- Summary of history (empowerment and well-being lens)
By Holden Karnofsky 13 min read

Summary of history (empowerment and well-being lens)

Click lower right to download or find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, etc.

Now that I've finished the "most important century" series, I'll still be putting out one longer piece per week, but they'll be on toned-down/less ambitious topics, as you're about to see.

A few years ago, I made a summary of human history in one table. It's here (color-coded Google sheet).

To do this, I didn't need to be (and am not!) an expert historian. What I did need to do, and what I found very worth doing, was:

  • Decide on a lens for the summary: a definition of "what matters to me," a way of distinguishing unimportant from important.
  • Try to find the most important historical events for that lens, and put them all in one table.

The lens I chose was empowerment and well-being. That is, I consider historical people and events significant to the degree that they influenced the average person's (a) options and capabilities (empowerment) - including the advance of science and technology; (b) health, safety, fulfillment, etc. (well-being).1 (I'm not saying these are the same thing! It's possible that greater empowerment could mean lower well-being.)

History through this lens seems very different from the history presented in e.g. textbooks. For example:

  • Many wars and power struggles barely matter. My summary doesn't so much as mention Charlemagne or William of Orange, and the fall of the Roman Empire doesn't seem like a clearly watershed event. My summary thinks the development of lenses (leading to spectacles, microscopes and telescopes) is far more important.
  • Every twist and turn in gender relations, treatment of homosexuality, and the quality of maternal care and contraception is significant (as these likely mattered greatly, and systematically, for many people's quality of life). I've had trouble finding good broad histories on all of these. The development of most natural sciences and hard sciences is also important (much easier to read about, though the best reading material generally does not come from the "history field").

The summary is simply a color-coded table noting what I see as the most important events in each category during each major time period. It doesn't lend itself to a graphical summary, although I will be "boiling things down" more in future pieces, by trying to construct a single "how quality of life for the average person, as time passed and empowerment rose" curve.

But below, I'll try to give a sense of what pops out from this table, by going through some historical people and events that seem underrated to me, some that seem overrated, and high-level takeaways.

Despite (or because of) my lack of expertise, I found the exercise useful, and would recommend that others consider doing their own summary of history:

  • You can spend infinite time reading history books and learning about various events, but it's a very different kind of learning to try to find "all the highlights" for your lens of choice, put them in one place, and reflect on how you'd tell the story of the world yourself if you had to boil it down. I think the latter activity requires more active engagement and is likely to result in better recall of important points.
  • And I think the final product can be useful as well, if only for readers to easily get a pretty thorough sense of your worldview, what seems significant to you, and what disagreements or differences of perspective you have with others. Hopefully mine is useful to readers for giving a sense of my worldview and my overall sense of what humanity's story is so far.
  • Finally, I think that creating a history summary is a vulnerable thing to do, in a good way. It's scary how little just about anyone (emphatically including myself) knows about history. I think the normal way to deal with this is to show off the facts one does know, change the subject away from what one doesn't, and generally avoid exposing one's ignorance. My summary of history says: "This is what seems most important to me; this is the story as I perceive it; whatever important pieces I'm ignorant about are now on display for all to see." So take a look and give me feedback!

Underrated people and events according to the "empowerment and well-being" lens2

Tanzimat. In the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire went through a series of reforms that abolished the slave trade, declared political equality of all religions, and decriminalized homosexuality. Most of the attention for early reforms like this tends to focus on Europe and the US, but the Ottoman Empire was quite early on these things.

Ibn al-Haytham's treatise on optics. In the early 11th century, an Islamic scholar intensively studied how curved glass lenses bend light and wrote it up, which I would guess turned out to be immensely useful for the development of spectacles (which reached Europe in the 1200s) and - later - microscopes and telescopes, which were crucial to some of the key Scientific Revolution work on physics/astronomy and biology.

The medicine revolution of the mid-19th century. As far as I can tell, medicine for thousands of years did very little at all, and surgery may have killed as many people as it saved. It's not clear to me whether life expectancy improved at all in the thousands of years prior to the mid-19th century.3

But the mid-19th century saw the debut of anesthesia (which knocks out the patient and makes it easier to operate) and sterilization with carbolic acid (reducing the risk of infection); there's a nice Atul Gawande New Yorker article about these. Many more medical breakthroughs would follow, to put it mildly, and now health looks like possibly the top way in which the world has improved. (One analysis4 estimates that the value of improved life expectancy over the last ~100 years is about as big as all measured growth in world output5 over that period.)

Not too far into this revolution, Paul Ehrlich (turn-of-20th-century chemist, not the author of The Population Bomb) looks like he came up with a really impressive chunk of today's drug development paradigms. As far as I can tell:

  • It had been discovered that when you put a clothing dye into a sample under a microscope, it would stain some things and not others, which could make it easier to see.
  • Ehrlich reasoned from here to the idea of targeted drug development: looking for a chemical that would bind only to certain molecules and not others. This seems like the beginning of this idea.
  • He developed the first effective treatment for syphilis, and also laid the groundwork for the basic chemotherapy idea of delivering a toxin that targets only certain kinds of cells.
  • And this was only a fraction of his contributions to medicine.

