My Christmas Present

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.

23 thoughts on “My Christmas Present

  1. A far better book for those who wish to really understand the flow of western culture is, “Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud” by Peter Watson.

  2. Really, everybody is talking about it? I am unimpressed with everybody. I gave up around page 160 at the social metrics discussion, having waded through the discussion about hominid development. I have better things to do with my time.


    Kant realized a long time ago that advancement is a function of maturity. Maybe the West just got there first. But the rest of the world’s catching up, and realizing that to act and be treated like children only means you will forever be abused and disappointed, with nothing to show for it other than resentment and generations of impoverishment.

    It has always been the case that seeking power do so only for their own enrichment — witness here in the U.S. the prelude, denouement and aftermath of the financial crisis wherein powerful interests succeeded in destroying the markets and societies in which they live and operate, install their operatives at the critical junctures of power, and loot their respective treasuries at the expense of the great mass of once-trusting individuals who are repeatedly disabused of the notion they can believe what they’re told by their “leaders.”

    “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,” Kant said.


  4. I caught a bit of a show on PBS the other day about the intelligence found in apes, and in this segment one of the central findings of primate researchers was that apes are terrible (incapable) of deferring gratification for some greater reward in the future. In other words, apes make lousy investors.

    Humans, however, were argued to have developed the ability to not react emotionally, but to instead be patient and to postpone gratification with the expectation that additional benefits can be reaped at some point in the future. Perhaps this belief allows people to save for retirement, to believe in the sometimes illusory wonder of compound interest, and to put aside petty squabbles for the greater good.

    In the context of the financial crisis, does this mean that greedy financiers have failed to show this distinctly human trait (counterexamples welcome), in that they are wrecking the entire system because they want to gain the maximum advantage over their fellow humans (and perhaps the rest of the planet as well)?

  5. Well Jeff, that is the age old question of the greed of man. And mans ability to reconize it as such. But it can be proved that there was a gap between man and ape, one that saw the need to protect the first infant/young humans. But then also saw its offsprings advantages that needed to be restrained physically. A war eventually broke out and humans won it. In addition, it was also reconized that if the slaves were not given there freedom, they would one day overwhelm their masters and confiscate what they believed was actually theirs. Today we have a gvt/media built by and of the military, one that can and will supress any enemy threat percieved to diminish its power, and that includes financially, politically, and militarily. They have the advantage, and no intention of it being wrecked.

  6. How about the Indus valley civilization and the one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world that not western or chinese?

  7. Since the whole enterprise of devising an index of “development” sounds foolish and the specific factors chosen even worse, the following is ultimately irrelevant; but there actually IS a good statistical reason for not trying to give differing weights to various factors in a predictive formula–to quote a decades-old paper on the relative uselessness of anything other than 0 or 1 as weights in regression analysis: “It don’t make no never-mind.” Since the exact weights derived from a regression analysis depend to some significant degree on taking advantage of noise in the original sample (“overfitting”), use of those exact weights when employing the results of the original regression analysis to predict your outcome of interest in a totally new sample will yield a poorer prediction (i.e., outcome variance accounted for by the regression) in the new sample than in the old sample. (This is the cold wind through the shower room of regression known as “shrinkage.”) In a related vein, when predicting the outcome in the new sample, using unit weights for the variables that were significant in the original analysis and 0 weights for those that were not will yield just as good results, on average, as using the exact weights derived from the original analysis. Put another way, the use of exact rather than unit weights is an example of what my grad-school design prof used to call “spurious elegance.” It don’t make no never-mind.

  8. “spurious elegance” = good one, there, Bob. Sort of my take on James Kwak describing the book he is reading above.

    I kinda understood what you were saying, Bob, but I am not sure I want to take the quiz! :)

  9. From 541 to 1773, the West was smaller in numbers of people, with periodic plagues that took out the scientist as well as the thief…the East continued to breed and lost it’s pace when it continued to utilize slave labor while the strongest countries in Europe employed invention.

    Koch threw the first punch at Pickens – go figure :-)

    Pickens figures the whole country needs one billion over five years to get it done. Someone tell Boone the war lords *lost* 6 BILLION in Iraq….

  10. @i Annie, more proof of the Monkey Brain Syndrome:

    When you have racketeers running everything, a debasement of one’s surroundings is inevitable, so when anyone is wondering, “gee, what the beejeekers happened here”, the answer isn’t complicated, or hidden.

    I’m still wondering what happened to the Rumsfeldian $2.3 Trillion gone MISSING, but the auditors sort of disappeared, when part of a wing of the building they worked in, underwent a further renovation.

  11. Jeff/Owen,

    I read a SciFi story one time, where the main plot point was an alien-but-humanoid race who had a Rite of Passage through a pain barrier. The adolescents who got through were ”people” and brought into the society; those who didn’t were ”animals” and left to their own devices. I can’t remember the exact details, but I believe this Rite might have been set up by human ”observers” as an evolutionary forcing mechanism.

    The obvious point for speculation was whether or not similar Rites, which persist to this day in some tribal societies, had had the same effects in the past on Earth.

  12. Surprised that there is no mention here of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I assume that the book mentions Diamond, however.

  13. @Ed:
    The problem is, imO, that while Diamond gives a good explanation why Eurasia came to dominate the world, his explanation why within Eurasia Europe got ahead of China and the Middle East is pretty weak.
    Personally, I find that the following book does a very good job at answering the question, though it is somewhat hard to read …

  14. You almost have to be an historian, which I am not, to wade into Why the West Rules for now. The metrics are a slog and the book is what, 800 pages? That’s the whole Dune Trilogy! (Now there’s an interesting history/sociology!) But Morris gives a very lively talk, that is intriguing and fast moving. The interplay of geography and social change is what I find most interesting in his theory.

    You can watch Morris’ whole Long Now Foundation talk at A cheap easy way to get a good look at his work.–For_Now

    The LNF has a really interesting eclectic group of speakers, one a month. You can see the roster of former seminars at: Most of them are available to view at

  15. @Positroll

    Diamond, I recall, says that Europe has no way to unify itself under a unique rule and therefore there is a lot of space for innovation on semi-insulated political entities, whereas China come under an unified command early on, thereby slowing technological progress.
    I find this explanation reasonable enough taking into account the fact that there is not so much to explain: only one two bits: it would be either Europe or China or India, Middle East committed ecological suicide. Once a region have some technological advantage, that advantage would be for some time self-sustainable.

  16. “In other words, apes make lousy investors. ”

    Actually, since most humans do no better than a coin flip at picking stocks, why not have an ape manage your portfolio?


  17. @Notorious P.A.T.: I suppose I should have written that apes are not good at going long…

  18. @Anonymous: If I recall correctly, Morris acknowledges that there was a separate start to civilization in India (and a couple of others, although I forget where they were). He focuses on “East” (China) and “West” (everything originating in the Hilly Flanks) just because they have been the most powerful throughout history. Of course, that could change. At this point, though, I don’t know how you separate India from all the Western influence.

  19. It seems to me the folks belonging to the Rothschild and Warburg clan have done the best out of all humanity. Frankly, they win “hands down” as far as I can tell. Second place group is hard to see from the finish line marked as 2011. That Moses dude was a pretty good writer, they had some prophets mixed in there somewhere, and although some of the tribe may disagree, that Jesus Christ guy was pretty cool as well.

    There were some others…. Einstein, and oh hell!!! How much space we got in this thread???

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