Technology, Psychology, and Crises: Does World History Have a Psychological Dimension?

Technology, Psychology, and Crises: Does World History Have a Psychological Dimension?


Data about the victims of social violence in different cultures and historical epochs are provided by wars, political repressions, and everyday violence. Rough calculations demonstrate that while demographic densities and the technical capacity for mutual destruction have increased throughout the millennia, the violent death rate - the quantity of deliberate killings per capita per time unit - has been decreasing. The resulting downward trend appears highly non-linear, dramatic, and mediated by man-made catastrophes, but still, in the long term, progressive. Obviously, some perfecting mechanism of cultural aggression-retention has compensated for technological developments; among those mechanisms was economic development. This issue is explored using the pattern of techno-humanitarian balance.

Authors: Nazaretyan, Akop P.

Themes: Historical Psychology


Pages: 55-80

DOI: 10.11621/pir.2008.0005

Keywords: Historical Psychology, Technology, Psychology, and Crises: Does World History Have a Psychological Dimension?

History  is the progress of moral tasks. Not doings, but just the tasks, which mankind’s  collective might put before any certain person. The tasks were more and more  difficult, almost impracticable; nonetheless, they have been fulfilled -  otherwise, all should have fallen to pieces long ago (Pomerants, 1991, p. 59).

“After the notion of progress was basically  discredited, no one dared to ask what mattered for the history of humankind as  a whole”, - said William McNeill in his interview to the newspaper  “Historically Speaking” (Vol. IV, N 2, Nov., 2002) on his and his son’s  forthcoming book (McNeill & McNeill, 2003). Still, the author indicated and  welcomed the growing interest in global retrospection among both professional  historians and the interdisciplinary scientific community.

In this article, we expound on some  cross-disciplinary results carried out lately by the Russian scientists.  Insights from archeology, comparative history, social psychology, cultural  anthropology, ecology and biology have been synthesized. A synergetic (i.e.  chaos-theory) view of society as a sustainable non-equilibrium system and of  culture as a complex anti-entropy mechanism served for data integration.

The research was mainly aimed at the  practical tasks of ecological and geopolitical strategy, however its results  acquired additional meaning in Big (Universal) History context (Christian,  1991, 2004; Spier, 1996; Nazaretyan, 1991, 2004, 2005b). Trying to discover  common mechanisms and causal links, certain regularities are noted that may  throw new light on two points thoroughly discussed in historical sociology. The  first point is whether or not “panhuman history” may be reasonably construed;  the second is whether or not there may be singled out anything like “laws of  history”.

In chaos-theory terms, human history is the  story of one “self-similar” system, which exists on a scale of a million or so  years and has been successively transforming itself to maintain sustainability.  Retrospective analytical procedures have shown at least five mainstreams of  consecutive global transformations: increases of world population, of  technological power, of organizational complexity, and of mental information  capacity, and perfection of cultural regulation  mechanisms.

The first three mainstreams are inferred as  “empirical generalizations” that are easily illustrated with figures. The  fourth and the fifth require particular arguments (Nazaretyan, 2004). It is  argued that the continuation and perfection of cultural regulation mechanisms  is in conformity with developing instrumental intelligence.

The hypothesis of techno-humanitarian balance

Zoologists have gathered substantial  evidence concerning ethological balance: that is, the more  powerful species’ natural killing power, the stronger the inhibition of  intra-species aggression. Summing up remarkable observations in his brilliant  book about aggression, Lorenz noted that we ought to regret not having the  “nature of the predator”. For had humans descended from lions instead of  biologically harmless Australopithecus, he explained, we  would have a much stronger aggression-retention instinct preventing warfare  (Lorenz, 1981).

Meanwhile, comparative calculations have  demonstrated that lions (and other strong predators), relative to their  population, kill each other more frequently than humans do (Wilson,  1978).

This result looked sensational. First, it is  true that lions, unlike humans, have a strong instinctive ban on killing  conspecifics. Second, lions’ natural population density differs tremendously  from that of human communities, whereas concentration usually increases  aggression among both animals and humans. Third, “killing facilities” are  incomparable: the assaulting lion’s sharp teeth meet the enemy’s strong pelt,  while mutual killing among humans who are armed if only with stones, is technically  very easy, and since the Stone Age, weapons’ “progress” has been enormous.

The Australian ethnographers received  another interesting result having compared wars among aboriginals with World  War II. Out of all participants, only the USSR lost more human lives in  relation to population numbers than primitive tribes usually did (Blainey,  1975).

According to our calculations, from 100 to  120 million people perished in all the international and civil wars of the 20th  century[2]. The numbers, which  also involve indirect warfare victims, are monstrous. Still, they represent  about 1 % of the century’s planet population (no less than 10,5 billion in the  three generations). Approximately a similar ratio occurred in the 19th  century (about 35 million war victims to 3 billion population), and probably,  in the 18th century, while in the 14th to 17th  centuries the ratio had been higher.

Contradictory data and lack of co-ordinate  calculation procedures (Wright, 1942; Urlanis, 1994) make comparative inquiry  rather difficult. Nonetheless, general estimates reveal a paradoxical fact.  While weapons’ killing power and people’s concentration have been successively  growing for millennia, the number of war victims as a percentage of the overall  population has not.

Besides wars, a total amount of victims  includes people perished in “peaceful” political repressions, and everyday  violence, so that in the 20th century, up to 4-5 % of world  population seems to have died in the acts of deliberate violence  (Nazaretyan, 2008). The decreasing trend is more manifest when non-war violence  victims are compared. To calculate them retrospectively is even more difficult,  but as far as the orders of magnitude are concerned, we may resort to the  indirect evidence.

Wars, repressions, and everyday violence led  to approximately similar numbers of human deaths in the 20th  century. Meanwhile, the proportion of non-war victims of violence compared to  the warfare ones was different in the past. We may observe this difference  distinctly by comparing remote epochs of cultural history.

