Jan 11th 2015

The Idea of Equality – The Greatest Change of the Last Millennium

by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes is trained in psychoanalysis. In the area of political science, he co-authored a study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. He graduated with a PhD in atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast, and worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States. These included JET, the nuclear fusion research facility, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.

In his 2018 book Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy, he brought together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. The book explored how demonstrably dangerous individuals, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders, can so easily gain power, attract widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity. He is also contributing author to the 2019 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork. His work at MaREI is aimed at helping to establish a common understanding among decision-makers across government of the challenges and opportunities associated with system transitions for sustainability and the policy responses which can enable the system changes needed to address climate change.

Ian Mortimer’s magnificent new book ‘Centuries of Change’ describes the myriad ways in which European societies have been transformed over the past one thousand years. Modern cities, advanced technologies, democratic governments, scientific knowledge - all these and more would have been unthinkable to our ancestors ten centuries ago.

So given the scale of the transformation that has taken place, can we possibly isolate one change as the single greatest change of the last millennium?’

Centuries of Change

One thousand years ago, European societies were illiterate, superstitious and ignorant of the outside world. Hunger and disease were widespread and violence was ever present. Towns and cities were few and the vast majority of people lived off the land. Then things slowly began to change.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the beginnings of codified law in Europe. Market towns became a feature of every community, and money replaced barter for the first time. In England, the signing of the Magna Carta marked the first step towards limiting the power of kings.

After the calamity of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the fifteenth century was a century of discovery. Between 1492 and 1500, European explorers discovered North and South America, vastly expanding their knowledge of the outside world.

The sixteenth century was the century of the Reformation and the start of a hundred years of war in which Europe fractured along sectarian lines.

The seventeenth century witnessed the Scientific Revolution and a step change in humanity’s ability to cope with famine and disease. Medical discoveries contributed greatly to an increase in life expectancy and with the mind expanding discoveries of Galileo and Newton, people increasingly looked to science rather than the church for an understanding of the world.

This century also witnessed the spread of European colonisation. By the end of the century, European states ruled over far more land in America than they did in Europe.

During the eighteenth century the pace of change accelerated. A revolution in food security occurred with the adoption of selected breeding of farm animals and a threefold increase in crop yields. The Industrial Revolution marked the transition of western societies to modern market-based industrial economies - a transition from economies based on conquest to economies based on competition between private enterprises.

The eighteenth century was also a century of political revolutions. In the American Revolution it was the Republican nature of the revolution that mattered most. Equality, while espoused in the Declaration of Independence, was not enacted in the new United States, where slavery remained widespread.

 In France, equality of all men was a central aim of the revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly in 1789, declared that all citizens are born equal in rights, are equal in the eyes of the law, and that the purpose of government is the preservation of these rights for all men. For the first time an attempt was made to establish the idea of equality as the founding principle of the state.

The nineteenth century was the Age of Invention. Railways and steamships revolutionised travel, allowing millions of emigrants to move from Europe to new continents. The invention of the telegraph, telephone and radio revolutionised communications.

This was also a century of social reform, with the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and advances in the development of democracy. By 1900 all adult males in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Greece, Australia and New Zealand were entitled to vote.

Which brings us to the twentieth century, another century of breath-taking change. It brought major improvements in literacy and women’s rights, and reductions in poverty and destitution. Advances in health were such that babies born in 2000 in the developed world could expect to live almost twice as long as babies born in 1900.

The age of invention continued apace as electricity, cars, air travel, television, and the internet all became features of everyday life.

This was also a century of decolonisation and the spread of democracy. In 1900, half a dozen empires ruled most of the world. By 2000, democratic and near-democratic countries accounted for nearly half the world’s population.

The twentieth century also saw the beginning of the Great Convergence as developing countries began to catch up with the West. Many non-Western countries experienced the scientific, medical, agricultural and industrial revolutions simultaneously, in the course of just a few decades. By 2000, the world economic and political landscape was changing rapidly.

This century, however, was also a brutal reminder that mankind remained as cruel and inhumane as ever. The traumas of World War One and World War Two led to attempts at establishing a system of international law aimed at reducing war and tyranny, including the founding of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

During the course of the twentieth century world population increased dramatically, from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. With this explosion in population came an increasing global awareness that real threats to humanity were emerging, foremost among them environmental degradation, global warming, political violence and poverty.

A growing acceptance that fundamental change was needed in existing political, economic and technological systems to address these global threats was perhaps one of the greatest changes of the century.

