Review: Why the West Rules ~ for Now

I was given this imposing book by a friend who thought highly of it.  I say ‘imposing’ because it is 645 pages long (including one appendix but not counting 100 pages of notes and index).  I’ve had time to read it because I’m on holiday in Sicily.  Not only is it imposing but it is very interesting and thought-provoking.  The book examines 16,000 years of human history (and other forms of data) to explore why the West has more power than the East, and what is likely to happen in the future.

The author, Ian Morris, was born in 1960; he is currently Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University.  He is an archaeologist as well as an historian, and the interesting aspect of this book is that in relies of archaeological, biological, geological, linguistic, genetic, social as well as historical evidence.  Published in 2010, the book has won many awards and has  been translated into 13 languages.


Ian Morris

The book is a ‘brief’ summary of human history beginning at the end of the last ice age (but with with an exposition of the prior evolution of humanity).  Professor Morris uses four indices of human development to quantify the progress of civilisation in the East and the West.  He provides captivating commentary on why the various indices grew or shrank over time.  His indices are social (the size of the largest city in the region); military (the most powerful military force in the region); technological (who had the technological advantage); and who was making the most use of energy.  There are plenty of brief descriptions of the brilliant (or catastrophically stupid) moves of the movers and shakers – eastern and western -in each age, but he demonstrates that it was not their brilliance or stupidity that really changed history.  Nor was it political or cultural or genetic.  It was geography which finally gave the West a major advantage at the end of he eighteenth century.

Looking ahead, Professor Morris concludes that the East will take over the lead in the twenty-first century: largely based on China surpassing the US in financial terms.  But he also says that it may not matter who ‘rules’, because sometime in this century there is more likely to be one world than an east and west.  Looking still further into the future, he postulates two major scenarios: Singularity where human intelligence becomes so well integrated with computers that all intelligence becomes shared, and humanity becomes something altogether different; and Nightfall where humanity is essentially wiped out by a catastrophe such as nuclear war or environmental disaster.  (There are plenty of other undesirable scenarios suggested.)  At the conclusion, he hopes that Singularity will prevail.

This book is very thought-provoking, interesting reading, calling as it does on a wide range of specific data, and events in human history.  I found it interesting that religion had almost no part to play in human development.  Instead, the steadfast theme of human brutality is omnipresent.  War, it seems, was always the preferred option.  Professor Morris attributes human development to fear, greed or laziness, saying that all human innovation arises from one of those three motivations.  Sadly, I’m afraid he is right  So, in addition to giving the reader a fascinating lesson in human history, Professor Morris provides a rather depressing picture of human character.

I must say that I don’t necessarily agree that the East will – via China – rule the world.  Economic, military or political disaster could overtake China (or the US for that matter).  But I do agree that we are converging on One World rather than East vs West.

This is a brilliant book, worth all the time it takes to consume it all!

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