Thus, J. Diamond summarized his own field  observations and critically revised his colleagues’ information: “Much more  extensive long-term information about band and tribal societies reveals that  murder is a leading cause of death” (Diamond, 1999, p. 277). This conclusion  apparently considers the total sum of infanticide, geronticide, inter-tribe,  inner conflicts, hunting for heads, etc. M. Cohen, a most competent specialist  in historical demography, who is also known as an admirer of the Paleolithic,  had to recognize: “Even in groups swithout patterns of formal warfare...  homicide may be surprisingly common when measured on a per capita basis”  (Cohen, 1989, p. 131).

For a comparative historical research, we  used a distinctive cross-cultural index of practical violence - Bloodshed Ratio  (BR), a ratio of the average number of killings per unit of time k(Dt) to the population  size during that period p(Dt):


For the purpose of global and long-term  historical retrospection, we accept Dt = 100 years, as we compare Bloodshed Ratio by centuries. The  total number of violence victims is considered as the sum of war victims - wv,  repression victims - rv, and everyday victims - ev. The integral  population number of Earth during the century is the total sum of demographic  data in the beginning (01 year), the middle (50 year), and the end (100 year)  of the century.

So, the equation for Bloodshed Ratio of  the century looks like:


Special calculations demonstrate that the  violent death rate decreases irregularly in the context of a successively  increasing potential for mutual destruction and population densities in the  course of millennia (Nazaretyan, 2008). This contrasting combination of the  long-term trends implies an additional assumption: there should have been a  certain cultural factor, which compensated for the growth of instrumental  capacities. The factor’s dynamics are better shown as we supplement global  comparisons with regional ones (see below). As to its essence, it is described  by a hypothesis that arises from quite different empirical data; in fact, our  calculations are conducted to check a corollary of the hypothesis.

Summing up diverse information from cultural  anthropology, history, and historical psychology concerning anthropogenic  crises, we suggest that there was a regular relation between the three  variables: technological potential, cultural regulation quality, and social  sustainability. The pattern called the law of techno-humanitarian balance,  states that the higher the power of production and war  technologies, the more advanced behavior-regulation means is required to enable  self-preservation of the society.

The circumstances of early hominids’  existence were of the kind that only a dramatic development of instrumental  intelligence gave them a chance to survive (History..., 1983). Meantime, having  begun tool making, they dramatically interfered with the ethological balance.  The power of artificial weapons rapidly exceeded the power of instinctive  aggression-inhibition, and the proportion of mortal conflicts within the  population grew incompatible with its further existence. This could have been  the main reason for the fact demonstrated in archeology (Klix, 1985): many  groups seem to be on the line between animals and proto-humans, but very few  could cross it; those few groups managed to cope with the endogenous danger.

Indeed, individuals with normal animal  motivation were doomed to mutual destruction in the new unnatural conditions,  and certain psychostenic and hysterical individuals got selective privileges.  Their survival required artificial (beyond biological instincts) collective  regulation, which was paradoxically provided by pathological changes of the  psycho-nervous system, abnormal mental lability, suggestibility, and phobias.  Thus, irrational fear of the dead and posthumous revenge is supposed to  strongly restrain in-group aggression and stimulate care for cripples that  could play a key role at the earliest stage of anthropogenesis.

The assumption of a “herd of crazies” who  seem to be our remote ancestors has been thoroughly argued by neurologists,  cultural anthro­pologists and psychologists (Davydenkov, 1947; Pfeiffer, 1982;  Grimak, 2001; Nazaretyan, 2005a). Here, the relevant point is that the initial  forms of proto-culture and proto-morals emerged as an outcome of the first existential crisis in human prehistory.

From Homo habilis on, hominids’  unnatural intra-species killing facility seems to have been a key problem of  pre-human and human history: the ways of solving this existential problem  influenced essentially the forms of social organization, cultural, and  spiritual processes. As far as the further life of the hominidae family (including Homo sapiens) has not had a  natural background any longer, it was to a great extent enabled by the adequacy  of cultural regulation with technological power. The law of techno-humanitarian  balance has controlled socio-historical selection, discarding social organisms  that could not adapt to their tools’ power. We shall demonstrate that the  pattern helps explain causally both sudden collapses of flourishing societies  and breakthroughs of humanity into new historical epochs (which often look  still more mysterious).

Although the pattern is based on voluminous  empirical evidence, its universal character remains hypothetical. Besides  comparative calculations of the victims of violence, there are some additional  non-trivial corollaries under verification. Furthermore, a special apparatus is  being constructed, which will allow estimating sustainability of social  organisms as much as it depends on technological potential and cultural  regulation.

For an initial and rough guide, internal and external  sustainability are distinguished. The former, Si, expresses capability  of the social system to keep away from endogenous catastrophes, and is  estimated as the ratio of catastrophes per population number. The latter, Se, is capability to  withstand natural and/or geopolitical habitat’s fluctuations.

If we refer to the quality of cultural  regulation as R, and technological potential as T, a simple equation  represents the techno-humanitarian balance pattern:


It goes without saying that T > 0, for in case of no  technology at all we are dealing with a herd (not a society) where biological causalities  are effective. When technological potential is very low, primitive cultural  regulation means are sufficient to prevent anthropogenic crises, as in the case  of the Paleolithic tribes. A system is highly sustainable, up to stagnation, as  cultural regulation quality considerably exceeds technological might (Confucian  China is a textbook example). Finally, the denominator growth increases the  probability of anthropogenic crises, if it is not compensated by growth of the  numerator.

Actually, the indices’ structure, the  methods of quantitative estimation and the definition of functions f1  and f2 are under  consideration. Thus, the magnitude of R is composed of at least three parameters:  the social organization’s complexity, the culture’s information complexity  (anthropologists work over calculation procedures for these indices (Chick,  1997)), and the average individual’s cognitive complexity (the parameter is  investigated by experimental psycho-semantics (Petrenko, 2005)). The last component  is the most dynamic one, and we will show that the decline of cognitive  complexity under emotional impulse is the leading reason of crisis-causing  behavior. In contrast to internal sustainability, the external one is the  technological potential’s positive function[3]:


Thus, growing technological potential makes  a social system less vulnerable to external fluctuations, and more vulnerable  to the internal ones, i.e. mass and individual mental states etc. (less  “fool-proof”).