It's hard to think of someone who's done more for medicine. Articles I've read imply that he had to deal with a fair amount of skepticism and anti-Semitism in his time, but at least today, everyone who hears his name thinks of ... a different guy who lost a bet.

Porphyry, the Greek vegetarian. Did you know that there was an ancient Greek who was (according to Wikipedia) "an advocate of vegetarianism on spiritual and ethical grounds ... He wrote the On Abstinence from Animal Food (Περὶ ἀποχῆς ἐμψύχων; De Abstinentia ab Esu Animalium), advocating against the consumption of animals, and he is cited with approval in vegetarian literature up to the present day." Is it just me or is that more impressive than, well, Aristotle?

The rise of the modern academic system in the mid-20th century. I believe that government funding for science skyrocketed after World War II, and that this period included the creation of the NSF and DARPA and a general skyrocketing demand for professors. My vague impression is that this is when science turned into a real industry and mainstream career track. My summary also thinks that science had a lower frequency of well-known breakthroughs after this point.

Alexandra Elbakyan. Super recent, and it's of course hard to know who will end up looking historically significant when more time has passed. But it seems like a pretty live possibility that she's done more for science than any scientist in a long time, and there's a good chance you have to Google her to know what I'm talking about.

Underrated negative trend: The rise of factory farming. The clearest case, in my view, in which the world has gotten worse with industrialization (note that institutionalized homophobia arose before industrialization, and seems to be in decline now unlike factory farming). I think that really brutal factory-like treatment of animals began in the 1930s and has mostly gotten worse over time.

Underrated negative trend: The relatively recent rise of institutionalized homophobia. I believe that bad/inegalitarian gender relations are as old as humanity (more in a future post), and slavery is at least as old as civilization. But institutionalized homophobia may be more of a recent phenomenon. My impression is that it came into being sometime around 0 AD and gradually swept most of the globe (though I'm definitely not confident in this, and would love to learn more).

The foundations of probability and statistics. Can you name the general time periods for the creation of: the line chart, bar chart, pie chart, the idea of probability, the idea of the normal distribution, Bayes's theorem, and the first known case-control experiment? Seems like the answer could be just about anything right? Turns out it was all between 1760-1812; all three charts came from William Playfair and a lot of the rest came from Laplace and Gauss.

Not too much of note happened after that until the end of the 19th century, when Francis Galton and Karl Pearson (not always working together) came up with the modern concepts of standard deviation, correlation, regression analysis, p-values, and more.

I think it's pretty interesting that so many of the things that are so foundational to pretty much any quantitative analysis anyone does of anything were invented in a couple relatively recent spurts.

Metallurgy. A huge amount of history's scientific and technological progress is crammed into the last few hundred years, but I think the story of metallurgy is much longer and more gradual (see these major innovations from ~5000 and ~2000 BCE). I wish I could find a source that compactly goes through the major steps here and how they came about; I'd guess it was mostly trial and error (since so much of it was before the Scientific Revolution), but would like to know whether that's right.

(Mathematics also has its major breakthroughs much more evenly spread throughout history than fields such as physics, chemistry and biology.)

Overrated people and events according to the "empowerment and well-being" lens

I mean, the vast majority of rulers, wars, and empires rising and falling.

Special shout-out to:

  • The Roman Empire, which I can barely see any sign of either in quality-of-life metrics (future posts) or in key empowerment-and-wellbeing events (most of the headlines from this period came from China or the Islamic Empire). If I taught a history class I'm not entirely sure I would mention the Roman Empire.
  • Ancient Greece, which is renowned for its ideas and art, but doesn't seem to have been home to any notable improvements in quality of life - no sustained or effective anti-slavery pushes, no signs of feminism, nothing that helped with health or wealth or peace. Seems like it was a pretty horrific place to live for the average person. I've seen some signs that Athens was especially terrible for women, even by the standards of the time, e.g.

High-level takeaways

Most of what happened happened all at the same time, in the last few minutes (figuratively)

This project is what originally started to make me feel that we live in a special time, and that our place in history is more like "Sitting in a rocket ship that just took off" than like "Playing our small part in the huge unbroken chain of generations."

My table devotes:

  • One column to the hundreds of thousands of years of prehistory.
  • Three columns to the first ~6000 years of civilization.
  • Two columns to the next 300 years.
  • 6 columns to the ~200 years since.

That implies that more has happened in the last 200 years than in the previous million-plus. I think that's right, not recency bias. It seems very hard to summarize history (with my lens) without devoting massively more attention to these recent periods.

