Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010) by Ian Morris is an epic book that describes the whole of human history and puts forward a hypothesis of why the west lead the world and not China.
Morris defines The West as being the Middle Eastern, Mediterranean world, Europe and the New World as settled by Europeans. This is problematic. When he talks about China he is talking about an entity that has existed for thousands of years. When he talks about The West he is talking about an amorphous blob of his own definition. It would greatly surprise the Saudis to learn that they were part of the West and that they are now the dominant civilization ruled from Washington.
Morris also glosses over why other civilized cores did not become the core that unified the world. Indian civilization barely receives a mention. The New World Civilizations do get some mention and are discounted for the usual, legitimate geographical reasons that they lacked contact with other civilizations and could not easily get their ideas and because they lacked the staple crops the old world did and could not move successful food growing as easily because of the North South axis of the Americas.
Morris also defines a metric for the capability of a civilization. He builds this from the energy capture, the largest city, the ability to process information and the ability to deploy military force. Morris decided increases in this metric is driven by
The book goes over the entire history of civilization. It does so very well and Morris uses his knowledge of history and archaeology to make the tale remarkably deep and interesting.
Morris goes from the birth of civilization with farming on the ‘hilly flanks’ of Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria and Northern Iraq where farming first started to the migration to Mesopotamia and Egypt and beyond. The history of ancient Rome, China is riveting. Morris also puts the Needham question in very naturally and ponders why a Chinese Industrial Revolution did not occur first. Morris actually even personally knew Needham.
The epic story of the rise of rulers and laws and their declines is well told by Morris. It is the main reason to read the book. The experience is really something. Morris successfully evokes the wonder at watching the civilization’s history. Morris sees history as being driven by geography. He has little room for ideas in comparison to the also excellent Civilization by Nial Ferguson . Morris also sees constant climate change as having profoundly influenced history. To Morris it appears that climate change is a constant rather than just a modern, human driven thing.
The final chapter of the book goes into where Morris sees the future going. Here the book is deeply affected by where Morris works (at Stanford) and his time. He sees China as becoming the center of civilization. Here Morris discards his definition of the West by comparing Chinese industrial production not to the total of the regions he defined as the West but to just that of the US. Morris then states that he sees humanity as either heading toward ‘The Singularity’ of post-human technological advance or a deep collapse caused by Anthropogenic Global Warming, a similarly exaggerated threat from Terrorism and these items combined with super pathogens. Morris completely disregards even short-term history when discussing his scenarios. He fails to mention that had he been writing in the 1970s the ecological prediction of doom would have been that of Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb, Global Cooling or the remarkably inaccurate Club of Rome. The prediction of nuclear war would also have greatly changed throughout the Cold War. Had he written in the 1950s he might legitimately have described the future as being about to be won by either central planning or a market economy.
The book is a really superb and an enjoyable read. The length makes it an epic read but given that the scope is epic it is well worth the effort. Between it and Ferguson’s Civilization two superb books about the whole of human civilization have been written. Both are prompted by the rise of China and the end of Western dominance. Both provided flawed but well worth considering views of what has driven the West’s rise along with exposition of remarkable skill.