Why the West Rules...For Now


Ian Morris


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

May 6, 2012

his book is a fast review of the last 50,000 years of human history, trying to answer the question - Why Does the West Rule? Was it inevitable that the West would rule human history, or was it just random chance? Ian Morris is an archaeologist, with a focus on China, so in this book we learn a lot about Chinese dynasties. We are all familar with Western history - a rough sequence of Egypt / Greek Democracy / Roman Empire / Dark Ages / Renaissance / Age of Exploration / Age of Colonization / World Wars / the American Century. But while all these events in the West occurred, great empires rose and fell in the East.

Indeed, Morris argues that for an 800 year span, roughly from the fall of Rome until Age of Exploration, China actually led the world as the most advanced civilization on earth. It was the desire to get to China and trade for its marvels (porcelain, silk, tea, etc) that drove the European explorers onward. So the idea that the West has always ruled is false.

Morris uses four factors to rate the social development of a civilization. His four indices are Urbanism, Energy Consumption per Capita, War Making Capicity, and Information Processing. Urbanism is measured by the size of population of the largest city. Using the best archaeological records, Morris draws charts that show for much of early history, the West did lead the East in terms of overall advanced level. The advantage that the West had was due to geography - in this case, Morris' argument is the same as Jared Diamond - that geography played a huge factor in the winners and runners-up in success of civilizations. As Morris likes to say, it was the Maps, not the Chaps, that determined the course of history. If Hammurabi, Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar had never lived, then there would have been someone similar in an alternate history to play the general role. The geographical benefit that the West enjoyed was a bonanza of animals that could be domesticated (pigs, goats, chickens, oxen, ...) and a cornucopia of plants that could be grown for food. The first signs of agriculture can be found in the area of the Middle East that Morris calls "The Hilly Flanks". Farming began in the West long before it started in the East, giving the West a thousand year headstart toward greater civilizations.

The definition of the West has migrated over the centuries - so even though "The West" began in Mesopotamia, that land is no longer considered part of Western civilization.

In addition to the plants and animals enjoyed by the West, Morris argues that the presence of the Mediterranean Sea acted a major highway for expansion/exploration and trade. Landlock China had no easy shipping routes until it dug the impressive Grand Canal, which linked the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers during the Sui Dynasty. Which, not coincidentally, corresponds to the time when Eastern civilization first passed the West (which was falling into the Dark Ages at that time.)

Morris also explains that the West had the benefit of being 5000 miles closer to America. China was separated from America by the Pacific Ocean, which is twice as broad as the Atlantic. But I found this argument unconvincing, because if the famous Chinese junk fleet had sailed north, following the coasts of Japan, Kamachatka they would easily have come across Alaska and the New World. But Zheng He's fleet only sailed south to India and Africa; and the fleet was abandoned and the Chinese Age of Exploration ended. In another example of "what might have been", Morris describes how Chinese blacksmiths learned how to burn coal and cast iron hundreds of years before the West learned similar techniques. But this never led to the invention of the steam engine in the East.

Overall this is an interesting book with a swift march through history. I don't think the steam engine even shows up until page 500 or so, and by that time the West is on a runaway rate of advancement that the East can not match...for now.

The last section of the book Morris puts forth a theory about what happens next - does the West dominance continue, or does the East surpass it? Morris' answer is that it doesn't matter - the world has shrunk so much that the old notions of East and West matter much less in the future. What does matter is humanity's race against the limits - can our bursting technological knowledge continue to provide us with advanced levels of energy, food and comfort for billions of people (Morris calls this happy outcome The Singularity) or does the world civilization collapse into a new Dark Age (Morris calls this outcome The Nightfall). I think Morris is wrong, that there will be a happy in between state. For example, using birth control, the human population could reduce itself to just couple of billion people in a few generations, without any dramatically violent event.