One more conclusion is that the specific  weight of anthropogenic crises versus the ones caused by outside factors  (spontaneous climate fluctuations, geological and cosmic cataclysms, incoming  aggressive nomads, and so on) has been historically increasing.

The consequences of techno-humanitarian  imbalance

Ethnographic papers are full of tragic  stories about the aboriginals of Africa, Asia, and America, as soon as they  first mastered European technologies, like the following. During the Vietnamese  war, a Paleolithic Mountain Khmer tribe obtained American carbines. The  hunters mastered the new weapon, and soon after that, exterminated the fauna,  shot each other down, and those who survived, left the mountains and  disappeared (Pegov & Puzachenko, 1994).

In such cases, the processes were  accelerated, and causes and effects were apparent, because the society had  skipped over several historical phases, and left a deep gap between firearm and  Stone Age psychology. Similar leaps do not usually occur in authentic history;  therefore the disparity between “instrumental” and “humanitarian” intelligence  development (the “force” and the “wisdom”) is not that manifest. So, causal links  are complex, delayed for centuries or, in early history, for millennia. To be  revealed, the same causalities require a thorough analysis supplied with an  appropriate working model.

To explain the model, we may first resort to  a classic experiment in a Petrie dish. Several bacteria impetuously propagate  themselves in the closed vessel with a nutrient medium, and soon, the  population suffocates in its own wastes. This is a graphic image of living  matter’s behavior: as long as the capacity of extensive growth prevails over  habitat’s resistance, the population keeps on capturing available vital space,  and repressing as much as it can any counteraction or competition. For this  reason, a natural ecosystem is full of ecological micro-crises.

In natural conditions, the aggravations are  usually regulated via dynamic equilibration mechanisms, which have been  developed for billions of years. Strategically, the processes of breaking and  restoring an inner balance lead to increasing variety of ecosystems and their joint  sustainability, which go together with the highly irregular conditions of each  population’s existence (oscillations in “predator - prey” circuit, etc.).

Culture, in both its material and regulative  hypostases, has always been aimed at emancipation from spontaneous  environmental fluctuations. Social communities, unlike animal populations, do  not behave so rectilinearly as the bacteria colony in a Petrie dish does, until  cultural restraints substitute for the environment’s resistance[4]. Meanwhile, a broken  balance between grown technological opportunities and former regulation  mechanisms can change the situation radically. According to formula (HI), it decreases  internal social sustainability, but the approaching menace is not noticed right  away.

On the contrary, the superiority of  instrumental intelligence entails the rise of ecological and/or geopolitical  aggression. Insufficiency of cultural restraints makes the society’s behavior  essentially similar to that of a biological population, especially as natural  expansion impulses are supplemented with a specifically human factor: needs go  higher as soon as they are satisfied.

The psychological aspect is given more  detailed analysis in the following section. We must just note here that sooner  or later, extensive growth runs against real limits, which leads to  anthropogenic crisis. Most frequently, it is followed by the catastrophic  phase: the society falls a victim to its own non-compensated power.

Special investigations show that most  tribes, states, or civilizations in the past were destroyed not so much by  external factors (such cases also took place, but they are less interesting for  our subject), but because they had subverted the natural and organizational  bases of their own existence. As to military interventions, epidemics,  ecological cataclysms, riots, and so on, events of that kind usually  accomplished the society’s self-destroying activity, like a virus or cancer  cells do a similar job in a weakened biological organism.

Numerous facts gathered in relevant papers  (Grigoriev, 1991; Global..., 2002) testify to the distressing destiny of  societies that could not anticipate the delayed consequences of their economic  activities. In spite of all peculiarities, a common script was simple:  increasing intervention into the ecosystem? Landscape destruction? Social  catastrophe.

As many researchers have indicated, an  empire’s destruction frequently followed its flourishing, if increasing inner  diversity did not accompany extensive growth. Toynbee cited various examples to  illustrate the inverse relationship between “military and social progress” and  was puzzled by the fact that this was surprisingly true about production tools  as well as weapons. Modern historians have also repeatedly indicated that new  technical achievements usually preceded social decline: “It certainly seems as  though... every heightening of efficiency in production were matched by a new  vulnerability to breakdown” (McNeill, 1992, p. 148).

The facts of social systems’ fracture  conditioned by technological growth are so numerous that they serve as a  pretext, on the one hand, for total technological pessimism and, on the other,  for denial of a common human history. The patterns of closed civilization  cycles deprived of continuity started to supplant the ones of single historical  process in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. The  discussion of those problems has resurfaced lately in the relevant literature.  To a considerable extent, it centers on the psychological aspect: has or has  not human consciousness been transforming historically, and if it has, whether  or not those transformations were “progressive”?

In particular, L. Kohlbcrg’s (1981) idea of  correlation between humankind’s intellectual and moral development[5] is still a subject of  criticism, even by the adherents of social evolutionism (Sanderson, 2003).

Nowadays, the idea gets new empirical and  conceptual support. The techno-humanitarian balance hypothesis highlights both  the facts of a social system’s self-destruction and the opposite ones,  concerning the constructive solution to anthropogenic crises. The latter have  been less frequent in the past; however, they were the turning points of world  history.

Namely, as a certain crisis involved a vast  region highly saturated with diverse cultures, its inhabitants managed to find  a key way out of the deadlock. Each time it was conditioned by a set of  irreversible social, political, and psychological transformations (see below),  which have been lined up as the consecutive evolution mainstreams. As special  analysis shows, society’s capacity for the appropriate transformation of its  economy, policy and mentality essentially depended on marginal groups, which  had been formerly neglected and despised; this we refer to as the redundant  variety rule.

