December 2010

Bonnie B. Lee


Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet!” wrote Rudyard Kipling during the heady days of British Empire in the nineteenth century. And why should they? Since Kipling’s great-great-grandfather was a little boy, the West dominated global trade, politics, science, and exported its style, habits, and culture all over the world. The West in general, and England in particular, quite simply ruled. At the same time, the East in general, and China in particular, dug ever more deeply into its entrenched state structure as it fought internal and external uprisings. As the West sailed outwards, the East turned inwards. Too late, the East found itself outplayed in a new global marketplace fueled by steam engines and fed by New World resources.

Nowadays, the East has since acquired steam and other technologies and is rising so fast that many wonder not if but when a major shift in global power will occur.

Ian Morris isn’t the first to ask why the West rules. It is the same question that led me to study early modern Europe (c. 1350-1750), though this period could only tell me how the West ruled in the modern era but not why. For that, Morris looks way, way back, drawing upon archaeology, classics, linguistics, genetics, sociology, and biological anthropology. The result is a brilliant synthesis that accomplishes what few historians have attempted: a grand narrative of Man in both hemispheres in the distant to near past and -- gasp! -- into the future.

Looking at the cover, I wonder if he isn’t deliberately trying to rile up his fellow historians. Forecasting is for pundits and hacks! they decry, because any serious scholar (Morris is a Stanford professor) wouldn’t dream of prognosticating. Here it’s front and center in the title, and then for added effect, in the subtitle. Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future makes pretty clear that Morris isn’t just going to tell you a lively yarn about our bumbling ancestors. It is an intermittent debate amongst historians whether studying the past can yield any insight into the present let alone the future. As a history graduate student, my classmates and I were content to put our blinders on and delve into the hyperspecificity of our obscure interests. But we were hard-pressed to explain why the seemingly irrelevant past mattered at all.

Morris has an answer. He’s going to tell you not only 1. why the West rules but 2. what the future looks like (possibly involving robots and an intergalactic senate, but we’ll get to that in a moment) by compiling the evidence from 20,000 years of solid human history, and it’s only going to take a couple hundred pages and lots of maps and charts to do it. One’s mind boggles even contemplating the task. But Morris sorts through the heaps of data and frames his argument by making three bold claims upfront:

1. The story of Man is the story of East and West. But what is East and what is West? Once Homo sapiens started migrating out of Africa, one group settled in the rolling fertile hills around the Tigris, Euphrates, and Jordan Rivers in southwest Asia, forming the Western core (this would expand to include Anatolia, Syria, and the Sudan -- not exactly the domain of your lily-white "Westerners" that the term evokes today). Not long after that, another group of Homo sapiens settled in the area around the Yangtze River in modern-day China, forming the Eastern core. Morris relentlessly pursues this dichotomy to the exclusion of say, South Asian or Aztec civilizations, because he believes developmental history is ultimately driven by East-West contrast, competition, and contradiction.

2. To make any sort of comparison, we need to quantify it. What does it actually mean to "rule"? Taking his cues from the UN’s development index, he assigns values to various East and West civilizations across time. He is in dangerous waters here. At one point he admits that lacking a bodyguard, as one of his colleagues was forced to hire, he will sidestep certain murky issues. (If you’re looking for evidence of history’s relevance to today, think on that.) His calculations are not qualitative assessments of cultures and are actually based rather unexcitingly on four sensible metrics: urbanization, war-making capabilities, information technology, and “energy capture,” or how much energy an average person could utilize for his own purposes. The absolute clarity of his methods saves him from any obvious controversies, and I’m honestly both relieved and uneasy that he gets away with it. I will leave Morris to explain the details, because he does make what could be a deadly dull methodology segment (if left up to me) into an interesting discussion on how human progress can be measured. To my surprise, I spent a full afternoon poring over the Appendix that explains the number-crunching and even tinkered with the data myself. Any way you manipulate it, his graph makes sense. And what does it show? Nothing more or less than Western civilization leading in development for the first 14,000 years of Man’s known history, eclipsed by the East in the 3rd century, and then rising again to rule after 1750. Spoiler alert! Within the next 100 years, the numbers forecast that the East will rule again.

3. Nothing that happened was inevitable, but the West ruling as it does now was highly probable. That is, were the outcomes of history locked-in long-term or were they the result of short-term accidents (i.e., the choices of a few individuals who happened to be in power)? Historical inquiry has recently retreated from the Great Men theory, but we still won’t say no to a good old-fashioned biography of a king/general/mystic/inventor/patriot that ascribes him heroic or despotic qualities and whose legacy echoes through the hallowed halls of history. Without them, such red-and-black tomes suggest, the course of history would’ve been entirely altered. The individual in Morris’s estimation, however, hardly makes a blip. In effect, he argues against the relevance of culture, ideas, and beliefs because they are not the driving engines of social development. Sweep away those factors we equate with "civilization" and you’ve swept out all the “characters” and with it, Man himself. This assertion initially sent me into a rage, as it would any cultural historian, but eventually I was assuaged and persuaded yet again; perhaps culture helps to explain epochs of about 500 years at most, but it becomes decreasingly important when we start considering huge populations across millennia, as we will have to do to understand this book’s central question.

Instead, his grand narrative of Man relies on three factors: biology, sociology, and geography. Biology explains that we are all curious clever chimps looking for easier, faster, safer ways to do things. Because large groups of people anywhere are pretty much the same (clever chimps), sociology explains why ideas catch on to change certain societies. Geography explains why large populations that are pretty much the same nevertheless develop differently. In short, the answer to why the West rules today is: geography.

