Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) by Nial Ferguson is another blockbuster book and TV series combination from the Scottish historian. It’s great in that it takes on one of history’s great questions, that of why European civilization came to dominate the world. But while raising an important question the book has serious problems.
Ferguson says that the West came to rule the rest of the world rather than China because it had 6 ‘Killer Apps’. These were:
- Competition: Europe had multiple states and cities that competed, China had absolute rule.
- Science: Europeans were fascinated by science and technology and used it.
- Property: Europeans had property rights that were strong.
- Medicine: European science led to medicine that worked, for the first time in history.
- Consumption: The West worked for the consumption of the people.
- Work: The protestant work ethic.
It’s embarrassing that Ferguson calls these ideas ‘Killer Apps’. The terminology may seem up to date to some people today but before long it will dated and silly. The other question is whether the groups are really separate or whether they could be grouped into few groups or more are needed. It’s hard to see why science and medicine are separate. Property and consumption could also be grouped under ‘capitalism’. Property itself is a problem. In many European states property was held from the crown and firm property rights were not extant. Ferguson’s chapter on this contrasts the way two different European powers, the Spanish and the English handled property rights in the New World.The chapter on the work ethic is questionable. It begins by talking about the decline of the West and meanders on from there.
It’s a better book than the other most famous recent attempt at a similar justification for why Europe conquered the rest of the world, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond. This is because Ferguson knows more and writes better. Diamond’s book was a superb long article and could have made a very good 100 page book but made a dull longer book that sold because the idea contained in it was so well summed up in a paragraph. However the two books suffer from some similar problems. In providing an overview of one of the great historical questions they don’t provide enough reason as to why their picked reasons work and others do not. Both in the end put forward a great question and then go on to provide an answer that when more closely thought about appears arbitrary. Perhaps what is needed is a number of books like Ferguson’s that take on the question and compare and discuss each other’s answers.
Civilization is worth a read in the end though. Ferguson’s ability to write clearly, with knowledge and in an entertaining manner makes the book a thought-provoking but ultimately unsatisfying one. Ferguson’s book on more constrained subjects are better.