on 25 April 2014
The United States of America and the European Union share a western view of the world in which a democratic political order and the wealth engines of capitalism have made overt interstate violence obsolete. On this view, the great wars of the twentieth century were the last expressions of such violence and the culmination of a long historical process that began when human beings first let themselves be herded into organised states. Mass killing in warfare now seems abhorrent to us because modern political states have made it obsolete.
That claim is only the minor part of the message of the book War, by Stanford professor Ian Morris. The claim will probably find general agreement among the thinking public, in the western world at least. Citizens in democratic states with free markets recognise that their best interests lie in peaceful trade and cooperation. A Pax Americana has stabilised the free world and allowed a new and higher form of civilisation to flourish. Who among us would wish to disagree with that?
The major part of the message Morris delivers is more controversial. War, he contends, was the enabler for the evolution of modern states, which following Thomas Hobbes he calls Leviathans. Winning wars meant organising one’s own side more effectively than the enemy could organise its opposition, and this asymmetry became a ratchet in which bigger generally meant better. Might was right, and the biggest bully ended up taking all. Now we enjoy the peace and protection offered by the meanest monster on the planet, namely the sole remaining military superpower, the United States, Globocop.
Morris presents this message in a chatty style, replete with repetition to hammer home his core message, in the evident hope of making the book a popular bestseller. But this only serves to highlight the obscenity, to a casual modern reader, of the idea that war was ever good for anything. Only a scientist who had studied the steadily diminishing casualty figures for conflicts over the ages, as a fraction of all deaths and in comparison with death tolls from famine or plague or other diseases, and then calmly contemplated the cruelty of the evolutionary process in all its natural forms, could happily assert anything so positive about war. For if Morris is right, we should welcome the pursuit of war in its latest guises as harbingers of further societal evolution. And this offends the modern sensibility mightily, so much so that a better explanation of why we should welcome war than Morris provides is really essential if anyone is to take his core thesis seriously at all.
The steady diminution of homicidal violence over the last few thousand years is now a widely accepted fact. Steven Pinker described and sought to explain the phenomenon in his 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. But Morris adds what might seem an ironic twist in his claim that this diminution was positively facilitated by the evolution of warfare. His point is that war forced the emergence of ever bigger and better Leviathans, which learned both to pacify their interiors and to stabilise their external borders ever more effectively as history rolled on. Leviathans are good for us, or at least better than life in a savage society beyond the reach of law and order, so anything that helped usher the big beasts onto the stage of history was good too, including war.
The irony of this claim is not lost on Morris, who may even look forward with relish to the stir it will doubtless cause among the chattering classes, but science is a hard taskmaster. We need to examine the claim more carefully than Morris has done in his brisk and breezy overview of human history from the stone age to the present day. Now, he says, we are sharing in a global hive mind in the cloud of online connectivity, which thinkers like Ray Kurzweil predict will lead to the singularity, the rapture of the nerds. Our own examination should highlight two aspects. One is the evolution of war-fighting technology from hand axes and wooden spears to robot systems in kill chains that end in nuclear apocalypse. The other is ongoing change in human nature, based as it always was in the biology of our genes and modulated as it soon will be by our growing power to transform ourselves both physically and mentally. These two sides of the evolution of Leviathans, both in the past and into the future, deserve a much wider and deeper analysis than Morris has so far conducted.
As to the technology of warfare, its role in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the depredations of horsemen from the steppes of Asia, the rise and fall of the British Empire and its ruinous German nemesis, the revolt and decay of Soviet communism, and the modern emergence of asymmetric warfare, all invite closer study. As for us, the human perpetrators and victims of war, the changes in our nature due to nutrition, religion, modern medicine, and genetic engineering all merit a closer look. Morris makes stabs at considering most of these issues, but misdirects some of his stabs and hence weakens his case.
