By James Kwak
For Christmas, Simon gave me a copy of Why the West Rules — For Now, by Ian Morris. I thought it was an amusing but flawed book and put it back on my shelf, but yesterday a friend told me that everyone was talking about the book and I should say what I thought about it. So here goes. (And bear in mind that I do have a Ph.D. in history — though no one has a Ph.D. in all of the history that Morris covers.)
First of all, it’s a fun read. It isn’t particularly engaging, and the narrative is pretty weak (not the author’s fault — it’s just that the history of all of human civilization just doesn’t make for a great story), but it’s filled with interesting historical facts and fills in all those gaps in your knowledge of ancient history. My knowledge of ancient history was mainly gaps, so it was news to me that Western civilization began not in Mesopotamia, as I was taught thirty years ago, but in the “Hilly Flanks” — an arc that runs mainly through Western Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and the Iraq-Iran border.
But the problem is that the book wants to be more than one damned thing after another, so it has a theoretical approach and an interpretative argument. The theoretical approach is that you can measure the social development of a civilization — in this case, he contrasts Western civilization, which is everything that originated in the Hilly Flanks, with Eastern civilization, which is everything that originated in the major Chinese river valleys — using a social development index. That index is constructed from four components: the population of the largest city; per capita energy consumption; the warmaking capacity of the largest military power; and the breadth and sophistication of information technology. (For example, as of 2000 he figures the U.S. military is twenty times as powerful as China’s, so the West gets 250 points and China gets 12.5.) Based on this index, Morris draws a series of attention-grabbing charts that plot the social development of East and West — the West started first and is generally ahead, except for the period from 541 to 1773 A.D. Those charts, and the race between East and West, give the book its organizing feature and what narrative force it has.
There are any number of criticisms you can make of such an index, and Morris tries to anticipate some in his appendix. For me, I became skeptical when he explains why he weights the four components equally. First he says it’s because there’s no obvious reason for doing anything else, but realizing that this isn’t much of an argument, he adds, “even if I thought up reasons to weight one trait more heavily than another in calculating social development, there would be no grounds to assume that the same weightings have held good across the fifteen-thousand-plus years under review or have applied equally to East and West” (p. 151). In other words, he’s acknowledging that no weighting system could be meaningful across such a broad expanse of time and space — but he’s insisting that his four components are meaningful across that same expanse.
Still, the whole social development thing is fascinating in a way, and there’s probably something to it, and fodder for countless cocktail party discussions. But I find the interpretive argument even less less satisfying. Morris starts off by distinguishing his approach from two extreme approaches to history: long-term “lock-in” models, based on underlying, immutable factors, and short-term “accident” models, where individual events matter. Not surprisingly, Morris criticizes both and then claims to be using a different kind of model somewhere in the middle. He doesn’t specify the model very clearly, but it seems to be about the interaction of geography and social development. For example: “Geography determined where in the world social development would rise fastest, but rising social development changed what geography meant” (p. 35). So there are many discussions about how, for example, the Eastern and Western cores adapted to different historical crises differently because the barbarians did or did not have room to expand other than invading the core region.
And those explanations aren’t dumb. In fact, individually, they are quite plausible, and for all I know they may be right. That’s why you can learn a lot by reading the book. But in the end, when you string those explanations together, you end up with one damned thing after another, all over again. Different forces, in different contexts, can produce different outcomes. It’s all true, but in a “duh” sort of way. And I would be fine if that’s all Morris claimed, and he said he was going to talk about how different things happened at different times and places.
But the ambition is to explain “why the West rules,” and that’s much harder, especially when your social development index has the East ahead from the fall of Rome until the Industrial Revolution. Or, rather, it’s pretty obvious that then you have to focus on why the Industrial Revolution happened in England, which is where many historians have focused for a long time. You can pick and choose between the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the varied geographic terrain of Europe, political fragmentation, the deforestation of England (which forced the transition to coal), the close proximity of coal and iron in England, and so on and so forth, and that argument will never be settled. Everything in history is overdetermined, and the rise of the modern West is even more overdetermined than most. But still, for example, it’s hard to argue that the rise of the first centralized, “high-end” state in Assyria in the 8th century B.C. had a lot to do with it.
As Tyler Cowen said many months ago, “Eventually you realize it is going nowhere and has only a weak theoretical framework.” But as I said at the top, it’s still a fun read, and you can still learn a vast amount about world history.