This is one of the best books I have read in a long while.
In ‘Why the West Rules – For Now’ Ian Morris has crafted a phenomenal historical reference that provides an enlightened but cautionary perspective of the patterns of human history. As noted by the title, this book explores the distinctions that separate Eastern and Western global power in the present age and how the world came to be the way that it is today. Morris does this remarkably through a comprehensive and multidisciplinary exploration of long-term historical trends that utilizes many analytical tools including biology, sociology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, geography, climatology, geology, economics, and of course history. He juggles these myriad scholastic disciplines adeptly and with humor, often including references to his favorite science fiction and popular novels to better illuminate his intentions behind this massive book. Most notably he gives credit to Issac Asimov and his stories ‘Nightfall’ and ‘Foundation’ as examples of great societies subject to collapse and backwardness. As alluded to by the title’s subtext “For Now,” Morris explains that his intention in exploring the patterns of history in reference to the current global dominance of western power is to better prepare humanity for the imminent and unpreventable changes of power and social structure in the coming century.
The scope of this work is breathtaking and spans all the way back to the evolutionary migration of Homo sapiens from Africa outward in the past 180-100,000 years to the present state of globalization and the fragile interconnected dependence of markets and society. Although he largely focuses on the current period that spawned with the development of agriculture after the last ice age from 14,000-10,000 BCE to present, Morris goes all the way back to the dawn of human evolution and global migration to demonstrate that the paradigms of East and West are largely new in the grand scope of human history. Despite the differences in race and culture that are prevalent in the East/West dichotomy, all societies are motivated by a common human ambition that knows no distinction of East or West. Although individuals may be dramatically different from one another, humans are generally the same and in large groups behave according to the same laws of motivations. Morris argues with tongue-in-cheek using his self-professed Morris Theorem that throughout history long-lasting changes have been caused not by great men or bumbling fools but by the massive tides of lazy, greedy, and frightened people who rarely know what they are doing. From the gathering in caves for collective warmth to the development of the steam engine and even the internet you are using to read this, these changes came about through the ingenuity of people following the great ideas of the time in order to make life easier, safer, and more beneficial. These motivations are human traits that know no regional boundaries.
The distinctions of East and West first came about through the benefits of geography as agriculture techniques were first developed in Western region around 10,000 BCE and separately around 8,500-8000 BCE in the East. The West got a two thousand year head start not because of a special western ingenuity or creative superiority but simply because the Western regions near the Mediterranean were home to much higher proportion of potentially domesticated crops and animal species compared to the proportion available in the eastern core that would develop into China. Despite the head-start in the west the eastern region (as well as Australia, Central America, and the South American Andes regions much later due to even fewer opportunities for domesticated crops) demonstrated equal capacity to develop agriculture, religious practices, and social organization entirely independent of the west.
As Morris travels through history from the dawn of agriculture he clearly demonstrates over and over again that the difference in the west’s lead is the benefit of geography, not some innate superiority. If this sounds like Jared Diamond‘s theory from Guns, Germs, and Steel, well it is. Morris gives plenty of credit to Diamond, however where Morris’s book differs from and excels beyond Diamond’s is that in his historical analysis he utilizes a system to measure social development to compare the West and East throughout history. His system is basically a Measure of how societies get things done through four measurable traits: energy capture, organization/urbanization, war making, and information technology, and though not perfect (Morris admits this) it is a simple tool that provides a functional point of reference to compare the east and west throughout the past 14 millennium.
What this measure of social development reveals is that not only did the east surpass the west for over a thousand years from approximately 500 CE to about 1700 CE, what is really interesting is that history’s social development has stalled many times due to a ceiling on development that limits the scope of a society’s ability to continue developing with unmeasured growth in energy capture, organization/urbanization, war making, or information technology. Both the west and east have bumped into this ceiling multiple times due to common events such as climate change, migration, disease, famine, and state failure. What allows a society to break beyond the limits of development is the changing meaning of geography such as when China’s grand canal connected the Yellow and Yangtze rivers during Europe’s dark ages, and when the west expanded trade across the Atlantic. Of course I have only listed a few brief examples here and Morris explains the many factors that have occurred throughout human history succinctly and with artful craft far beyond what I could beg to achieve in a brief synopsis here. I’ll just say that he is convincing and provides a renewed historical perspective that is a must read for any curious mind.
The take home message is that it is not just the benefit of geography that allows an empire to rule but the society that rules is the one that benefits from a geography that is meaningful for the time. With the rapid rise of industrialization and dependence on coal then oil, the world has grown smaller and thus further transforming the meaning of geography. If the pattern of history continues as it has for the past two centuries within the next century the development of the world will be 4 thousand times what it is today. The capacity for this unmitigated growth is unimaginable and the only plausible reality is that we are fast approaching a new hard ceiling on development. Based on the current trends the East will surpass the West within the next 20-50 years, but despite any concerns that the West may have about losing the lead, the true concern should focus on the potential that one or many of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, climate change, migration, disease, famine, or state failure will cause a massive global collapse. The only answer to prevent such a collapse is a unification, a singularity that erases the dichotomy of East and West.
“For the Singularity to win, we need to keep the dogs of war on a leash, manage global weirding, and see through a revolution in energy capture. Everything has to go right. For Nightfall to win only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad.” (613)