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Telling the Story

This is an information-rich web site. To find your way around the topic ‘Plants, People, and Planet’ you can use the Search Box, Main Navigation Menu, Page Menus, Related Topic Menu, and Index. Individual articles have a Page Menu and, to the right of this is another menu that lists related articles.

Big History

Most readers will use this web site looking for information on specific plant topics but, for those wishing to explore content more systematically, the site has been arranged in a rough historical order, starting at the largest scale of place and time – the history of the universe and the human place within this system. This approach is called Big History. Articles then cover shorter periods narrowing the focus to Europe, Britain, and Australia up to the present day.

Four phases

To provide the broadest possible human context, human history is divided into four phases of increasing social organization: Natura when hunter-gatherers survived by eating wild plants; Agraria when farmers fed their societies with food based on a diet of cultivated plants; Industria a phase of rapidly increasing industrialization and globalization when former energies were supplemented by the energy of fossil fuels that facilitated the rapid increase in complexity of social organization; and Informatia, the phase that we are passing through at present in which computers and information-processing dominate our lives  as we try to reign in the use of the fossil fuels that are impacting the Earth’s climate.

Within this broad historical background, over 350 articles explore six general themes.

Six themes

Across the site the articles fall into six major themes. First there is the the evolutionary co-evolution of plants and people. Here there is the biological influence of plants that is manifest as adaptations in human anatomy, physiology, and psychology and the human production of anthropogenic plants. Then there are the adaptations that have been a part of human cultural evolution as social organization has increased in complexity over time.

Then there is the impact of human beliefs, attitudes and practices on the management of the world’s vegetation and the way that global landscapes have changed as a consequence of cultural evolution.

There are two further themes underlying all these topics. First is an investigation of what it is about human nature that has directed human history along the path that is has followed and, second, under the heading of sustainability, a consideration of the consequences of past human history for the future.

historical coevolution

how plants and people have influenced one-another in the course of evolution, especially the key role that plants have played in the development of human social organisation

beliefs, attitudes & practices

those factors that have influenced the way that we perceive and manage the plant world around us

human nature

this is the last major scientific frontier – how understanding ourselves can unlock an enlightened path into the future

social organization

the role of plants in the historical creation of social organization but also their complex interaction with todays environment, society and economy 

historical lanscape change

the role of plants in the transition from Natura to Agraria, Industria, and Informatia

Sustainability

creating a better future by studying the way plants are integrated with our environment, society and economy and maximizing their beneficial impacts on social organisation – from local to global

These topics are further divided as follows. Click on the heading tab for an outline of the topic.

Four articles introduce the Big History context of this web site at the scale of the universe and planet Earth before later articles reduce the scale to global, Australian, and narrower contexts and a consideration of those factors important for future planetary sustainability.

A series of articles discussing key factors influencing future planetary sustainability. It is these factors underlie the summary discussions that are given at the end of each article.

Articles discussing the migration of humans to Australia, their influence on the natural environment and the role of plants in their culture.

Historical articles explore the links between plants, people and planet that occurred with ever-increasing social complexity as the creation of settled communities, cities, civilizations and empires that eventually coalesce into a global network. This process is then viewed from an Austro-European perspective that includes European and especially British influences, the arrival of European coastal navigators, botanical coastal and then inland exploration, settlement and societal development.

Europeans arrived in Australia with a set of beliefs about the world and their place in it. They brought long-established practices of accumulated knowledge, the principles of science, and assumptions about appropriate way to manage the land and cultivate plants.

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These articles cover the history of horticulture from its origins to its development in East and West, from the Asian and Mesopotamian cores. Special attention is given to the gardening conventions of Europe as they influenced European colonial gardening and especially the British gardening tradition that would be passed on to European colonies – the Neo-Europes like Australia. We examine the possible path of gardening into the future.

Plants are ascribed commercial value according to their desirability, scarcity and utility. Our total dependence on plants mean that they reach deeply into both our biology and social interactions.
A selection of people who helped lay the foundations for the Cultivated plant globalization and traditions of ornamental horticulture that, in the modern era, spread out of Europe across the world.
Timelines are way of orientating yourself within a particular time frame and topic of interest. They are a convenient way of summarizing a particular aspect or perspective on the world.

These articles examine the beliefs and assumption we currently adhere to – what we regard as important and ‘real’, especially our reliance on science. Some of our prevailing views in the philosophy of biology are investigated including our values, sense of meaning and purpose, and the way all these factors can influence our management of planet Earth. Emphasis is given to studies of human nature and the mind as the last major scientific frontier.