The Change of the Millennium

Looking back to the year 1000, we can recognise enormous differences between Europeans’ lives today and those of our ancestors. One of the obvious changes is the vast increase in the quality of life that we enjoy today.

This increased quality of life rests on an enormous reduction in the level of everyday violence, an increase in life span due to changes in food security and health care, a vast expansion of knowledge (and an accompanying reduction in superstition), and a historically unprecedented level of equality between men and women.

Today we can exercise freedom of choice on a whole range of issues- from where we’d like to live, whom we choose to marry, what job we choose to do, what we want to learn, and where we’d like to travel – that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.

Increases in quality of life and freedom of choice have been accompanied by a massive reduction in human suffering, accomplished through the taming of hunger and disease and dramatic reductions in early death, particularly infant mortality

So given the sheer number of changes that have happened since the year 1000, can we really identify one particular change as being the single most important change of the millennium?

I believe we can. But to do so we must first recognise two of the most important lessons that emerge from our study of history.

The first lesson is that human nature is extremely malleable. Our beliefs and behaviours change as the context changes. For most of the last one thousand years, it was widely accepted that kings ruled by divine right, that women were mentally inferior to men, and that Europeans had a right to brutally lord it over the ‘inferior’ peoples of the world. Working slaves to death and burning witches were acceptable ways to achieve financial reward and ward off ill fortune. But as the context changed, so too did such beliefs and behaviours.

Which brings us to the second lesson we can learn from history: reductions in inequality shape human nature for the better.

One can argue about the direction of causality, but the end of slavery, the achievement of women’s rights, and the relinquishing of colonial power have resulted in more humane standards of behaviour on the part of Europeans than was previously the case.

In his book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, Steven Pinker argues that we are all a mix of both demons and angels. Over the course of the last millennium, European societies have clearly become better adapted to controlling our worst demons and harnessing our better angels.

The milestones along this transition are easy to identify. They include the establishment of the rule of law that applies equally to all; the separation of church and state so that believers of all faiths and none are treated equally; the replacement of tyranny with electoral democracy in which everyone has an equal say in how we are ruled; the creation of national systems of support for unemployment, pensions and healthcare in which everyone has equal access; and a system of human rights which protect everyone equally from discrimination and exploitation. The principle of equality - that one person is worth the same as any other- underpinned every one of these advances.

The lessons from history are clear. The more unequal our societies, the more barbarous we become, and the more we accept such barbarism as the norm.

For that reason – for making us more humane and more human – the principle of equality stands out as the single most important change of the last millennium.

Dr. Ian Hughes' blog DisorderedWorld can be found here.

You can also follow Ian on Twitter at @disorderedworld

Earlier article by Ian Hughes on Facts & Arts:

Why Revolutions Fail

Published 07.10.2014
During Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. He famously replied that he thought it was too early to say. Although it appears that Zhou may have...

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions – The Role of Religion

Published 11.08.2014
ISIS in Iraq is murdering Christians and Shia Muslims alike under the guise of a Holy War. Israel’s merciless bombardment of  Gaza has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women and children- the youngest to be killed was ten days old, the...

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions – DR Congo

Published 21.07.2014
The story of the Congo wars is one of state weakness and failure – the weakness and failure of Congo to defend its borders, impose law and order in its eastern provinces, and build the institutions of state necessary to improve the impoverished...

Psychopaths as Predators of the Poor

Published 25.05.2014
History is the story of the struggle of the psychologically normal majority of humanity to free ourselves from the tyranny of a psychologically disordered minority who are marked by their innate propensity for violence and greed. This minority...

Nelson Mandela and the Wisdom of Non-Psychopathic Leaders

Published 22.02.2014
Failure of leadership is arguably the greatest curse afflicting our world. Too many countries are cursed still by leaders who oppress their people, make a mockery of the institutions of government, and cling to power regardless of the cost in...

Dangerous Personality Disorder in a Leading Position: Mao

Published 22.02.2014
Ten years ago, on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of Mao’s birth, a group of dissidents wrote a letter entitled ‘An Appeal for the Removal of the Corpse of Mao Zedong from Beijing’. In it they wrote[1], ‘Mao instilled in people’s minds a...

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions

Published 08.02.2014
Small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders have dominated the psychologically normal majority of the population in every society on earth for most of human history. The conditions that prevailed the world over, until...

Damned by Sydney: The passing of Jørn Utzon

Published 01.12.2008
While Sydneysiders will venture that their harbour remains inimitable, that incomparably pagan place of beauty in the world (What of stunning beauties such as Stockholm? Or dashing, daring San Francisco Bay?), one of the primary reasons for its...



To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."