On the Romans and the Huns and Mongols, Morris makes a pretty good case. The Romans generally made better use of iron weapons and iron discipline than their opponents and hence won big, but the Huns and later Asian nomads made better use of horses and mobile warfare for a thousand years and more. Then the Europeans fought back with guns, developed from early Chinese ideas, and created new Leviathans, which led in turn to what Morris calls the “Five Hundred Years’ War” that led to a brief Pax Britannica based on naval supremacy before the Americans took the prize. The demise of the British Empire in genteel poverty, as national debts accumulated to pay for the imperial struggle against German militarists in two world wars, gets a rather superficial gloss in the Morris myth, and much more about the role of national rivalries in Europe as well as about the gradual morphing of Anglo-American power when capital flowed westward would be needed to tidy up the tale, but still there is wide agreement on the main story here. The decades of nuclear confrontation in the Cold War were clearly shaped by the technological enablement of four-minute megadeath scenarios, but Morris does not really explain how this developed or evolved. Perhaps only a physicist could fill out that story properly. As for asymmetric warfare by western forces against various kinds of insurgents and fundamentalists, Morris has simply missed the sudden rise of electronic mass surveillance it triggered. But the jury is still out on what all this means, and clearly there are still plenty of devils in the detail to be chewed over.
Changes in human nature are even harder to evaluate, and they are crucial to making sense of our changing views of war over the centuries. Morris discusses the lessons offered by chimpanzees and bonobos in Africa, and their relevance to early humans, but most of his tale unfolds over a timescale in which genetic changes to Homo sapiens are unlikely to be significant. What he does not mention is the possible relevance of epigenetic changes, and of selection effects at the level of neural organisation, which could well have put significant distance between us and our remote ancestors. A simple comparison with breeds of dogs, which have an equally brief history, suffices to suggest their relevance. War may be civilising us by killing off the foolhardy, or the weaklings, or both, but it is hard to see how we can measure such effects. Morris mentions the roles of nutrition and disease in his tale, but again only briefly. Millions of Native American were sickened to death by exposure to European pathogens, and poor peasants were starved in their millions by Soviet and Nazi overlords in the gory days of their lordship. Such phenomena may have left genetic scars we shall measure some day.
The role of religion in war and human evolution is a topic that bursts the bounds of the analysis Morris undertakes, but it is surely relevant to the overall picture. The various religions variously foster sexual and martial discipline, and variously incite their followers to acts of wisdom or folly that have great relevance, over historical time, to the evolution of Leviathans. One need only mention the influence of Christianity on Roman martial prowess, for good or ill, in the latter days of the Roman Empire, or the impact of Islam on the warlike propensities and capabilities of the Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman empires, to see a huge research field, as yet only thinly cultivated. And the future impact of modern medicine and genetic engineering on our readiness as a species to engage regularly in war, “productive” or otherwise, is of course anyone’s guess.
The policy implications of the case for war in the book are hard to extract. If war has sometimes been productive, in the sense of fostering the growth of Leviathans that have in the end served us well, we should be less eager to condemn wars outright. In a world where conflicts still break out with distressing frequency, this may seem a disastrous conclusion to indulge. But more distressing is the idea that the fall in death rates may only be temporary. We see a lot of noise in the data, such as a thousand-year blip caused by horsemen from central Asia, and if the twentieth century had culminated in a nuclear spasm war with a death toll approaching a billion souls, which Morris briefly entertains, we would have seen the stats revert to stone-age levels. So the argument is dancing on thin ice as each new Leviathan finds new ways to cull us by many thousands or millions, and surely soon by billions. If in future the robots decide to continue on their terrestrial course without human aid and comfort, they might choose to delete mankind by means of an extinction-level event (a.k.a. ELE).
Altogether, Morris has opened a can of worms and hardly begun to sample its delights. His book is fun to read and stimulating, and he includes plenty of notes and references for readers who are determined to go deeper. But in the end, how much of his case is sustainable in science and how much is bluster and nonsense is still far from clear. To his credit, Morris says as much, but then, undaunted, he goes right ahead anyway and makes bold claims that will surely annoy more sensitive readers.
The main claim of this book is very controversial, it states that war has been good for mankind, in fact it is the reason for our current increases in safety and prosperity. BS you shout, but let me explain:
There are two kinds of bandit, the first is the roving kind that just comes along, kill lots of people, steals everything then runs off. The second kind is the stationary bandit, they come along, kill lots of people, takes over by putting in place government and robs the population via taxes.
The stationary bandit wants to protect their population from roving bandits (they will steal wealth that the stationary bandit would have got via taxes) and suppresses violence between the population (well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones.) This means the stationary bandit controlled areas are a lot safer to live in. This is very important when you take in to account archaeology findings that suggest Stone Age man lived in small groups and their lives were very violent with 10-20 percent dying a violent death. With stationary bandits, populations don't have to worry about violence as much, they can get on with doing their jobs, living safer and more prosperous lives.
