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37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thrilling read but cops out on key question, 25 Nov 2010
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This review is from: Why The West Rules For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future (Hardcover)
Ian Morris' "Why The West Rules--For Now" is a thrilling read. Morris is an accomplished stylist and his romp through the last fifteen-thousand years of human activity is fun, informative and--with one or two qualifications, explored below--convincing. I would recommend the book to anyone looking for a tour d'horizon of world history and pre-history.

Morris, however, is after bigger game, seeking to bring up to date a debate on the roots of Western leadership. One theory is "long term lock-in", which would have it that the West was always destined to enjoy primacy and possibly always will. Different examples of this would be Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel, 1997), who made much of geography, in particular the distribution of domesticable plants and animals; or David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 1998), who dwelt on ideas, in particular those arising out of the northwest European enlightenment which encouraged enterprise by rewarding it with lawful property. Alternatively there is the "short-term accident" view, which would have it that Western primacy is something of an aberration, shortly to be corrected, following Joseph Needham's classic study of Chinese technology, or such more recent works as Martin Jacques' 2009 "When China Rules the World".

Morris is an archaeologist, so much of what is exciting in the book has to do with recent findings from his discipline. These enable us to learn much, even when records are absent: examples include the incidence of shipwrecks and lead pollution as surrogates for economic activity. Archaeology helps Morris fill in the gaps between the accounts of Diamond, who looks particularly at the period shortly after the ice retreated, and Landes, who instead focussed on just the last few hundred years.

Morris presents his conclusions via some home-grown sums and a trio of beguiling aphorisms. The sums are his own index numbers of human development, which he uses to illustrate the grand sweep of history and prehistory, showing that the West has been consistently ahead except for an interval from c600CE to c1800CE. He attributes this largely to geography, following Diamond. His aphorisms, "change is caused by lazy, greedy frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things"; "people (in large groups) are all much the same"; and "each age gets the thought it needs" combine to reinforce his determinism, in which ideas and free will count for little.

As for the future primacy of East versus West, Morris cops out. He makes no bones that he expects the East, that is China, to overtake the West, that is the US. But, he says, by then it won't matter. Failing catastrophe (nuclear war, climate change), we will all be so much better off that the problem will dissolve in a more or less unimaginable technological utopia.

By Morris' own account, this won't haul the freight. Even after China overtakes the US on his index numbers, Americans will still be far better off. Morris is not the first to envisage a utopian future but none has so far turned up. As to his determinism, he follows Landes to note that the Chinese state was strong enough to enforce a policy of isolation for four hundred years after it abandoned intercontinental exploration in the fifteenth century, while the absence of a single European power led to competition and defensible economic and political rights, extending innovation and enterprise. Is it too much to draw conclusions about the rights and wrongs of large versus small states, institutions prizing stability versus competition, or economic and political concessions versus rights? China is still on the wrong side of history by all these measures.

To conclude with an analogy on primacy. Twenty years ago, we were bracing ourselves for Japanese primacy, with innumerable books, articles and even films on the subject. In the event, that gig got cancelled. If I had to, I would bet that so will this one: the prospect of Chinese primacy will founder on an over-strong state which will decline to permit competition or defensible property rights. Morris should know that.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Jan 2011 18:11:52 GMT
Last edited by the author on 25 Jan 2011 18:13:03 GMT
goldenbrown says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Feb 2011 23:55:18 GMT
M. Brennan says:
Have you read the book? If you had actually read it then you would realise that you are absolutely wrong. If you have a problem with the author's scientific methodology of measuring social development then please take a look at his data sets at: It may also be worth noting that the story the book tells is not merely the history of the West's rise, but rather a melding of anthropology and history to tell humanities history- ie the past 250,000 THOUSAND years or so of it.

Your little rant doesn't really add anything does it- the author perfectly illustrates that much of the reason the 'west rules, or for want of a better word, dominates, global affairs, is precisely because 'us' westerners went out and exploited the rest. So yeah, don't worry the author does look at how industrialisation which happened in the west first, empowered Europeans to effectively colonise the East and the Americas. You are ranting about highly subjective qualities, that make no difference to the fact that regardless of ethics, the West has most of the world's wealth, leads in scientific innovation and spreads its culture like a virus. Like it or not those are indisputable facts, and this is a piece of work to explain 'why'.

The book actually opens with an alternative history where the Chinese blast their way up the river Thames, putting their will on the British. As we know it happened the other way round in the opium wars. Maybe you should welcome work that seeks to explore why the British colonised India, and not the other way round? I can say the author is certainly no cheerleader of colonisation, rather he looks forward to the future where technology helps the world develop together. Alternatively it would be a better idea to actually read the book rather than rant about a piece of work that seeks to explore the nature of our world.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Mar 2011 01:15:32 GMT
goldenbrown says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 30 May 2011 20:14:05 BDT
history fan says:
as an athiest I don't like to mention this but God might be the reason the west especially in the imperial age did so well. God provided a justification for moral madness, ideas of racial superiority and so on. It also provided a solid foundation of the rule of law, right or wrong. And it wasn't just white against all other colours it was white protestant against white catholic and so on. A force that provided much of the impulse for the masses to seek out a 'new world' whether that was in the next county or the next continent when all anybody wanted was peace from murderous, cruel and unfair rule of overbearing neighbours. It was also a force for unity first in Europe and then as we see in so called church and state separate US where the President ends his speeches '...and may God bless America'. I digress a little now but I always wonder why the American Indians hadn't developed an industrial revolution before Columbus arrived or they didn't set out east or west? Perhaps they had more sense, but perhaps it was because their sacred beliefs satisfied them the way western sacred beliefs do not. 'Thou shalt not kill' is probably the most contravened law of westerners today and yesterday but God was always with them so to hell with everyone else and pass the ammunition because the west is always right, faith proves it and the divine right to stomp down on anyone who disagrees is the creed of the westerner and if that means they gain the world too well so be it or is it the other way around?
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