No less than seven crucial breakthroughs for  all of human history and prehistory have been revealed and described. Still,  most researchers have so far either confined themselves to phenomenology or  left the problem of revolutionary transformation causes and premises for the  future. Thus, Jaspers (Jaspers) has adduced “the simultaneity puzzle”: how  could the Axial Revolution occur simultaneously on the immense geographical  area from Judea, Persia and Greece to India and China?

The techno-humanitarian balance hypothesis  proves helpful for causal scrutiny of great historical turning points,  each of which had been preceded by a wide-scale anthropogenic crisis. Human  consciousness has progressively evolved, restoring step-by-step the disturbed  cultural balance. So more curious is the fact we find out as we make a close  study of social activities foregoing crises aggravation: pre-crisis extensive  growth phases are attended by psychological states, processes, and mechanisms,  which have astonishingly reproduced themselves regardless of the population’s  cultural and historical peculiarities. That is why a coming crisis may be  diagnosed by psychological symptoms while economic, political, and other signs  still indicate growing social prosperity.

Mental conditions on the threshold of a  crisis

To begin this section, we consider selected  historical episodes that belong to a kind of “optimistic tragedies”. This will  help us observe some specific psychological features of both the pre-crisis  state of culture and minds and the one that is present after having coped with  the most dangerous aggravations. Here, only the inner logic of the processes is  considered; this approach abstracts from the influence of outside factors, up  to cosmic ones, on social events.

Apparently, in order to describe those  episodes as single separate stories we have to single them out of the continual  historical process; for this reason, the conventional beginning and end of each  are distinct by means of dots.

...The Upper Paleolithic millennia were  marked with an unprecedented development of “hunting automation” and distant projectiles.  Hunters learned to dig trap-holes, and invented the lance, lance-thrower,  darts, and bow with arrows (History..., 1983; Semionov, 1964). This created  good conditions for demographic growth and human expansion all over the planet.  World population reached 5-7 million people (McEvedy & Jones, 1978; Snooks,  1996). As one hunter-gatherer’s nourishment required an average territory of  10-20 square km, the planet’s resources could not provide for many more people.

However, not only demographic growth created  the problem (growth by itself is usually a function of a disturbed  technology-psychology balance): archeologists reveal the Upper Paleolithic  hunting bacchanalia. While natural predators first get sick and weakened  individuals, a well-armed hunter had the opportunity (and desire) to kill the  strongest and the nicest ones, and besides, the amount of preys far exceeded  the hunters’ biological needs. Some kind of wild animals’ “anthropogenic  graveyards” were discovered by the archeologists, and a great part of the meat  had not been used by humans (Budyko, 1984; Burovsky, 1998; Anikovich, 1999).  The dwellings made of mammoth’s bones exceeded construction needs. In Siberia,  30-40 adult mammoths’ bones were spent on each dwelling, plus a lot of newly-born  mammoths’ skulls, which were used as props and, perhaps, for ritual aims. In  the basins of Don and Dnepr, pit-stores of mammoths’ bones (their  predestination is not quite clear) have been found near some dwellings.  Enclosure hunting led to annual extermination of herds.

Since the fact was discovered that the last  mammoths lived on Wrangell Island about 4000 years ago, until the first humans  appeared there (Vartanian et al., 1995), the “overkill” theory of mammoths’ and  many other big mammals’ extinction hardly has an alternative. The first  symptoms of mega-fauna elimination are registered near 50000 years ago in  Africa, and the process peaked near 20000 years ago in Eurasia, and near 11000  years ago in America (Karlen, 2001). Skillful hunters penetrated into America,  quickly spread from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and eradicated all big animals,  including elephants and camels, which had never before met hominids. Similar  effects of mega-fauna extinction followed the first humans’ appearance in  Oceania and Australia (Budyko, 1984; Diamond, 1999). In total, up to 90% big  animals disappeared for ever, although those species had endured twenty  Pleistocene climatic cycles.

The trend of merciless extermination was  intensified on the threshold of the coming Holocene, the post-glacial epoch,  which could have helped foraging economies flourish; instead, it led to a  deadlock. Nature could not hear endless pressure on the part of such an  unrestrained aggressor as the Upper Paleolithic hunter. Uncontrolled resource  exploitation led to the ecosystems’ exhaustion and destruction, and it  aggravated inter-tribe competition. Population on the Middle latitudes  decreased several times.

The Neolithic revolution was society’s  creative response to the Upper Paleolithic crisis: some tribes made the  transition to settled agriculture and cattle breeding, and the new economic  idea rapidly spread from several centers (in Eurasia, and later in America).  Humans first started “partnership with the nature” (Childe, 1936); their  ecological niche essentially deepened. Thanks to developing agriculture, the  territories’ carrying capacity increased one, and then two, and then three  orders of magnitude (Korotaev, 1991), and the population rapidly grew.

Complex transformations in social relations  and psychology attended the transition from foraging economy to food  production. One needs a relevant mental horizon of delayed causalities to throw  into earth eatable grains, or to feed and protect animals instead of kill and  eat them. The mind’s grown information volume was embodied in all vital  activities. Social links and role repertory essentially broadened. Production  and combat tools were first differentiated, and a new kind of relationship  between agricultural and “warrior” tribes was established. The warriors could  guess that it was more profitable to protect the producers, and regularly  appropriate production “surplus”, than to kill or to drive them away, and the  farmers understood it was better to pay off the warriors for protection than to  leave the land or to perish in hopeless battles.

Such forms of inter-tribe symbiosis and  “collective exploitation” supplanted genocide and cannibalism of the  Paleolithic. As Telhard de Chardin (1987) notes, since the Neolithic, physical  extermination has been an exclusive or, anyhow, secondary factor: the crudest  warfare still included some form of assimilation. Modern anthropologists have  also indicated more than once that only in the Neolithic tribe integration (the  chiefdoms), people learned “for the first time in history, how to encounter  strangers regularly without attempting to kill them” (Diamond, 1999, p.273).