Of course people are not going to just let the stationary bandit take over, thus war is how the stationary bandit takes control of the population and impose government with taxes to exploit the population, but at the same time protects them from violence from roving bandits and each other. The population is now a lot safer and this creates civilisation. It's government that's the good thing but the author argues that small tribes only submitted to government imposed on them via stationary bandits using war.
If this theory sound ridiculous, think of the Romans, invading, conquering and exploiting the defeated via taxes, but protecting their empire from roving bandits and imposing rule of law. Also The Romans deliberate gave the conquered the taste of the peaceful life with luxurys like public baths etc to tame them. ("What have the Romans ever done for us" in Life of Brian springs to mind.)
Yes governments fight wars with each other and some terrorise their population and the rest of the world, but overall in the long term the author thinks governments have been beneficial. Remember the violent lives of Stone Age man (10 -20 percent deaths from violence) even WW2 (which killed 60 million people, 2.5% of world's population) did not get close to that.
Farming played a big part in why the stationary bandit appeared with the lucky latitudes explanation from "Guns, Germs, and Steel" used ( more edible plants and animals that could be domesticated existed on the lucky latitudes than other latitudes making farming possible). How being a farmer with crops to defend would have effected fighting among groups is discussed.
The book goes in to detail about the rise of stationary bandit empires and the effects of things like chariots, guns and disease had on warfare between them and roving bandits. Warfare from biblical times through to both world wars concluding on the rumblings currently going on between America and China is covered. How the cost of warfare for stationary bandits made warfare less likely and how the vast resources of their empires effected choice of weapons and tactics of both stationary bandit and roving bandit is covered.
I don't agree with this, but the author believes that just like how governments protect their people from roving bandits and each other, the role of England as global cop during its empire did the same thing on a global scale, but America has now replaced England in this role.
Towards the end of the book things take a unexpected turn with hi tech science theories on how computers and the internet could change the world. We will merge with machines ( this has already started to happen e.g pacemakers etc) with computer enhanced brains. One claim is that now war (well actually governments) have created peace and prosperity in the near future the minds of everybody will soon be connected directly to the internet creating a giant superorganism rendering war obsolete. ( what about people outside the system?) But the author does speculate that maybe instead of eliminating war a new style of conflict where different parts of the superorganism fighting each other will appear. To be honest this section sounds silly to me.
The author believes this computation of everything needs to happen before American power as global cop fades because when that happens there will be no global stationary bandit to stop the other counties from fighting with each other.
Is the book correct? I don't know. I don't like what the author is saying but the argument seems reasonably solid.
Looking at the other Amazon reviews it appears this book is been misunderstood, I don't want to keep repeating myself so I recommend rereading this review a couple of times to get a proper understanding of what the book is saying. I can see warmongers using these theories to justify oppression, but that does not mean the book is wrong. A challenging, disturbing, and thought provoking read.
on 24 April 2015
Ian Morris 's book is quite intriguing but there are many theories I do not agree to. Instead of the author emphasising war alone for progress of civilization, he should consider other factors such as climate change and resource depletion. Other books have argued from various angles on progress or decline of civilizations. The book did not portray the benefits of military technologies in civilian use which in my opinion is very important especially after WWII. The utilization of jet engine for global transportation, improved telecommunications infrastructure, New medical breakthroughs are some of the examples. If as the argument go on, humans are less aggressive compared to previous centuries, it would only lead to one outcome: wars will be the thing of the past. But in the meantime for a few decades to come, conflicts will be defined by urban warfare which at present is being waged in the Middle East. This is not surprising as almost half of the humanity is living in huge urban areas and megacities.
Another theory that I have reasoned for is the emergence of eminent thinkers and philosophers who preached non-violence in conflict resolution and everyday living. The author totally missed out on this topic which in my opinion is very important. Religious figures such as Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha in ancient times, political figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King as well as Nelson Mandela played a crucial role in preaching non-violence at the end of WWII. They cannot be dismissed as they influenced much of the thinking of mostly Wetern political figures. Ian Morris should explore other avenues instead of emphasising war alone for progress of civilization.
on 19 October 2014
I went to a meeting at the British House of Commons where Professor Ian Morris set out the main themes of his book and this encouraged me to buy and read it. Morris grew up in Britain and studied at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities before moving to the University of Chicago in 1987 and on to Stanford University in 1995. He is now Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and a Fellow of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University.