This section contains a hotch-potch of articles on topics peripheral to the main theme but which might be of interest to the reader.

This summary integrates the conclusions of the 300 articles on this web site into a synopsis of the nature of the relationship between plants and people at the universal, global, regional and local scales presented within a contemporary scientific world view.

Communication

This web site is about communicating information.

The skill of manipulating the symbols we use to communicate – the ways that we understand and explain the world – we call ‘literacy’. The sophistication of the symbol systems we use, and the technology we use to produce and consume information, have become more complex over time, so that the meaning of ‘literacy’ has also become more complicated over time.

For simple practical purposes we treat this historical process as an additive tradition of information processing that has passed, historically, from speaking and oral tradition (Natura), to reading and writing (Agraria), to printing (Industria), and then to today’s information-rich audio-visual media (Informatia). [1]

Collective learning

Collective learning is tribal wisdom as culturally accumulated knowledge: shared information that is passed from generation to generation. These are cultural memes[2] that may be as simple as practical facts or as complicated as mental ‘tools’ like language and mathematics. Historically the rate of accumulation of collective knowledge has accelerated exponentially through time facilitated, in part, by increasingly sophisticated technology.

During the current phase of Informatia  the momentum of social change continues to accelerate as the era of the book draws to a close and communication becomes increasingly based on digital (electronic) media.

Through the 19th century academic disciplines proliferated, and collective learning accelerated. Specialization created experts within narrow fields as the number of broadly educated people became fewer. Today, anyone with access to the internet can not only learn from the world’s smartest specialists, but also draw on carefully synthesized summaries of entire branches of knowledge. The internet has made it possible, once again, for one person to possess an overview of the entire field of human knowledge.

Much of the content on this web site examines historical information and now is the time to quickly outline the way this historical information has been passed down the generations – the increasing complexity of media that humans have used to convey their messages.

The spoken word

Language is uniquely human and inextricably linked to another of our defining human characteristics, our sociality. The capacity to create languages is a part of our human nature and language is a source of creativity, originality, and a way to accumulated collective knowledge and information.

For much of human history, during Natura, tribal knowledge and wisdom was passed down the generations as an oral tradition of storytelling and demonstration.

Aboriginal spinning lesson – Central Australia

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Source unknown

Today there are 20 language groups and 6000-7000 spoken languages, probably close to the number of languages during the Palaeolithic period when the earth was peopled by about 15 million hunter-gatherers. It is expected that this total will be reduced to about 1000 in about 200 years.

At eighteen months most children can speak about 50 words and understand about 200-250. By the age of two, average vocabulary exceeds 200 words, at age 4 we know about 5,000 words, and at age 8 around 10,000. Older than this and it is difficult to predict. By the age of 8 or 9 simple word definitions can be given but only teenagers can provide acceptable critical definitions.

Arranged by numbers of speakers the five most popular languages are: Mandarin (14.4%), Spanish (6.2%), English (5.4%), Hindi (4.7%), and Arabic (4.4%) – the languages most widely taught in schools. About 10,000 years is sufficient time for all words in a language to be replaced or changed beyond recognition. Of the approximately 230 European languages, only about 100 are widely spoken, about half of these occurring in Western Europe. In contrast, there are about 2,200 languages spoken in Asia.

The written word

As people gathered into farming communities of Agraria, communication was greatly assisted by the invention of written languages (this included mathematics). It was now possible to store important information as records on scrolls, manuscripts and clay tablets, including business contracts, history, and codes of behaviour. This was the main means of communication between people living in urban civilizations between about 3000 BCE and 1450 CE.

Written records could be stored in libraries and studied, subjected to public scrutiny and improvement and then passed on to the next generation in an improved form. There could now be agreement over matters of fine detail, whether it be engineering, economics, religion, or the law.

Written records were a form of communication needed for large, complex societies to exist at all, and special training was needed to master a language, and to manage the storage and modification of important texts. This was the specialist work of scribes, priests, and literate, educated elites.

Scroll of the Book of Esther

Seville Spain.
Papyri and scrolls were used through antiquity until the invention of the printing press which enabled mass production.
Scroll of the Book of Esther, Seville, Spain.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Rafaelgarcia – Accessed 21 April 2017

In the ancient world much of the writing appeared on rolled-up parchment or paper as scrolls or volumes (volume = ‘rolled up’: hence our word ‘volume’). In Rome, students learned by writing with a stylus on waxed boards which, when warmed, could be reused as a ‘blank slate’. Boards bound together on one edge were called a Codex and when the boards were replaced by parchment or paper this became the bound book.