Population geneticists have recently added a  bright trait to the Neolithic portrayal (Sykes, 2001). Unlike previously  prevalent scenario, they showed, the substitution of foraging economy by  agriculture had not occurred via swimming aside or eliminating the  hunters-gatherers by an incoming tide of farmers (for instance, from the South  Caucasus to the East and to the North-West) but via displacement of the  retrograde technologies and organization. At least, so it was in Europe: most  of modern Europeans proved to be genetic offspring of the Cro-Magnon hunters.  To all appearance, the European story was not an exception.

This is a sensational discovery. It means  that first in human history a progressive idea won through change of mental  matrix, instead of physical removal of the old idea bearers, what had been  usual for the Paleolithic. So, the competition of social models was not merely  a struggle of races any more: it shifted partly to the “virtual” sphere, which  imparted a new long-term mechanism to the historical development...

...In the 12-11th centuries ВС iron production  appeared in the Middle East, Transcaucasia, and East Mediterranean and soon  spread to India and China. This produced a steep rise in extensive (including  demographic) growth opportunities.

Bronze weapons had been expensive, fragile,  and heavy. Small professional armies composed of physically very strong men had  waged wars. It had been extremely expensive to prepare and to arm such troops,  as well as to replace a killed fighter. Therefore, each commander had tried to  spare his own warriors, and exterminate as many enemies as possible.  War-captives had been usually killed, and a subjugated population had been  terrorized into obedience, by demonstratively destroying, or “taking prisoners”  the local gods’ statues, etc. (Berzin, 1984; History..., 1983).

Steel weapons were considerably cheaper,  more durable, and lighter than the ones of bronze. This allowed arming the  whole male population; something like a ‘people’s volunteer corps’ replaced the  professional armies, and competition for productive soils aggravated. Meantime,  the combination of new technology with former social, political, and military  values made early Iron Age leaders extraordinarily bloodthirsty (Berzin, 1984;  Vigasin, 1994).

Emperors and generals hewed on stones  boastful “accounts” to their gods about the numbers of enemies killed, and  towns destroyed and burned, which presented sadistic details of their “deeds”  (a relevant texts collection from “Reader on Ancient East History” see in  (Nazaretyan, 2008)). Battles became so bloody and diminution of male population  so fast that further life of technologically advanced states was threatened.

Culture responded to the challenge with the  Axial Spiritual Revolution, the causes of which, as indicated before, has  remained a puzzle so far. On vast geographical area, great prophets,  philosophers, statesmen and generals set the tone for society’s intensive job  on the whole value system’s revision. Cultures transformed unrecognizably in  several centuries. The cognitive complexity of social and individual minds,  humans’ capacity for abstract thinking and reflection, and the scale of generic  identity radically increased. Universal ideas of good and evil, personal choice  and responsibility appeared. Authoritarian mythological thinking first in  history partly made room for criticism, and the new private self-control  instance, the conscience, made an alternative to traditional gods-fear. Enemies  learned to see each other as human beings, understand, and sympathize.  Aeschylus’s tragedy “The Persians” was the first work of art in history that  described warfare as seen by the enemies’ side (Jaspers, 1955; Yarkho, 1972;  Nazaretyan, 2008).

These mental processes were distinctly  reflected in political relations. Objective aim achievement, instead of the  number of victims, became a matter of virtue and the combat success criterion.  The role of military reconnaissance and propaganda among enemy troops and  population grew. A new tradition of the conqueror’s protection over local gods  and priests appeared. “Political demagogy” as a means of persuasion and  pacification contrasted with the usual terror methods: in 539 ВС, the Persian king  Kir Akhemenid having captured Babel, proclaimed a Manifesto, which said that  his army was just going to defend Babylonians and their gods and priests from  their own bad king Nabonid. This genial trick soon spread far outside Middle  East, to South Europe, India and China...

...All symptoms of the evolution’s next  deadlock were manifest in II Millennium AD Europe. Development of agricultural  technologies stimulated demographic growth; besides, the Christian Church,  which had primarily called to refuse marriages and child-bearing, in the 9,h  century changed its attitude by the opposite one (Arutiunian, 2000). The woods  area was decreasing, swamps were being formed, and their water steamed down to  rivers, together with all the wastes of growing cities.

The ecological crisis provoked social  tension, disorders, and epidemics. Wars were becoming more and more murderous.  Even the disaster of Black Death in the 14”‘ century that took away more than  1/3 of Europe population, only temporarily interrupted the demographic tendency  (Le Goff, 1977). Development of agricultural and military technologies had  produced a new strategic evolutionary deadlock, as hunting technologies had  done long before. In the 17”‘ century, the Thirty-Year War with developed  artillery and other firearms took lives of about 80-90 % male population in  Central Europe.

The crisis of agricultural civilization was  partly softened by mass emigration, and besides, introduction of the overseas  plants (potato, maize), and carbon utilization (Le Goff, 1977; Bondarev, 1996).  The “Pre-Industrial Dash” that turned Europe from a Eurasian outsider to the  world leader, was forestalled and attended by impetuous development of the  ideas of humanism, individualism, enlightenment, and progress. The values of  individual success, qualification and education increased unprecedented.  According to the calculations of the Russian economic historian V. Meliantsev  (1996, 2004), on the turn of II Millennium, West European countries fell behind  the leading Asian states in literacy of adult population twice and more, while  on the threshold of the Industrial Revolt, exceeded them 3-3,5 times.

The Thirty-Year War ended with The Westfall  Peace Treaty, and relevant political organization saved Europe from most  sanguinary religious (or quasi-religious) wars for the next 2,5 centuries. A  new legal, economic and moral mentality was being formed, which implied equal  natural rights, free market interchange and panhuman ethics in place of the  foregoing estate domination and clan mentality. The humanitarian achievements  enabled the new historical breakthrough, and it left behind the agricultural  crisis (which may be therefore qualified as regional by geographic extension  and global by the evolutionary consequences). It also implied the superiority  of the active Spirit over the passive Matter and the Future over the Past[6].

