When Edward Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 – it was regarded as one of the most ambitious works of scholarship ever undertaken. Gibbon’s famed magnum opus covered the period from 180 to 1453.
But, measured by timespan, Why the West Rules For Now is arguably even more ambitious: it covers the whole of human history.
As the title of the book suggests, author Ian Morris takes the long historical view with a more recent event his goal : he wants to describe why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain and not China.
Also, as the “For Now” hints in the book’s title, Morris concludes with another fashionable line of enquiry: asking whether the era of Western dominance is about to be displaced by a rising China.
Morris has written a highly readable book that WiC recommends, not least because so much of it is devoted to Chinese history.
He splits his focus into two parallel histories of the 15,000 years of human development that take place in what he categorises as the ‘West’ and the ‘East’. In the case of the East that puts China front and centre. But by contrast, no single country so dominates the history of the West. As Morris narrates, power has gradually shifted over the millennia in what he defines as ‘the West’ – from Mesopotamia to Egypt, then from Persia to Greece, before moving further west, across the Mediterranean to Rome; and in more modern times, further west still, to Britain and, eventually, across the Atlantic to North America.
This bears thinking about: in the past 4,500 years the West’s cultural centre of gravity has moved from Akkad (in what is now Iraq) to California. In that same time period, the cultural centre of gravity for the East (with perhaps a small window of dominance for the Japanese) has been China and its empire. Morris makes plain that the longevity of Chinese power makes it unique in world history.
This also means that around half his book is about China. Most attempts to cover thousands of years of Chinese history prove confusing or dry. This is neither. In fact, so entertaining is Morris’ writing style, that Why the West Rules For Now would not be out of place as holiday reading.
Morris is a polymath, with a PhD from Cambridge but the bulk of his career in the US, mostly at Stanford where he is Willard Professor of Classics and Professor of History.
By training, Morris is an archeologist, which gives him an edge in the first part of the book, where he runs through how ancient societies developed (from the origins of agriculture to the first cities).
But his interests range widely across economics, philosophy and the sciences, leading to a work in which plenty of prior theories are synthesized into a more comprehensive effort of his own.
At the heart of the book is a statistical measure of social development, devised by Morris himself. It might be described as a ‘civilisation index’ and Morris uses it to measure whether the peoples of the West or the East were more advanced at a particular moment in time (on criteria like the development of tools, the growth of cities, the amount of calories consumed).
According to this index, the Western core tended to be more advanced than the East for much of human history. This was not to do with any racial superiority. Rather, Morris points out the West got a head start because of its proximity to richer agricultural opportunities. For example, the peoples living on the Hilly Flank (between the Tigris and Euphrates) had access to the greatest volume of edible crops, particularly barley and wheat, as well as livestock that could be bred and slaughtered.
“Concentrations of wild plants and animals in China were less favourable… domestication came perhaps two millennia later,” Morris reports.
The West maintained this lead for thousands of years with Rome’s Mediterranean trading empire reaching a level of social development that contemporary Han China still lagged. But according to the Morris index, Rome’s ascendancy then peaked, before going into gradual decline (beginning the descent into the so-called Dark Ages that Gibbon was to chronicle).
Meanwhile, China’s development continued apace.
Points out Morris, “541 ought to be one of the most famous dates in history. In that year (or somewhere around the middle of the sixth century, anyway, allowing for a certain margin of error in the index) the East’s social development score overtook the West’s, ending a 14,000 year-old pattern, and disproving at a stroke any simple long-term lock-in theory of why the West rules.”
Morris then describes how China (the ‘East’) galloped ahead of the West, with the Song Dynasty in the eleventh century repeating Rome’s achievement and hitting the same social development score of 43 (Morris describes 43 as a ‘hard ceiling’ that both Rome and the Song administrations were unable to breach – to climb higher would require an industrial revolution).
In a book of such bulk and detail, WiC is wary of oversimplifying the Stanford professor’s arguments. But Morris notes that the West once again overtook the East in the year 1773, powered by Britain’s Industrial Revolution (James Watt’s invention of the steam engine is portrayed as pivotal – jobs that had required human and animal muscles were replaced by faster machines that spurred huge productivity gains and economic growth).
Social development scores in the West then began rising at a pace never before seen (close to 150 by 1900, and almost 1,000 today).
A large chunk of the book is then devoted to exploring why the Industrial Revolution was to ignite in eighteenth century Britain and not Song China in 1100.
Morris makes a very strong case for why the West was once again the beneficiary of geography: the Western ‘core’, he says, had shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast. America and the Atlantic economy that grew around it, he believes, created the conditions for the industrial take-off first sparked in the industrial towns of the United Kingdom.
To do full justice to Morris and his expansive historical overview, we recommend that you read Why the West Rules For Now yourself.
For the future – and whether China will overtake the West once more – Morris also offers some predictions. They are interesting, although ultimately less satisfying than his historical account, where he is obviously on surer ground.
In particular, his many insights on China’s history prove essential reading.
For instance, the dynamic Song era – in many ways a golden age for Chinese civilisation – is brilliantly contrasted with the malaise of the nineteenth century under the Qing.
Morris offers a host of anecdotes on the decline. One such is the treatment of scholar and statesman Hong Liangji. When Hong published a critical essay outlining the reforms that would be required to return China to its former greatness, his reward was to be condemned to death. Hong’s crime in Qing eyes, according to Morris, was “extreme indecorum”.
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