Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ian Morris: Why the West Rules--For Now

I like big history and I cannot lie.
Almost famous rap

Okay, that’s a bit of a misquote, but for yours truly, it works. As someone who has declared his own year of big history, this book provided a great start. The full title of this book tells a lot: Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future. Quite a mouthful, and quite a claim, but Professor Morris (Stanford Classics & Archeology) backs up his claims. Let me unpack it a bit.

Morris starts with a tale of counter-history: a tale of Prince Albert traveling to Beijing in the mid-nineteenth century, held virtually captive to the Chinese hegemon. Of course, almost the opposite was true, except the Chinese emperor sent a small dog, Looty, to Balmoral Castle, as a form of homage and tribute. How did this happen? How did the West come to dominate the globe in the nineteenth century? This is the guiding question of this book, and to answer it, Morris goes back, way back.

Morris goes back to the first journeys of humans out of Africa. There were multiple migrations and multiple forms of humanoids that evolved in Africa and that migrated out. Morris retraces all of this to arrive at solid beginning for his account: race (as biology) does not account for human differences. We’re all birds of a feather genetically (Although some hanky-panky in Europe mixed some Neanderthal genes in with the homo sapiens. Neanderthals eventually died out.) After the beginning of humans, and then with the development of agriculture (about 10,000 years ago), divergences began between East and West. Note: Morris notes that distinctions between East and West are in some sense artificial and to some extent limit the human populations that he considers. By “East” he means China and its civilization, of which Japan became the most prominent offshoot. By “West”, he means that world that started in the “Hilly Flanks” of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and then migrated west into the Mediterranean, then into Northern Europe, and then across the Atlantic. He does not consider other human civilizations, such as those of the Americas.

Morris tells how, using an index of social development that he created, East and West went back and forth over the millennia in the lead for development. The West began in the lead and continued up through the time of the Roman Empire, then the East lead (around 1100 during the Song dynasty), and the two were nearly even up into the late 1700’s, when the West shot into a lead and changed the game. Up until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the empires and nation-states of both East and West would hit a ceiling of social development that neither the Romans nor the Song could break. Each time this ceiling was approached, at least one of the “five horsemen of the apocalypse” would ride: epidemic, famine, state failure, climate change, and migration. However, in the 1600’s China on the East and Russia in the West (and East geographically) closed the “steppe highway” that allowed the horsemen of Central Asia (think Ghengis Khan and Tamarlane) to move from East to West, wrecking havoc on civilizations in the West. These horsemen are the barbarians who helped bring down Rome, and in the East they were the reason for that lovely wall the Chinese have.

The weakness of the book lies in the fact that Morris doesn’t give as definitive and persuasive answer to the question of why the West shot out ahead via industrialization. Perhaps he knows of very important and provocative literature out there. For instance, he praises Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence on several occasions, but I think that he could have done more, as this change in humanity—the Industrial Revolution—is the most significant change in the human condition since the advent of agriculture and the resulting development of cities (and thus civilization). But perhaps I quibble. To get another take on this issue, see Timur Kuran’s review in Foreign Affairs.

After bringing the tale up to today, and after some discussion of China’s growing influence and how it might take the lead in social development back to the East, Morris ponders the future. In an essay that Niall Ferguson rightly praised in his brief note on the book in Foreign Affairs, Morris contemplates to divergent paths that humanity may take. First, the possibility of the rise of The Singularity, where humans and machines sync-up for a brave new world. The other path that he contemplates is the possibility of Nightfall, a phrase borrowed from Asimov’s Foundation series, where civilization collapses and the five horsemen ride again. Climate change, anyone?

The great reluctance that I have to write a review of this book comes from the inadequacy of my review to do this book justice. It’s a very learned undertaking, yet its written with a light and engaging hand. Morris blends analysis and narrative in a pleasing manner. He carefully lays out his premises and supports his conclusions. He finds patterns in history, but not laws. He does about everything right that one could hope for in such a book as this. If you want to know where humankind has been and where we might be going, you’d be hard pressed to find a better book than this one.

726 pages, published 2010.

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