The title of this, his third, book is taken from the opening words of a song from Edwin Starr in 1969. It is quite a long work: a main text of almost 400 pages with another 70 pages of notes, further reading, and bibliography. But the historical scope is enormous - the entire history of humankind with a speculative look forward as far as the 2050s - and Morris has a certain narrative flair, so it is a fascinating read.
For all its scope, the book can be summarised in four claims:
1. War has created larger and safer communities.
2. War seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies.
3. War has been responsible for making more prosperous societies.
4. War is now in the process of putting itself out of business.
Expanding on these themes, Morris acknowledged that war is one of the greatest human evils. It has ruined livelihoods, provoked unspeakable atrocities and left countless millions dead. It has caused economic chaos and widespread deprivation, and the misery it generates poisons foreign policy for future generations. Yet, in his view, there is a case to be made that it is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.
Most of the book is a run through the history of humankind through the prism of war. He explains how humans migrated from east Africa to the Fertile Crescent in the Lucky Latitudes where agriculture could develop before sea transport around the Mediterraean enabled the first empires to be created. Progress went into reverse when the horsemen of the steppes devastated the Eurasian empires before later the sea nations of western Europe colonised much of the globe. He summarises the main step changes in warfare as respectively fortifications and seiges, metal arms and armour, discipline, chariots, massed iron-armed infantry, cavalry, guns, battleships, tanks, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.
He estimates that, in the Stone Age, between 10-20% of people died a violent death; that, at the time of ancient empires in the late first millennium BC, this figure was down to 2-5%; that, in what he calls the age of steepe migrations from 200-1400 AD, the rate of violent death rose to 5-10% in Eurasia; that, in the 20th century — despite its two world wars, atomic bombs, and multiple genocides — the rate plummeted to only 1-2%; and that, averaged over the world as a whole, today violence kills a mere 0.7%. Of course, these figures are only estimates since there are no reliable statistics before 1500 AD, but he is convinced that the orders of magnitude are broadly correct and demonstrate that overall the world has never been more peaceful. As he puts it: "the evidence of archaeology, anthropology. history, and evolutionary biology seems conclusive".
He acknowledges that, at the height of the Cold War, we had the capacity through nuclear weapons to destroy humankind but he points out that, since a peak number of nuclear warheads in 1986 of more than 70,000, the number has been cut back dramatically (one estimate is a current total of 16,300).
This analysis poses many questions. Is war then in fact a good thing? Without war, would we never have built the nation-states which now keep us relatively safe from random acts of violence, and which have given us previously unimaginable wealth? Is war perhaps the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies? And yet, if we continue waging war with ever-more deadly weaponry, are we running a risk of destroying everything we have achieved?
Morris's conclusion is a controversial one. He supports the notion of the USA as a "globocop" and argues that the best option for the world over the coming decades is to support and bolster the strength of America so that it can continue effectively in this role, even as its economic decline continues remorselessly. He argues that "the next forty years promise to be the most dangerous in history" but believes that, if we can survive this uniquely challenging period, "the computerization of everything" will effectively render war obsolete. Optimistically he asserts: "We are beginning to play the endgame of death". If only ...
on 11 June 2014
Once upon a time, the subject of History was no laughing matter – indeed it was approached with the seriousness of a sermon from the pulpit. Today there is a refreshing trend, thanks largely to Television, to personalise it – i.e. to help the viewer project to a different point in space/time, carrying with them their own experience, their hopes and fears, and thus make a human connection with the past.
This academic work does just the same, but without trivialising the question that it poses. War – what is it good for? places a controversial, indeed a provocative idea on the table – that the long and bloody history of warfare has had corollary benefits, which humankind – you and I –have benefited from.
The author, an academic with unimpeachable credentials, handles his proposition expertly – he isn’t cocky or dismissive of the cost of war, but neither does he ask us to take off our metaphorical cap, and retain a respectful silence. He lays out his thesis clearly, and then presents it in a way that is both academically rigorous, and, most importantly, hugely entertaining. He takes us on whirligig tour, from the ancient world right up to modern times, before finishing off with a punt at prophecy (one which is refreshingly not doom-laden).
Whether his theory is right or wrong, is almost irrelevant (at least for the general interest reader). It’s colourful, visceral, full of energy and enthusiasm – that the author is in love with his subject, is abundantly clear. Episodes of history, such as the Roman sacking of Britain, are re-told like a story; like a Scoutmaster recounting some bloody tale around a crackling camp fire, holding bright-eyed boys in thrall.
