[2 December 2011]
Historians study the effects of the past on the present in order to tell us something about the future. So in a modern world dominated politically, economically and culturally by the West, the most pressing historical question is how that came to be.
Most point to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, but that merely invites more questions: Why did the British, and not the Chinese or Africans, invent the steam engine and the modern factory? What were the social conditions that made the transition to an industrial economy easier there? And what ultimately caused those conditions?
In effect, it’s impossible to accurately explain modern Western dominance without placing it within the context of the entire scope of human history. That, in turn, necessitates a knowledge of geology, biology, psychology, archeology, economics, philosophy and sociology that stretches over thousands of years.
Stanford history professor Ian Morris attempts this unfathomably ambitious project in his cross-disciplinary book Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patters of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Even more unfathomably, he seems to have succeeded.
One popular answer for the book’s titular question has been that the people of the West, mainly Caucasians, were more suited to rule. But Morris uses the patterns of early human migration out of Africa as well as the latest genetic research to show how little genetic divergence has occurred in the last 50,000 years. So even though the actions of human societies can differ significantly, those of the individual humans within them are largely the same.
Instead, Why the West Rules builds on the concept of geographic determinism, popularized in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond convincingly explained how the geography of the Eurasian continent, with its east/west orientation that facilitated trade and its preponderance of farm animals capable of domestication, meant its people would one day dominate those of Africa, the Americas and Australia. But why did societies on the Western edge conquer the ones on the Eastern edge?
For Morris, any explanation must begin with an idea he borrows from the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they are doing.”
There was no grand urge to settle the world out of Africa; each generation just walked one more mile down the road. The invention of agriculture was just as gradual, happening over thousands of years as the people in the Hilly Flanks of Mesopotamia incrementally harvested and replanted the biggest seeds from cereal stalks while waves of grain grew almost imperceptibly from generation to generation.
Eventually, two main cores of human settlement coalesced: one around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Middle East (“the West”) and one centered around the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers in China (“the East”). Why the West Rules attempts to bridge the two main schools of thought—“long-term lock-in” and “short-term accident”—that have emerged to explain why the descendants of the Western settlements overtook those of the East thousands of years later.
In both areas, the societies that first learned the advantages of centralization were able to conquer their neighbors, creating the world’s first empires. But the Babylonians, Egyptians, Xia and Shang all faced what Morris calls the “paradox of development”, where the same factors that drive a society to greatness eventually destroy it.
They all wound up facing a similar problem: the more advanced a core and the greater a capital city, the more resources it needed to sustain itself. But conquering the periphery around a core only expands the initial core while creating a new periphery, which in turn contains newer and greater enemies.
Even the two greatest empires of ancient times, the Romans in the West and the Han in the East, were brought down by this same paradox. Both established vast new frontiers while bringing human civilization to new heights, but both frontiers stretched so long they were eventually overrun by nomads from the Eurasian steppe, who were being forced to migrate in ever-increasing waves towards the settled agrarian cores of “the lucky latitudes” by a period of climate change.
For Morris, the Roman collapse and the West’s subsequent decline into the Dark Ages make a purely long-term explanation for modern Western dominance inadequate. From 500-1100 CE, great empires ruled the East while the West fractured into feudalism. Western superiority, therefore, was not inevitable.
He creates a scale of social development, primarily a function of how much energy the average member of a society consumes, to track the differences between the two sides of the Old World. The overarching story of history becomes the gradual progression of humans figuring out how to more efficiently capture energy from their environment until some sort of limit in social development is reached. When that happens, either a society figures out some new way to enhance its productivity and stave off collapse, like the Industrial Revolution, or “the five horsemen of the Apocalypse”—migration, state failure, famine, disease and climate change—are unleashed.
Why the West Rules, unlike most popular history, downplays the importance of individuals. If history is fundamentally the blind social inertia of billions of lazy, greedy and frightened people, no one man can stand in its way for long. Almost 700 years after Rome was sacked, the Song Empire in China collapsed at the same inflection point in Morris’ social development graph.
Genghis Khan created a movement that nearly swallowed up the whole Eurasian continent, but he was simply the fiercest in a line of steppe invaders that goes back to the beginning of history. And his Mongols, without a centralized state apparatus, were quickly absorbed by the agrarian peoples they conquered.
That’s why for Morris, perhaps history’s most important moment came when the Russian and Chinese divided up Siberia in the late 17th century. The increasing sophistication of guns and other forms of more modern warfare allowed agrarian societies to finally defeat the nomads, and when those two societies closed the steppe from where the enemies of civilization had always come, they were ending a battle 10,000 years in the making.
The continuing expansion of technology and the defeat of the nomads allowed both Eastern and Western societies to crack the hard ceiling that had limited social development since the time of the Romans. At this point, both had the capability to explore and colonize the rest of the world, but only the West choose to do so.
Historians have debated for centuries why the Chinese and Japanese isolated themselves from the world while the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British did the opposite. But rather than point to the decisions of kings or the traits of peoples, Morris turns again to geography. The Atlantic is easier to travel and more conducive to creating a trade network than the Pacific, while poorer Westerners had a lot more incentive to reach the markets of the East than vice versa.
The positioning of the Americas, with their vast mineral wealth and exploitable land which in turn fueled the Industrial Revolution, made world conquest a far more probable outcome for Westerners than Easterners. However, this doesn’t necessarily prevent the East from catching up with the West in a globalized world, which is why Western dominance started eroding steadily almost as soon as it began in the 1800’s.
And while that decline will trouble Western readers, Why the West Rules has far scarier implications. Most societal progress over the last two centuries has come from increasing energy capture by burning fossil fuels, but Morris’ paradox of development is now once again rearing its head. Not only is there a finite supply of fossil fuel and a nearly infinite demand for it, but the negative consequences of burning it are rising rapidly, as global warming caused by carbon pollution could set off a chain of migrations that would destabilize most of the world.
To avoid a hostile 21rst century where the West (the US and EU) battles the East (China and India) for access to increasingly limited amounts of fossil fuels, humans will need to develop alternative forms of energy. Meanwhile, societies from the peripheries of Africa and South America are beginning to assert themselves while an increasingly interconnected global economy will have to sustain a population of nine billion lazy, greedy and frightened people by 2050.
Morris concludes the book with a bit of utopian dreaming about how man can learn from its mistakes and the need for organizations that can coordinate activity on a world-wide level to develop, but from the tone of the book’s first 550 pages, both ideas seem a little ahead of their time at this point in mankind’s development.
Indeed, the most troubling aspect of Why the West Rules is not whether one side of the Eurasian continent will rule over the other, but rather that societies world-wide seem to have hit a similar developmental ceiling. From the perspective of the last 200 years, it’s easy to be optimistic that humans will figure out something after the oil runs dry. But it’s less easy to do so from the perspective of the last 2,000 years, after Morris shows how numerous great societies have collapsed due to their inability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Ironically enough, while Morris challenges many of our most fundamental conceptions of world history, his most important lesson for the modern reader is a maxim almost as old as the discipline itself: “May you be cursed to live in interesting times.”