Today's selection -- from The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan.
By 1914, Europe controlled 84 percent of the world, humans were increasingly rational in their affairs, and progress was both linear and inevitable:
"In 1900 Europeans had good reason to feel pleased with the recent past and confident about the future. The thirty years since 1870 had brought an explosion in production and wealth and a transformation in society and the way people lived. Thanks to better and cheaper food, improvements in hygiene, and dramatic advances in medicine, Europeans were living longer and healthier lives. Although Europe's population went up by perhaps as much as 100 million to a total of 400 million, it was able to absorb the growth thanks to increased output in its own industry and agriculture and imports from around the world. (And emigration acted as a safety valve to avoid an even more dramatic increase -- some 25 million Europeans left in the last two decades of the century for new opportunities in the United States alone and millions more went to Australia or Canada or Argentina.) ...
"Europe's countries dominated much of the earth's surface whether through their formal empires or by informal control of much of the rest through their economic, financial and technological strength. Railways, ports, telegraph cables, steamship lines, factories around the world were built using European know-how and money and were usually run by European companies. And Europe's dominance had increased dramatically in the nineteenth century as its scientific and industrial revolutions gave it, for a time at least, an edge over other societies. ... In 1800 before the gap in power opened up, Europe had controlled approximately 35 percent of the world; by 1914 that figure was 84 percent. True, the process had not always been a peaceful one and European powers had come close to war several times over the spoils. By 1900, however, the tensions caused by imperialism seemed to be subsiding. There was not much left to divide up in Africa, the Pacific or Asia, and there was, or so it seemed, a general agreement that there should be no sudden land grabs in such declining states as China or the Ottoman Empire, tempting though their weakness made them to imperialists. ...
"Given such power and such prosperity, given the evidence of so many advances in so many fields in the past century, why would Europe want to throw it all away? There were many Europeans ... who thought that such recklessness and folly was simply impossible. Europe was too interdependent, its economies too intertwined, to break apart into war. It would not be rational, a quality greatly admired at the time.
"The march of knowledge throughout the nineteenth century, in so many fields from geology to politics, had, it was widely assumed, brought much greater rationality in human affairs. The more humans knew, whether about themselves, society, or the natural world, the more they would make decisions based on the facts rather than on emotion. In time, science -- including the new social sciences of sociology and politics -- would uncover everything we needed to know. 'The history of mankind is part and parcel of the history of nature,' wrote Edward Tylor, who was one of the fathers of modern anthropology, 'and our thoughts, wills, and actions accord with laws as definite as those which govern the motions of the waves, the combination of acids and bases, and the growth of plants and animals.' Tied to this faith in science -- or positivism, as it was usually referred to at the time -- was an equal faith in progress, or, as Europeans often wrote, Progress. Human development was, so it was assumed, linear, even if not all societies had reached the same stage. Herbert Spencer, in his time the most widely read British philosopher, argued that the laws of evolution applied as much to human societies as they did to species. Moreover, progress was generally seen to be across the board: advanced societies were better in all respects from the arts to political and social institutions to philosophy and religion."