The printed word

The urban living that gathered pace during Industria encouraged shared forms of communication. Only around 100 languages are used across the world for education and administration in the total of 195 (2020) countries.

The meticulously researched Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words (this is omitting inflexions, most obsolete words, archaisms, technical and regional vocabularies, coinages, and neologisms – including 47,156 obsolete words). This we can regard as the upper number for English words in current use. Adults have a vocabulary of 20,000 to 35,000 (average educated adult) words and they learn around 1 new word a day until middle age when vocabulary growth has ceased. Most (95%) English word usage engages around 3,000 of the potential 171,476 words, less than 2% of the available vocabulary, while 1,000 words cover 89% of everyday writing, and the commonest 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing. In most languages you are regarded as fluent if you use around 10,000+ words – all that is needed to talk about almost any topic in some detail.

The world’s first movable type, used to print paper books, was made out of porcelain and was invented by Bi Sheng (990–1051) around 1040 in China. The oldest existing book printed using metal movable type (Jikji) was printed in Korea in 1377.

The first printed books in Europe were produced in Germany by the Gutenberg printing press in 1439. This facilitated the mass-production of information in Industria, for news sheets and the books that encouraged people to learn how to read and write.

Newspapers kept entire cities in touch with what was going on in the world while also being a source of political ideas and entertainment. Knowledge was less the preserve of a privileged and educated few as it had the potential to be accessed by all those who could read.

However, in 1800 and most countries of the world, the majority of citizens were still illiterate. So in Europe, for example, the possession of reading and writing skills, an education, and the accent of a ‘gentlemen’ was sufficient to command a respected place in society.

The development of printing technology meant that the printed word was generated in ever more efficient ways. It lasted for about 500 years until the advent of electronic media that exploded onto the world after World War II with the advent of the computer.

Frontispiece of the Encyclopédie (1772)

Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts (Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers) which was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert from 1751 –72.
Like Roman Pliny the Elder’s (c.23-79 BCE) Naturalis Historiae this was an attempt to assemble all of human knowledge in one place.

This book was published during the Enlightenment, a period in history which placed great emphasis on science, reason and learning. An illustration inside this cover has a figure in the centre that represents truth — surrounded by bright light (the central symbol of the Enlightenment). Two figures on the right are reason and Philosophy, tearing the veil from truth.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The electronic word

Radio and film became familiar to the public in the 1920s and ’30s, black and white then colour TV in the 1950s and ’60s, mostly for entertainment. The transition to Informatia and media literacy really began in the 1970s and ’80s with the arrival of the personal computer, made vastly more affective when connected to the World Wide Web (internet) in the 1990s. With the advent of media like Youtube (2005) and a quantum leap in the quality and availability of computer-based video products, including educational material, the world had entered a new phase of multimedia communication.

This was a momentous social transition as the world’s accumulated knowledge became available to all those with access to a computer or smartphone, instantaneously – in ‘real time’.

Information is now widely dispersed. The English electronic encyclopaedia Wikipedia, which was established in 2001, now contains 6,142,759 articles (18 August 2020) and dwarfs earlier printed attempts to embrace all knowledge, including massive works of the twentieth century like Encyclopaedia Britannica: it exemplifies the near world-wide possession and distribution of knowledge during Informatia and is a high standard work of volunteers rather than the product of dedicated and salaried academics, reflecting the progressive democratization of knowledge.

This web site takes advantage of this modern means of communication – one individual communicating instantaneously with all those people in the world who have access to the internet.

Global lines of electronic communication

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Much of the information processed by our computers is factual knowledge, and factual knowledge is cumulative. Not only is there much more factual knowledge in the world today than yesterday – it can also be accessed more rapidly and by a wider range of the world population. You have the potential to find out much more about the world than your parents could find out at the same age – because much more is now known, and it is more readily available. Information is like a currency – a medium of exchange – and for those who wish to know as much about the world as possible, its value is its factual content.

We are living in an exciting and critical time for humanity.

Media gallery
In the first video David Christian explains how collective learning has connected the world. Other videos explain the advent of the written and printed word.

How Did the World Become Interconnected?

OER Project – 2014 – 10:42

The History of Printing

Seed learning – 2018 – 7:15

Collective Learning | World History Project

OER Project – 2019 – 9:06

The History of Writing – Where the Story Begins – Extra History

Extra Credits – 2016 – 7:08

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First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantive revision – 30 July 2020
. . . substantive revision – 21 August 2020

 

Wall of Love on Montmartre in Paris: “I love you” in 311 languages, by calligraphist Fédéric Baron and artist Claire Kito (2000)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Britchi Mirela – Accessed 15 October 2020

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