But therein lies a certain problem – it is inherently a bloke-ish subject. And one that will, all things being equal, capture the imagination of men of a certain age. The clue indeed is in the title, the tagline taken from a famous protest song by Bruce Springsteen. One can easily imagine say Jeremy Clarkson and chums discussing the book animatedly over a few pints, but try as I might, my imagination cannot stretch to the same debate taking place amongst a group of ladies-wot-lunch, over a glass or two of Chianti. That said, the audience will not be as boxed-in as say, that for a book on cupcakes or rally bikes. Yes, as per other non-fiction, it will have its ardent, delivered-on-a-plate audience, but this work is too interesting – and prescient– to simply drop like a stone for those immediately outside that world. The teaser that the author puts forward in conclusion – of war reaching its endgame, with the next few decades being pivotal – adds a rich sauce to an already mouth-watering plate.
This fascinating and lovingly written work will appeal to those who like to ‘think big’, to look at the macro picture. For others, though, people whose life is lived at the micro-level, e.g. “…I must get into those skinny jeans”, well… this is probably not the book for them.
on 3 June 2014
If I read a better book in the next couple of years I will be amazed.
The author's thesis about productive war is something that can be argued about, but here it provides a superb framework for understanding the grand sweep of human history and development.
The first chunk of the book allows him to lay out his basic argument; the second then sees him apply it, taking us through primitive societies and the various developments (such as chariots and military discipline) that were the step-changes in warfare, fuelling greater historical shifts between regions and societies. This is fascinating, and the largest part of the book. It also presents his thesis with various challenges, such as the long period in Western Europe where development either went backwards or stood still. There is plenty for the intelligent reader to pick up on and argue about.
I found the next chunk, a discussion of current and future security and warfare trends, to be admirable, coming from a historian whose interests lie so much further back in our past. The final brief chunk, concerning the 'singularity' and the impact of convergence between humanity and technology, was diverting but less convincing.
It's especially highly recommended for those who like a combination of big ideas and the grand sweep of history. It's also best if someone you know reads it at the same time, so that you can enjoy arguing about it afterwards.
On the surface this is a very fascinating and scholarly book. However, if you are very familiar with all of the sources the arguments are soon rervealed as exaggerated and highly contentious.
There is no doubt that wars have acted like a catalyst and furthered scientific and technological advances that have often benefited mankind. There is no doubt that war has rid the world of evil tyrannts and meglomaniacs, rectified territorial errors and saved the sovereignty of many states but to argue that wars are not overall evil and terrible is absurd. Not only are thousands killed but thousands are maimed for life, relatives of the dead left in misery and property destroyed-property that has often included priceless treasures of the past. War is, as he admits, 'mass murder'.
Morris is far too cavalier with his dismissal of those who disagree with his thesis, no doubt in the belief that few will have studied their works. Unfortunately for him, some of us have. The works of Fry, Goldstein, Gat and Horgan, to name only a few, are major books that cannot be categorised into simple for or against.
Morris' case is based on 4 things: that wars have created more organised societies; that war is the only way humans have found to create peaceful societies, and make the world safer; that the larger societies created by war have in the long run made us richer, and finally that war is 'now putting itself out of business'. I do not know on what planet the author lives but this is a ludicrous assertion.
This book tries to drown the reader in a waterfall of quotes and references. The technique is well-known in academia but it will not wash.
Morris approaches his work mainly from the perspective of the archaeologist and claasicist. If he had ibstead studied war and its consequences in the framework of economic, social, and cultural history his thesis would have soon foundered.
No one can deny that warfare has shaped economies, their political framework, and often their culture but at what cost? The Second World War alone resulted in 60 million deaths plus an estimated 6 million injured.
War is the antithesis of everything we love. It reveals the very worse of human behaviour. To argue, as the author does, that 'war is the mainspring of our civilsation (never defined)', is an argument too far. As President Kennedy said: 'Mankind had better put an end to war-or war will put an end to mankind'.
The author has an excellent narrative flair but is far too reliant on 'digs' and ancient history. His book, however, has served one very useful purpose, namely it has provided an excellent seminar vehicle for postgraduates in international relations and history. Very, very few find the author's arguments convincing.
