. When Columbus set sail in 1492, his own flagship was shorter than Zheng’s mainmast and barely twice as long as the big man’s rudder. Columbus led three ships and 90 sailors; Zheng led 300 ships and 27,870 sailors. His fleet extracted tribute from the cities of India, visited Mecca and even reached Kenya, where today Chinese archaeologists are diving to locate wrecks of Zheng’s ships.

The power of place

The glories of medieval China seem, on the face of it, to disprove any geographical explanation for why the West now rules. After all, geography has not changed very much in the last 500 years.

Or maybe it has. Geography shapes history, but not in straightforward ways. Geography does determine why societies in some parts of the world develop so much faster than others; but, at the same time, the level to which societies have developed determines what geography means.

Take, once again, the example of Britain, sticking out from Eurasia into the cold Atlantic Ocean. Four thousand years ago, Britain was far from the centres of action in the Nile, Indus and Yellow River valleys, where farming had been established for millennia, great cities had grown up and labourers by the thousand broke their backs to immortalise divine kings with pyramids and palaces. Distant Britain had few of these things, which spread only slowly from the Mediterranean core to the Atlantic periphery. Geography made Britain backward.

But, if we fast-forward to 400 years ago, the same geography that had once made Britain backward now gave the island nation wealth and power. Britain had been drawn into a vastly expanded and more developed core, which now had ships that could reliably cross oceans and guns that could shoot the people on the other side. Sticking out into the Atlantic, such a huge disadvantage 4,000 years ago, became a huge plus from the 17th century.

The first sailors to the Americas were Italians (Christopher Columbus was from Genoa; the famous ‘British’ explorer John Cabot, who reached Newfoundland in 1497, actually grew up as Giovanni Caboto, in Florence). They were soon shoved aside by the Portuguese, Spanish, British, French and Dutch – not because the Atlantic littoral produced bolder or smarter adventurers than the Mediterranean, but simply because Western Europe was closer to America.

Given time, the 15th century’s greatest sailors – the Chinese – would surely have discovered and colonised America too (in 2009 the Princess Taiping, a replica of a 15th-century junk, came within 20 miles of completing a Taiwan–San Francisco round trip, only to collide with a freight ship within sight of home). But in much the same way that geography had made it easier for people in the Hilly Flanks to domesticate plants and animals than for people in other parts of the world, it now again stacked the odds in the West’s favour. The trip from England to New England was only half as far as that from China to California. For thousands of years this geographical fact had been unimportant, since there were no ocean-going ships. But by 1600 it had become the decisive fact. The meaning of geography had changed.

This was just the beginning of the changes. In the 17th century a new kind of economy took shape, centred around the North Atlantic, generating massive profits and driving up wages in north-west Europe by exploiting the geographical differences round its shores. In the process, it enormously increased the rewards for anyone who could explain how the winds and tides worked, or measure and count in better ways, or make sense of the secrets of physics, chemistry and biology. Not surprisingly, Europeans began thinking about the world in new ways, setting off a scientific revolution; they then applied its insights to the societies they lived in, in what we now call the Enlightenment. Newton and Descartes were geniuses, but so too were Chinese scholars like Gu Yanwu (1613-82) and Dai Zhen (1724-77), who also spent lifetimes studying nature. It was just that geography thrust new questions on Newton and Descartes.

Westerners answered their new questions, only to find that the answers led to still newer questions. By 1800 the combination of science and the Atlantic economy created incentives and opportunities for entrepreneurs to mechanise production and tap into the power of fossil fuels. This began in Britain, where geography conspired to make these things easier than anywhere else; and the energy windfall provided by fossil fuel quickly translated into a population explosion, rising living standards and massive military power. All barriers crumbled. British warships forced China to open to western trade in 1842; Americans did the same in Japan 11 years later. The age of western rule had arrived.

The lessons of history

So what do we learn from all this history? Two main things, I think. First, since people are all much the same, it is our shared biology which explains humanity’s great upward leaps in wealth, productivity and power across the last 10,000 years; and, second, that it is geography which explains why one part of world – the nations we conventionally call ‘the West’ – now dominates the rest.

Geography determined that when the world warmed up at the end of the Ice Age a band of lucky latitudes stretching across Eurasia from the Mediterranean to China developed agriculture earlier than other parts of the world and then went on to be the first to invent cities, states and empires. But as social development increased, it changed what geography meant and the centres of power and wealth shifted around within these lucky latitudes. Until about ad 500 the Western end of Eurasia hung on to its early lead, but after the fall of the Roman Empire and Han dynasty the centre of gravity moved eastward to China, where it stayed for more than a millennium. Only around 1700 did it shift westward again, largely due to inventions – guns, compasses, ocean-going ships – which were originally pioneered in the East but which, thanks to geography, proved more useful in the West. Westerners then created an Atlantic economy which raised profound new questions about how the world worked, pushing westerners into a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-19th century, the West dominated the globe.

But history did not end there. The same laws of geography continued operating. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the vast resources of North America, converting the USA from a rather backward periphery into a new global core. The process continued in the 20th century, as the American-dominated global economy drew in the resources of Asia, turning first Japan, then the ‘Asian Tigers’ and eventually China and India into major players.

Extrapolating from these historical patterns, we can make some predictions. If the processes of change continue across the 21st century at the same rate as in the 20th century, the economies of the East will overtake those of the West by 2100. But if the rate of change keeps accelerating – as it has done constantly since the 15th century – we can expect eastern global dominance as soon as 2050.

An age of rapid change

It all seems very clear – except for one niggling detail. The past shows that, while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means; and all the signs are that in the 21st century the meanings of geography are changing faster than ever. Geography is, we might even say, losing meaning. The world is shrinking and the greatest challenges we face – nuclear weapons, climate change, mass migration, epidemics, food and water supply – are all global problems. Perhaps the real lesson of history is that by the time the East overtakes the West, the question of why the West rules may have ceased to matter very much.

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