Why the West Rules — For Now

By Ian Morris

It has been said that history doesn’t repeat itself but that historians repeat one another. We never experience the same historical event twice, but we think and talk about them in the same way. Trends in historiography come and go, suggesting historical patterns in critical approach that make it seem as though historians occupy a giant echo chamber.

One recurring tendency in history writing that has drifted in and out of popularity almost from the beginning is that of macrohistory, or history that takes the long view. In olden days this took the form of a universal history that attempted to fit all human history into a Christian paradigm, taking us from creation through a series of different dispensations up to the present day (usually imagined as being near the end of times). In the twentieth century the macrohistorical approach was identified with writers like Spengler and Toynbee, and then the Annales School of the longue durée, the latter of which seemed to have run its course with the advent of postmodernism and the new historicism.

Since then, however, macrohistory has come roaring back, albeit with adjustments and adaptations. It’s now usually referred to as world history or big history, with popular practitioners such as Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (The World: A History), Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel), and David Christian (Maps of Time). The emphasis in big history is on very long-term forces that have shaped human civilization, the human species, and even the universe.

A particular favourite among all of these shaping forces is geography, which has pretty much totally supplanted the older emphasis on biology and race. Indeed, the importance of geography has been stressed to the point of drawing accusations of environmental determinism from critics of big history, reducing all of the human past to questions of climate and the availability of natural resources.

Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – For Now is very much a part of this new universalism. His answer to the question posed in the title is simple:

The West rules because of geography. Biology tells us why humans push social development upward; sociology tells us how they do this (except when they don’t); and geography tells us why the West, rather than some other region, has for the last two hundred years dominated the globe. Biology and sociology provide universal laws, applying to all humans in all times and places; geography explains differences.

This is actually saying less than it seems so let me unpack it a bit.

For one thing, big history, in taking the long view, necessarily downplays the role of contingency in history. The lives of individuals, even an Alexander the Great or Jesus, don’t make much of a difference in the long run. When looking at the big picture, many of history’s turning points and watersheds disappear. The image tends to blur, erasing differences. So, in his graphing of “social development,” Morris’s vision of history actually shows that East and West have advanced nearly in lockstep over the millennia. For a time – the European Middle Ages – the East even pulled into the lead for several centuries. So by restricting his final judgment to “the last two hundred years” he is really only talking about one specific event and its fallout.

That event is the Industrial Revolution. Seen through the lens of big history, the number of really significant historical thresholds is quite low. The origin of the species. The development of agriculture (leading to the growth of cities and writing). The discovery of the New World by the Old and subsequent Columbian exchange of germs, populations, and goods. And then the Industrial Revolution. We may look back at our own digital dispensation as another watershed, but at least so far, that’s it.

The problem is that of all of these events, geography helps the least in explaining the Industrial Revolution. The key question to answer here is why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. For Morris the answer is that it was driven by the development of an Atlantic economy that inspired a new way of looking at nature, spurring a drive for “scientific thought, mechanical tinkering, and cheap power.” Such a conclusion, however, strikes me as vague and somewhat speculative, at least in so far as it seeks to place geography in the driver’s seat of change. Given the “Morris Theorem” – “that change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people (who rarely know what they’re doing) looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things” – the same incentives for change might have been expected to exist in the pre-modern East as well. It seems to me that demographics and politics played as big a role as geography.

That said, Morris’s view is helpful and makes sense. Less convincing on both counts is his conclusion.

One of the arguments made for studying the larger patterns of history is that it provides strong grounds for making predictions. It’s tough to change the course of what are long-term trends, much less arrest them completely. If we can see the direction of the road we’re on, then we know where we’re heading. With this in mind, Morris freely imagines what may be in the store over the course of the next hundred years, making projections that seem way, way off to me, though he insists they are conservative.

Basically, Morris’s model suggests that social development over the course of the next century will increase four or five times more than it has throughout all of recorded human history. If this seems impossible, we may consider that our present lifestyles would have seemed impossible to many people a hundred years ago. Fair enough. But while not impossible, Morris’s projection seems highly improbable based on the hard limits to growth within a finite system.

Such a best-case outcome, dubbed the Singularity version (borrowing Ray Kurzweil’s label, and some of his thinking), is the optimistic forecast. In this scenario the species itself will be transformed into some kind of networked information system, transcending biology and “evolving into a new, merged being as far ahead of Homo sapiens as a contemporary human is of the individual cells that merge to create his/her body.”

The darker projection is Nightfall (which Morris names after the famous Isaac Asimov story). Nightfall is collapse, a new dark age brought about by some combination of Morris’s five horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change, famine, state failure, migration, and disease.

The next hundred years will see a race between social development and collapse, but Morris thinks that humanity will be able to postpone Nightfall long enough to enjoy the Singularity. What makes the present situation different from other instances of collapse in history is that today “we know so much more about the issues involved” (thanks, in Jared Diamond’s formulation in Collapse, to the power of archeology and television).

This strikes me as putting too much faith in the rationality of our species. Even assuming some way forward to the Singularity could be mapped or even just imagined, is it one that we would follow? We have had a long time to learn the lessons of history. That we haven’t yet suggests that it may not be the most effective teacher.

I don’t want to dismiss Morris’s conclusions. My main problem with Why the West Rules – For Now is that it is a broad, general history with only one slightly original wrinkle: the use of a “social development” index to chart the progress of humanity’s ability to “get things done” on a standardized scale (if you’re interested, the major components for the index are energy use, urbanization, military strength, and communication). It’s typical of books like this to be filled out with a lot of very basic stuff, but here you really feel the need for more pruning.

Nor is the argument terribly original or persuasive. Unlike the work of Diamond or Christian, Morris doesn’t present a new paradigm or way of thinking about the patterns of history beyond a very squishy emphasis on “geography.” I even have to place it in quotation marks because the concept of geography itself is plastic, as geography drives social development but social development drives what geography means in a kind of dialectic. And finally the conclusion, that if (a big if) the spike in social development is to continue its post-industrial revolution trajectory (meaning an almost straight vertical take-off) humankind will either be transformed utterly or suffer a collapse of civilization isn’t telling us much that most of us aren’t already aware of. If the takeaway is that we have to learn from history, I think we have to learn more than this.

Review first published online April 25, 2016.