European nations spread with fire and sword  the light of reason, and their power soon enveloped the whole planet, resources  of which fell under parent states’ control. European citizens’ faith in moral  progress and future everlasting peace was based on the indisputable superiority  of the Western mind, and was growing together with social and economic  prosperity, needs, and ambitions. While the soldiers fought in exotic lands,  mother countries’ inhabitants believed wars and their cruelty were a thing of  the past. No wonder: in all the colonial wars of the 19th century,  Europeans’ losses were 106000 soldiers, in contrast with millions of natives  who perished in the same warfare (Urlanis, 1994).

In the early 20th century,  reserves of extensive growth were exhausted, while it was yet far from sobering  the public. By the following events, by various official and memory documents,  and by indirect testimonies, we can see that the inertia of extensive  development and corresponding state of minds still dominated. Thirst for new  successes and achievements produced joyful expectancies of cither a “small  victorious war” or a “revolutionary tempest” among politicians, intellectuals,  and masses. The photos of August 1914, which show us happy crowds in Petrograd,  Berlin, Vienna, and Paris streets after the war had been declared, are a  brightest illustration (Man..., 1997).

Now, we may observe a result of those social  and psychological processes. Whereas European countries’ summary warfare losses  during the 19th century were about 5,5 million people (about 15 % of  all war victims in the world), in the 20th century they rose to 70  million - no less than 60 %. Two World Wars, Hiroshima, and many years of  nuclear “equilibrium of fear” were required for Europeans’ psychological  alteration...

Having compared crisis episodes of the past  and the present, we may sum up certain psychological observations. Once new  instrumental facilities exceed former cultural restrictions, and an extensive  development begins, public attitudes and sentiments acquire peculiar features.  A sense of omnipotence and permissiveness is intensified together with  increasing needs and ambitions. Optimistic ideas of a world full of  inexhaustible resources and the object of subjugation are formed. Success  euphoria produces an impatient expectation of new successes and victories. The  subjugation process and the search for new moderately resisting enemies are  becoming self-valuable and irrational.

The proximity of desired aims intensifies  motivational tension: this is called the “aim-gradient phenomenon” in psychology.  According to another psychological pattern, the Yerkes - Dodson law, the  efficiency of a simple activity is proportional to the motivational force,  while the efficiency of a complex activity decreases by excessive motivation.  This is one of the sources of danger.

As psycho-semantic experiments have shown,  emotional tension decreases cognitive complexity (Petrenko, 1982). So, the  world picture becomes lower-dimensional, thinking becomes primitive, and the  problem situations look elementary, while objectively, the task of the social  system’s maintenance becomes more difficult as technological opportunities  grow. In other words, the numerator index in equation (III), instead of  increasing in proportion to the denominator’s growth, is falling. Therefore,  cultural imbalance lowers the society’s internal sustainability.

Exploring the premises of revolutionary  crises, J. Davis (1969) has .shown that revolutions are usually preceded by an  increase in the quality of living standards in terms of economic level, political  freedoms, social mobility, etc. Simultaneously, needs and expectations grow as  well. In a certain moment, increasing expectancies ran against relatively  reduced possibilities for their satisfaction. This occurs frequently because of  demographic growth and/or unsuccessful warfare, which was expected to be “small  and victorious”, whereas the expectancies go on increasing via their own  momentum. The gap between increasing expectations and actualities produces  frustrations, the situation looks unbearable and humiliating, people tend to  seek those guilty, and aggression that cannot find release externally, gives  vent inside the social system. Emotional resonance (Nazaretyan, 2003) provokes  mass disorders, which in many cases become the last act in pre-crisis  development tragicomedy.

Having applied Davis’s model to various  countries and historical situations, we have found that it is applicable both  to large communities, such as states or civilizations, and relatively small  ones, such as political parties. Nowadays, the model may be used, with certain  reservations, in global situation analysis as well.

Since some countries and regions, and  planetary civilization as a whole are experiencing typical anthropogenic  crises, which are fraught with great dangers in the 21st century,  the question of the mechanisms of such crises’ aggravation and overcoming them  is not a purely academic one. Certain facts show that during the second half of  the 20th century great changes for the better took place.  Politicians abstained from using the most destructive weapons; new kinds of  inter-state coalitions were formed, which were not aimed against any outer  force (an original fact in human history!), and effective international  ecological measures became usual.

Fifty years ago, many people were not sure  the 20th century would successfully change into the 21sl,  and this doubt had grounds. The most obvious one was a highly probable world  nuclear war, still, not only this was the case. Modern ecologists demonstrate  that had economic activities of humankind (including atomic weapon tests)  remained so ‘ecologically dirty’ as it was in the 1950-s, life on Earth in the  1990-s would have become unbearable: both human population and longevities  would be falling down, etc. (Yefremov, 2004).

Those encouraging facts gave rise to the  hope that Western-type cultures had already developed a strong rational control  reserve over intrinsic rectilinear expansion impulses.

Unfortunately, what followed one side’s  unconditional victory in the Cold War demonstrated that maturity of political  thought even in the most advanced modern cultures does not yet meet the  requirements imposed by actual technological potential. Current Homo рrае-crisimos psychological  symptoms are described in (Nazaretyan, 2008): lowered political intelligence,  decision-making quality and propaganda rhetoric level in the 90-s compared to  the preceding decades.

We may observe how simplified worldview and  rectilinear extensive activities are provoking hostility. Meanwhile, emerging  forms of sophisticated weapons and new methods of political terrorism make  impossible the continuation of the previous half-century practices, which was  canalization of the global conflict in local wars. According to the hypothesis  of techno-humanitarian balance, actual challenges, including political  terrorism with its growing technical opportunities, will either destroy the  planet’s civilization, or play an educating role, comparable to the  ones of the atom bomb and other dramatic technical inventions in the past.

