Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules – for now (i)

‘By what means (said the prince) are the Europeans thus powerful, or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.’

The reasons for what we have come to call the rise of the West invited speculation in the days of Samuel Johnson, when the process was in its early days, and are being hotly debated now, when the tide seems to be flowing in the opposite direction. It is the great achievement of Ian Morris to have considered this question in a book published in 2010 that is staggering in its intelligence and its breadth. Deeply rooted in biology and sociology, it makes use of what he calls Morris’ Theorem: ‘Change is caused by lazy, greedy and frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways of doing things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.’  He holds that social development can be quantified on the basis of data for energy capture, urbanism, information processing and ability to make war. Awarding the maximum level of development attained in the year 2000 a score of 1000, he gives a precise figure for both West and East at different times since 14000 BCE.

The results are fascinating. The West is shown to have taken an early lead, which it only lost in the sixth century CE. But the coming of the Industrial Revolution allowed it to pull ahead again in about 1800. It continued to lead during the twentieth century, but a narrowing of the ration between the scores for West and East suggests that this century marked the beginning of the end of western dominance.

I cannot imagine anyone not being excited by this book, which starts with homo habilis and ends with predictions for the period that lies ahead (I’m not going to spoil the pleasure of potential readers by revealing what they are.) Western readers will appreciate the sustained attention to China, and the themes that develop in the discussion of responses to hostile outsiders. The book is particularly rich on material causes of change such as disease and climate change, while the significance of geography is well established. Diverse parts of the world are knitted together: ‘The Hapsburgs used most of their New World silver to pay their debts to Italian financiers, from whose hands much of the bullion made its way to China…’ The account of industrialization in England is superb, and leaves one in no doubt as to its importance.

One scholar has asserted that Morris’ study is ‘[t]he nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.’ This sounds impressive. But many historians believe that the line of enquiry they pursue is not scientific, so that it would not be realistic to expect such a field theory. Indeed, some might be worried at the suggestion that such a theory was on the cards… (To be continued.)

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