An jnteresting read but tread warily.
on 30 May 2014
Ian Morris is a remarkable polyglot who is very persuasive about the importance of war in human development. He draws upon a vast expanse of knowledge and reading coupled with profound thinking about what war has contributed to progress with its range of compulsions for victory and conquest. We learn about the value of not only single inventions but the profound changes which war has wrought over five thousand years. Has mankind now reached the logical conclusion that war is over because our capacity to destroy has finally exceeded our capacity to innovate through the experience of war. We must remember that the considerable changes achieved by the invention of the internet and its many significant ramifications arose from military research. Does such research still have resonance for human progress. The answer must be Watch This Space for the next five thousand years. A very valuable and important contribution to our knowledge of ourselves.
on 19 December 2014
It is difficult to know what to make of this book. On the whole I liked it and agreed with its central hypothesis. However, Ian Morris could have done with an editor who would tell him to cut the whole thing by 20% or so. Chapter six goes into a lengthy digression about chimps and bonobos which, frankly, the book could have done without.
Morris distinguishes between unproductive war, which gives us nothing but murder and mayhem, and productive war, which brings death and destruction but also creates “stationary bandits” who realise they have more to gain from ruling and taxing those they conquer than from slaughtering them. These stationary bandits turn into Leviathans under whose rule – Pax Romana / Sinica / Britannica / Americana etc – society can prosper and people live out their lives in peace.
Under the Leviathan, Stephen Pinker’s other civilising influences (commerce, reason, empathy and feminisation) can do their work and make the world a better place – see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Better-Angels-Our-Nature-Violence/dp/0141034645/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418995839&sr=8-1&keywords=the+better+angels+of+our+nature
So far so good. Also there is an excellent chapter on the very difficult period Europe and China suffered in the centuries up to 1415, when civilisation after civilisation was battered by the horsemen of the steppes. Morris makes a good case for the view that the invention of the gun saved us.
His chapters on the Pax Britannica and Pax Americana do read a bit like Whig history with their seemingly inevitable progress towards liberty and prosperity, but I can go with the flow here and accept his broad thesis that a world with a Leviathan is better than a world without.
But then at the end, he outlines a future in which the Pax Americana will break down because of the rise of other powers, China in particular. But don’t worry, he says, the Singularity is coming, and if the USA can hold on till then, everything will be okay.
Well, yes, maybe. Trouble is, if there is one thing that it is impossible to predict, it’s the future. Perhaps humans and machines will merge, but if we do, it will be in fits and starts with some of us going with Windows, others with Apple, Google, Facebook or whatever. What will happen to those that merge with an IT giant that goes bust? And you can bet your bottom dollar that some people will refuse to merge and others will want to but be unable to afford it and history will not end but merely acquire another layer of complexity.
Morris even seems to believe we will all sacrifice our individuality and join some super global intelligence. Not convinced about that one.
Or maybe, says Morris, super-intelligent machines will take over. I have a problem with this. I do not doubt that super intelligent machines are possible. Perhaps even some form of machine consciousness, though since we don’t really know what consciousness is, I am not sure that we know how to create it.
But why would super-intelligent machines want to take over? If they were like us, they might, but they won’t be like us. They will be machines. Because we are animals, we have inherited a number of innate drives: a desire for food, sex, love, companionship, prestige, adventure, meaning and comfort, plus a fear of death, pain, dishonour and the collapse of everything we have ever achieved. Between them, these are the things that motivate just about everything we ever do.
Even the most intelligent machines will know none of these things. So why will they be motivated to do anything apart from what we tell them to do?
In my youth, I thought that an international socialist revolution would bring history to an end and save us all. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama thought the triumph of liberal democracy had already ended it. Others believe in the return of Jesus Christ or the 12th Imam. And Ian Morris believes in the Singularity, which will effectively bring history to an end just in time to prevent the USA and China going to war.
It would have been a much better book if Morris had ended by saying that we don’t know what is going to happen in the future. The rise of China and the inexorable decline of our American “globocop” are ominous signs, as is our inability to stop global warming. But there are positive signs too, such as the progress made by the civilising process. And there are accelerating technological developments too, and heaven only knows what changes these are going to bring: some people even argue that there is going to be a singularity.
All in all, is the book worth reading? Yes, certainly. I enjoyed it. Skim the bit about chimps and bonobos in Chapter 6, and take his final chapter with a pinch of salt.
on 31 March 2015
Fascinating book which has armed me fantastically for pub debates. Very readable, but some chapters take nearly two hours and so I would say that you need to be committed to reach the end.