An outline of global anthropogenic crises  and revolutionary breaks

In conclusion, we briefly enumerate human  history’s turning points: that is, historical periods when anthropogenic  crises, which may be qualified as global ones by their evolutionary meaning,  were solved via a breakthrough into the new epoch (see in detail (Nazaretyan,  2008)). As some of them have been mentioned above, we cannot escape repeating  certain details to give an overall portrayal of consecutive transformations in  macro-social behavior as it is seen from the current perspective.

All appellations of the revolutions in the  following list go with quote marks, for some of the terms have not been widely  accepted, though all are present in relevant literature.

  • The “Paleolithic Revolution” (2,5-1,2 million years  ago) was connected with the emergence of the first artificial tools (choppers),  and hence, disturbance of the ethological balance, which is peculiar to animal  populations: the existential crisis of anthropogenesis. Mystical fear of the  dead (after-life revenge) was responsible for primary super-instinctive  proto-cultural regulation: intra-group aggression was first artificially  limited, and an unnatural care for the cripples appeared.
  • The “Upper Paleolithic Revolution”, or the “Cro-Magnons’ Cultural Revolution”  (35-40 thousand years ago): transition from the Middle to the Upper Paleolithic  and conclusive extermination of the Neanderthals. Stone material  productivity grew, and the portion of tools made of bone and horn increased as  well, which gave people relative independence from natural sources of flint.  Sign communication systems, including articulate speech, were obviously  perfected, and two-dimensional portrayal (the rock pictures) appeared. Why  could not Paleoanthropes, who had developed complex Mustier culture  and dominated their contemporaneous Neoanthropes (Proto-Cro-Magnons) during no less than  150000 years, resist more? We have to assume that Mustier culture was  experiencing a deep crisis, though its essence is not quite clear.

There are two hypotheses to explain this;  both well conform to the techno-humanitarian balance pattern. One accents the  facts of culture’s high material variability and very scanty signs of  “spiritual production”. Free choice of physical actions with insufficient  spiritual regulation produced the Neanderthal’s neurotic syndrome  that was expressed in antisocial activity and splashes of uncontrolled  aggressive energy (Lobok, 1997). Another hypothesis (Reymers, 1990) attaches  the Late Mustier crisis to ecological effects: the Neanderthals had hit upon the  idea to burn vegetation off, which caused landscapes’ higher productivity, but  this led to a fatal decrease of biological diversity.

  • The “Neolithic Revolution” (X – VIII millennia ВС): transition from a  highly expensive foraging economy to food production, which went along with  replacing the usual genocide and cannibalism with rudimentary collective  exploitation forms, and was also accompanied by the original symbiosis of  agricultural and ‘warrior’ tribes.

Those deep complex transformations were a  response to the Upper Paleolithic crisis, which had been aggravated because of  hunter technologies’ development. This had led to the elimination of wild  animals’ populations and species, and to severe inter-tribe competition. During  the Upper Paleolithic crisis, previous demographic growth had been replaced by  a population decrease, and just after agricultural methods dominated, the  population grew again.

  • The “Urban Revolution” (V – III millennia ВС): large human  agglomerations were formed, irrigation channels were constructed, and written  language and the first legal documents appeared, which regulated large  communities’ lives, with a high human concentration and complex common  activities.

This revolution followed spread of bronze  tools, new demographic explosion, and the aggravation of competition for  grasslands and fertile soil in some regions (see the theory of environmental  circumscription in (Carneiro, 1970)).

  • The “Axial  Revolution” (the middle of the I millennium ВС): new kinds of  thinkers, politicians, and generals, such as Zaratushtra, the Judaic prophets,  Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Kir, Asoca, Sun-Tze, and others, appeared during a  short time interval in advanced societies, which were yet weakly linked among  themselves, and deeply transformed the world culture. Criticism first  supplanted authoritarian mythological thinking; universal ideas of good and  evil, and of personality as a sovereign moral choice subject were formed. Aims  and methods of warfare changed: victims’ numbers ceased to serve as a combat  masterpiece measure and a pretext for boasting; the value of communication  considerably increased, and primitive violence and terror were partly replaced  by intelligence data and “political demagogy”.

The Axial Epoch followed displacement of  bronze with iron weapons, which were cheaper, lighter and more durable, and  instead of professional armies, some kind of people’s militia had appeared. As  a result, battles became extraordinarily bloody, and former values and norms in  new conditions could have destroyed advanced societies. Therefore, the Axial  Revolution was culture’s response to a dangerous gap between new weapons’ power  and former aggression-retention mechanisms.

(The American cultures that developed  separately passed through the same stages, though later in time. There are  signs that the European conquerors found advanced societies of both Americas in  a deep crisis caused by overpopulation, and on the threshold of a spiritual  revolution, which could have been similar to the Old World’s Axial Epoch  (Semionov, 1995). Meanwhile, aboriginals of the other isolated continent,  Australia, conserved their Paleolithic life, culture, and psychology without  having reached the Upper-Paleolithic crisis, the Neolithic Revolution, etc.).

  • The “Industrial  Revolution” (AD 18-19th centuries): introduction of relatively  “spare” technologies, which had higher specific productivity than agricultural  ones. It was prepared and attended by a complex spiritual framework, the  “indust-reality”, in Al. Toffler’s term.

The industrial revolution was preceded by a  long crisis of agricultural civilization in Europe (12-18th  centuries), when uncontrolled extensive growth, cutting down of forests,  destruction of ecosystems and people’s concentration in the cities had led to  outbreaks of bloody warfare and mass mortal epidemics. The development of  agricultural technologies had produced a new strategic evolutionary deadlock,  as well as, long before, hunting technologies had done.

In its turn, the industrial production  having increased power of human effort, gave a new impulse to extensive  development, demographic growth, and ecological and geopolitical ambitions. So,  like it had been mostly before, the solution of one crisis opened the way  towards the following ones.