To make his case, Morris launches into the story of man starting with proto-humans and ape-men in the Neander Valley and Peking Man and cave paintings and the discovery of farming. Admittedly, I always found early history boring and muddled. Luckily for me it’s Morris’s specialty, and he recounts the first 20,000 years in absorbing and illuminating detail while never losing sight of the question at hand. He aptly interweaves the simultaneous strands of East and West not just through straight chronology but through the refracting prism of social development, underlining how the two cores are in constant tension. Peppered with literary references from Isaac Asimov to Anna Karenina, the next 500 pages make for an entertaining and engaging read.

Recorded history essentially confirms what Morris has illustrated in his graph (and vice versa). The development curves for East or West are not smooth, and successful rises are followed by stunning collapses that take centuries to recover from. At different points in time, East and West hit ceilings in development (at 43 points on the graph). As a society becomes more populated and demands more resources from its environment, its complexity carries within it the seeds of its own demise. The modern era is simply the continuation of a long ongoing, jaggedly uphill climb.

And yet it is also unprecedented. The Industrial Revolution shattered the ceiling of development because it forever changed the way we capture and harness energy, through the steam engine, electricity, and the combustion of fossil fuels. And it all exploded in the West first. In the 1700s, the northwest Atlantic was a cold undeveloped region far from the heart of the West’s core but, as previous examples show, there are advantages to backwardness. The most isolated peoples, the Dutch and the British, were in fact the best situated for maritime conquest and trade and rapidly became the wealthiest nations in just a few years.

Couldn’t there have been an Industrial Revolution in China? Why did it happen in the West, conferring all the attendant political and economic advantages? Like his blurb-writer and colleague Niall Ferguson, Morris likes to ask these what-if questions. Usually such counterfactual exercises are too clever by half, but once again I’m surprised to find that when taking a panoramic view of history, these are precisely the questions that need to be asked. While the Industrial Revolution was still incubating in the West, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, a brilliant polymath presiding over a massive empire, could have conceivably brought science and enlightenment to China, but he didn’t. He focused instead on shutting down the steppe highway of horseback nomads who constantly undermined the security and stability of China, this time for good. Guns were used to great effect. China was finally rid of the descending hordes that brought with them famine, state failure, and uncontrolled migration, but in the process "missed" its chance at industrialization. Can Easterners say it’s all Kangxi’s fault? No. Any one man could only speed up or slow down what was inevitably written in the maps. The West was just better situated (literally) for an industrial revolution, and that is what made all the difference.

To cite geography as the reason for the West’s rule may be accurate but it remains unsatisfying. The fact that the distant peninsulas and islands that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean happened to have the most access to sea routes and therefore, to abundant raw materials in the New World, while China had the distinct geographical disadvantage of sharing a border with grasslands ideal for grazing the horses of nomadic tribes who raided landed societies every harvest season to make up the difference, hardly seems fair. But we also know that both East and West have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century. What we live in and call the modern era came down to breaking the ceiling of energy capture, and we’re poised to do it again in the near future. By the numbers, it took 14,000 years from the Ice Age to 2000 CE to clamber up to 900 points on the social development scale, and in the next 50 years alone, we’re on track to double that to 2,000 points. By Morris’s estimate, the East will rule the world again in one hundred years and even more astonishingly, social development will be at a staggering 5,000 points. What does that even mean?

This is where the book gets really, really interesting. Morris’s best educated guesses as to what the world will look like in 2103 initially sound ludicrous. So far, Morris has argued that social development is determined by biology, sociology, and geography, but that social development in turn changes what geography means. In the next 100 years, Morris argues that biology and sociology will likely change meaning as well. Though we may scoff at the idea of bionics and human-robot hybrids, genetics research and pharmaceutical advances, not to mention the military’s bio-developmental research, have already set us on that path. Space travel will advance so that we’ll finally make contact with extraterrestrials. We’ll see the limits of state governments as climate change, famine, and epidemic have global impact. And to deal with the threat of dwindling energy resources, Morris doesn’t think we can reduce, reuse, recycle our way into sustainability. There’s no going back. Rather, we’ll find new ways to harness energy and explode the development ceiling set by our current modes of power and consumption.

This can all easily sound like the dorkiest science fiction. Yet imagine describing our world to Rudyard Kipling, that dour Anglo-Indian who lived a hundred years ago when Great Britain was the center of the world, who couldn’t imagine the Internet I searched to get his birth date on the small, fast personal computer I’m using to type. Kipling died in 1936, recent enough for our grandparents to remember. My mind boggles again trying to imagine the world when I am an old grandma (with titanium limbs and turbo-flight boots powered by cold fusion technology, off to attend a congress of peace-minded aliens convening with a global parliament of Earthlings... at the United Nations in New York, of course). It strains comprehension now thinking of my grandparents who were educated in the West because for hundreds of years the peripheral East was in seemingly irreversible decline and the only recourse was to Westernize or perish. How will I tell them then, that their descendants in our ancestral homeland have once again inherited the earth?  

Morris may very well be far off the mark in his predictions, but history, data, and his clear-eyed analysis point decisively in this direction. It could all come crashing down, too. Human history has hit ceilings several times before, and we may be on our way to bumping our heads again and getting knocked back flat into centuries of decline. So the next 40 years will be crucial as to whether developmental growth compounds or plummets. Even though more complex systems collapse more fantastically, they also recover more easily because of the same ingenuity that drove its development upward. We need someone to discover alternative energy sources right now, but rest assured, each age so far has gotten the thought that it needs. And remember that social development changes what geography means. In a clever twist, there may no longer be "East" and "West." Sure, Kipling said never the twain would meet, but crucially, the next few lines of his poem remark upon the insignificance of such distinctions when both sides recognize their shared humanity. Social development shows that though East and West have been playing tag for thousands of years, the accidents of geography may very soon be forgotten as just another quaint artifact of the distant past.    

Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future
by Ian Morris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374290024
768 Pages