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This module explores the nature of history. Popular perceptions of history rely upon two flawed ideas. First, employing a naive interpretation of the theory of evolution, many believe that history is a slow march of progress toward more complex species and, after the development of humans, more complex human societies. Second, another prevalent attitude is that the history of life contains patterns that repeat and can be predicted if studied. Instead, this module emphasizes the role of luck and contingency in the history of life both before and after the arrival of homo sapiens. Beginning with an exploration of why these popular theories persist, the module will explore contingency through such critical moments as the Cambrian Explosion, the end of the dinosaurs, and moments after the arrival of homo sapiens such as the fall of Carthage, the Chinese decision to end its ocean-going exploration before the discovery of the Americas, and even the failed assassination attempt of Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1939. The result will be a richer more nuanced understanding of the nature of history and of change over time.

Publication Date



World history; Evolution

Document Type

Curricular Materials






This learning module was developed as part of a 2017-2018 NEH Human Connections grant to Rowan University titled Cultivating the Environmental Humanities.

This content is copyright 2018 by the author and must be properly attributed (see Recommended Citation). Contact the author for reuse permission.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Contingency, Evolution, and the Nature of History

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