I've made this point before, and you'll see it showing up in pretty much any chart you look at of something important - population, economic growth, rate of significant scientific discoveries, child mortality, human height, etc. My summary gives a qualitative way of seeing it across many domains at once.

200 years is ~10 generations. We live in an extraordinary time without much precedent. And because of this, there are ultimately pretty serious limits to how much we can learn from history.

History is a story

I sometimes get a vibe from "history people" that we should avoid imposing "narratives" on human history: there are so many previous societies, each with its own richness and complexity, that it's hard to make generalizations or talk about trends and patterns across the whole thing.

That isn't how I feel.

It looks to me like if you're comparing an earlier period to a later one, you can be confident that the later period contains a higher world population and greater empowerment due to a greater stock of ideas, innovations and technological capabilities.

These trends seem very consistent, and can reasonably be expected to generate other consistent trends as well.

I think history as it's traditionally taught (or at least, as I learned it back in the 20th century) tends to focus on the key events and details of each time, while only inconsistently situating them against the broader trends.6 To me, this is kind of like summarizing the Star Wars trilogy as follows: "On the first day covered in the movie, it was warm and humid on Tattooine and hot and dry on Endor. On the second day, it was slightly cooler on Tattooine and hotter on Endor. On the third day, it rained on Tattooine, and it was still hot and dry on Endor. [etc. to the final day covered in the movies.] Done." Not inaccurate per se, but ...

A lot of history through this lens seems unnecessarily hard to learn about

My table is extremely amateur and is probably missing a kajillion things; I had to furiously search Google and Wikipedia to fill in a lot of the cells. I'd love to live in a world where there were well-documented, comprehensive lists and timelines of the major events for empowerment and well-being.

To give a sense for this, here are some things that would be helpful for viewing history through this lens, that I've been unable to find:

  • Systematic accounts - going back as far as possible - of when each major state/empire made official changes to things like women's rights (to own property, hold political power, vote, etc.), formal religious freedom, formal treatment of different ethnic groups, legality and other treatment of LGBTQ+, etc.
  • Collected estimates (by region/empire/state and period, with citations) of how many people were slaves, what percentage of marriages were arranged, etc.
  • Comprehensive timelines (with citations) of major milestones for most of the rows in my table, and/or narrative histories that focus on listing, explaining and contextualizing such milestones and otherwise being concise (an example would be Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, but I'd also like to see this for topics like gender relations).
  • Histories of science focused on the discoveries that seem most likely to have contributed to real-world capabilities and quality of life, with explanations of these connections. (As an example of what this wouldn't be like, existing chemistry histories tend to list the discovery of each element.)
  • I've only listed things that seem like they would be reasonably straightforward to put together; of course there are a zillion more things I wish I could know about the past.

I don't know very much!

Though I hope I've been clear about this throughout, I want to mention it again before I wrap up the takeaways. Not only is this summary based on a limited amount of time from a non-expert, but the sources I've been able to find for this project shouldn't be taken as neutral or trustworthy either. I think there are ~infinite ways in which they are likely biased due to the worldviews, identities, assumptions, etc. of the authors.

For example, the previous section notes how much harder it's been to find long-run data and timelines on slavery and women's rights than on technological developments.

Another thing that jumps out is that my summary ended up being heavily focused on the Western world. From what I've been able to gather, the Western world of the very recent past looks like where the most noteworthy human-empowerment-related developments are concentrated. If that's indeed the case, I don't think this was inevitable - there were long periods of time where non-Western civilizations were contributing much more to science, technology, etc. than Western civilizations - but the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s began in the recent West, and once those happened, people in the West could have been best-positioned to build on them for some period of time. But this could be another reflection of biases in how my sources report what was invented, where and when (I've looked for evidence that this is the case and haven't found any, but my efforts are obviously extremely incomplete, and I'm especially skeptical that noteworthy art is as concentrated in the West as the sources I've consulted make it seem).

The four high-level takeaways listed in this section are the four important-seeming observations I feel most confident about from this exercise. (But most confident doesn't mean confident, and I'm always interested in feedback!)

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  1. This does not mean I see history as an inevitably upward trend in terms of empowerment and well-being. You could apply the lens I've described whether empowerment and well-being have fallen, risen, or wiggled around randomly over the course of history. 

  2. I'm often not giving sources; my sources are listed in the detailed version of the summary table.  

  3. Check out this chart:

    And note that life expectancy at the beginning is similar to estimates for foraging societies, which are often used as a proxy for what life was like more than 10,000 years ago (chart from this paper):


  4. See chapter 1. I normally don't cite big claims like this that "one analysis" makes, but I spent some time with this one (years ago) and broadly find it pretty plausible. 

  5. GDP. 

  6. I checked out this book as a way of seeing whether today's "standard history" still seems like this, and I think it largely does. It's not that economic growth and scientific/technological advancement aren't mentioned, but more that they come off as just one more part of a list of events (most of which tend to focus on who's in power where).