  • The “Information  Revolution”? In the middle of the 20th century, many people felt  that planetary civilization was approaching a new crisis epoch. Its  circumstances may also be wel 1 described in terms of the techno-humanitarian  balance pattern. In the previous 100 years, weapons’ power had grown 6 orders  of magnitude. Human intelligence had achieved such high instrumental might that  the aggression-retention means, which reflected previous historical experience,  could not meet the new requirements any more. The instrumental intelligence  became dangerous for its own bearer’s further existence again...


The hypothesis of techno-humanitarian  balance gives an additional dimension to White’s conception, which was one of  the most influential models of social development in the 20th  century. In the words of his Canadian adherent V. Smil (1994, p. 1): “From the  perspective of natural science, both prehistoric human evolution and the course  of history may be seen as the quest for controlling greater energy stores and  flows”. Now as we find out that excessive power is self-destructive for a  social system unless it is internally balanced with proportional cultural  regulation of behavior, the model of development reduced to energy alone looks  fundamentally insufficient even from the perspective of natural science.

Turning back to the historical experience of  man-made crises, including the “optimistic tragedies”, we may note that each  new technology, both military and production, usually carried menace of growing  destruction of geopolitical and/or natural habitat and after a period of  euphoria, caused social catastrophes. This intensified the process of dramatic  selection of social and value systems, which could respond the challenge. As soon as the phase  of cultural and psychological fitting was completed, even war  technologies became life-protecting factor: calculations in  (Nazaretyan, 2008) show that the more potentially destructive a weapon is the  less murderous effect it really causes.

In case of constructive solution of such  crises, it entailed a complex leap forward by all of the five long-term  mainstreams mentioned above. More potential technologies provided higher  specific productivity, i.e. the paying load for a muscular effort and for a  unit of nature’s destruction. This implied higher variety of social structure,  higher information volume of social and individual intelligence, and more  advanced cultural regulation. As a result, humanity’s ecological niche  broadened and deepened, and population grew. Over time, the evolutionary success  entailed increasing social needs and ambitions, and... the way to the next  crisis.

This model keeps us oriented within the  palliative space of the future, and helps us discriminate between constructive  forecasts, scripts and projects, and Utopian ones. At the same  time, it involves definite conclusions about the past.

In the 19th century, the Russian  sociologist Danilevsky (1991) argued that there had been no significant  landmarks for all of human history, and therefore, no world history at all. In  fact, he meant, separate civilizations’ ascent, flourishing and decay had taken  place, successive in time but devoid of causal continuity. This “civilization  approach” was later caught up by many Western thinkers, for its pessimistic  portrayal conformed to the 20th century mass disappointments. Within  the paradigm, Spengler’s (1980) notion that “humankind is merely a  zoological concept” sounded reasonable.

Meanwhile, it was just in the 20th  century that the historical discoveries disavowed the argument, and its far-reaching  conclusions. As far as we take those discoveries into account, we may accept at  least certain statements assertively.

To make sure of the substantially global  character of human history, as well as life history, the proper ‘unit’ of  consideration is to be singled out.

Thus, biological evolution is out of sight,  concentrated on populations, species, or separate ecosystems: more than 99% of  the species on Earth had become extinct before the first humans appeared. So  nothing but life cycles is obvious until we look at the Geochronological Table,  which represents the biosphere as a whole at successive geological epochs.  Similarly, humankind, or more precisely, the global society-nature system, is  the only real subject of social evolution, while countries, nations, regional  civilizations, and even hominid species (in the Paleolithic) repeatedly changed  one another as the leaders; by themselves, all those smaller subjects cannot  serve for an evolutionary portrayal.

Since hominids have once and for all turned  to tool making, in spite of countless divergences, migrations and isolations,  culture has been a single and common planetary phenomenon. This is proved by  many observations and one of the main such observation is the surprising fact  that the first standard tools on all inhabited continents were surprisingly  identical. As to the explosive growth of local diversities in the Middle and  the Upper Paleolithic and later, it was a typical process of an evolving  system’s inner diversification.

What we may call ‘progress’ is neither an  aim nor a movement “from the worse to the better”, but a means of  self-preservation, with which the complex non-equilibrium system responds  to the challenges of declining sustainability. A succession of a posteriori effects of restored  sustainability is retrospectively construed as a step-by-step ascent from more  ‘natural’ (i.e. wild, and relatively equilibrium) states of the society-nature  systems to less ‘natural’ ones. So, having solved dramatic vital problems,  progressive transformations produce more complicated ones, and at the same  time, more developed means for their solution. After all, humans are still  living on thanks to their virtue to adapt self-regulation quality to their own  increasing might...


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[1] The work is supported by the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research, grant N 07-°6-00300.

[2] See also (Mironenko, 2002). The number 187 million (Hobsbaum) looks  biased.

[3] For example, the tables, which reflect the effects of natural hazards in various regions, demonstrate that the economic damage in technologically advanced countries is usually Wore considerable while human victims are less numerous than in technologically backward ones (Natural).

[4] Those regulators may sometimes horrify an observer who belongs to another culture, but they enable the society’s existence in the ecological niche. Many ethnographers reported that a typical method of demographic stability for primitive tribes was normative infanticide, regular extermination of the "unwanted" babies, especially female, and castration. In some tribes, a man may not marry without having killed or castrated another man from a neighboring tribe.

[5] In fact, it applies to social history the classical data by Piaget and his followers (Volovikova & Rebeko) concerning individual development, and the "conflict-enculturation hypothesis" (Chick, ‘Games’). The downward course of aggression with increasing age has been revealed both in Western and primitive cultures (Monroe et al).

[6] Some Sinologists (Lin Yufu) have shown that all technological and economic premises were •n place for an industrial revolution in the 14th century China. However, world model and value system did not favor this radical transformation, unlike the situation of the Europeans in the 18-19th centuries who had met the deep crisis and developed a new progress-oriented worldview, which was a psychological compensation of the Late Middle Ages mass alarms and phobias.

To cite this article: Nazaretyan Akop P. (2008). Technology, Psychology, and Crises: Does World History Have a Psychological Dimension? Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 1, 55-80

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