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on 10 November 2010
Like most of us living in the West I have have pondered this question from time to time. Why did the west come out in front, and will it last? Should we all start learning Chinese? And was it inevitable - were Westerners more open-minded, or harder working, or were we just super-lucky to have had the industrial revolution? Or was it simply the work of exceptional people such as Julius Caesar, James Watt or Columbus?

Morris looks at this from a different angle. He uses an index of social development to analyse how societies have risen and fallen (including energy capture, organisation/urbanisation, war-making and information technology). But most importantly he tells a brilliant story of global history. It's a big book, but it has to be, to cover its full scope.

Part history, part archaeology, part geography, part biology and part sociology it is the work of a real polymath. It's incredibly readable too, beginning with a terrific fantasy of how things might have been. I didn't agree with all of it but it's still the best history book I've read this year. You may guess that I felt stongly about this book.
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on 22 August 2012
This book tries to be a lot of things, and doesn't quite get there on a lot of them. What it does do though, is give an entertaining read.

The author has a theory made up of a couple of essential strands.

Firstly, that if you look at the historical record then you can detect patterns. Essentially that when societies reach a certain level of development and size that the pressures upon them cause them to collapse, and that the only way that a society can can get round this problem is to innovate. The classic example being the industrial revolution.

Secondly, that civilisation areas, East and West have core areas. These core areas change with time, and what might be one era's core can be another era's backward periphery. The author argues persuasively that backward areas regularly take over as core areas because there is a benefit to being backwards in that it helps you catch up. Examples of this in the West might be Persia, or Egypt or Rome, or Renaissance Europe.

The devil to all this, is of course in the detail, and the bulk of the book is a summary of history in the Eastern and Western civilisation areas, going back to the last ice age, which builds on the authors arguments. Even if you don't buy into the authors arguments, it is worth reading this book just for this summary, which certainly gives you a new perception on how civilisations develop, and is a pithy introduction Chinese history set against the more familiar context of the West.

The book doesn't quite live up to it's promise in a number of ways.

To start with, the author tries to argue that because he has looked at 500 generations of people, instead of the 200 that he states other historians take into account, that he is able to make predictions based on this.

The first problem with this argument is that the detail on the first 300 generations is sketchy at best, and its hard to accept that we have enough knowledge of them to be able to factor them in to any calculation.

The second problem is the quality of the authors predictions. The author makes a large number of predictions, then hedges his bets against all of them. You are left with the feeling that the only solid prediction that you can make is that the author will be claiming that he was right in 20 years time, whatever happens.

The big surprise with the predictions is what is missing. The author has spent a large chunk of the book pointing out the benefits of new frontiers. Given that one of his predictions is that by the end of the century we'll all be effectively immortal because we'll be able to download our brains onto a brain emulating computer, and his regular dropping of sci-fi analogies, it's interesting that he does not predict big things for space travel and a new "high frontier" for mankind to exploit.

There are other issues.... he spends most of the book pointing to how higher energy use is better, shows us a number of historical climatic changes, where after initial crises, warmer equals advancement and colder equals bad things happening, but then goes on to suggest that global warming is an unmitigated disaster. I'm not saying he's wrong, and there is obviously a big difference between cooking and burning, but having built up one argument it slightly jars that he does not even attempt to argue the case that global warming might be short/mid term bad but long term good, before going into a very politically correct global warming is evil rant.

I do disagree with some of the other things that the author says, but I could nit pick for ever, so I'll stop now.

Overall, this in an interesting, thought provoking book that I would thoroughly recommend reading.
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on 11 November 2010
Was just given this by a friend last week and have already finished it. I have to say this is the best non-fiction book I've read this year. I found it completely riveting, right from the introduction which is written as though the Chinese had triumphed over England in Victorian times rather than the reverse. That's just the start of Morris' investigation into why it didn't happen like that, and in fact why it is so hard to imagine this ever having been on the cards.
His theory involves going back 15,000 years and tracing the progress of East and West since then. He then uses this analysis to look ahead to the future - which is pretty scary.Obviously it's a very ambitious theory and I'm sure it could be quite controversial, but Niall Ferguson says he's the world's most talented historian and I can't disagree. If you want to understand the story behind the global socio-economic landscape we live in today, read this book!
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on 9 April 2014
I started off thinking this book would be a 4/5* book, then as I continued on through it my rating decreased until I considered giving it a 1*, it scrapped a 2* because some of the history was fascinating.
1) Tells a very readable (if somewhat verbose) overview of the history of human development.
2) I learnt some new ideas and gained some important insight, I was especially interested into the idea of the Russians and Chinese closing the steppes and preventing further incursions by the nomadic people living in those regions that have so affected history (Huns, Mongols, Turks etc).

1) Errors. I would say this book is riddled with mistakes. Mostly I am no expert in much of this history but of the things I did know about often explanations were misguided or just frankly completely false. Two examples: 1) claiming Eastern (Chinese) development started to catch the West after 1950 is utterly bizarre. He even discusses the horror of Mao's "Great leap forward" and the terrible human and economic toll but still claims the East starts catching the west in 1950 rather than the late 1970s when it actually starts to. 2) Einstein's theory of relativity, he gets horribly confused (and is completely wrong) by special and general relativity and the dates and importance of each one. It isn't a huge error but it tells me that his fact checking is not great and means that I am not sure I can trust all the things he says that I don't happen to know about.

2) His definition of the West. When most people talk about the West we essentially mean Northern and Western Europe and the offshoots (USA, Canada etc.). Even more specifically we sometimes (19th Century, WW2) also implicitly really mean the English speaking world with a few extras (Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavia, at times France and Germany). Ian Morris includes Russia, the middle east and North Africa in his definition of the West. It is frankly rather bizarre. His argument is that Europe largely developed in response to the growth of agriculture in the Middle east. This maybe true but I think most people's ideas of West vs East think more in terms of Greece/Athens vs Persia, USA vs USSR. In other words West vs East is not so much a geographic description as a one based on ideas: individualism vs collectivism, liberty vs authoritarianism, democracy vs dictatorship. Australia and New Zealand are without question part of the Western world, not in terms of geography but it terms of ideas and institutions.

3) The sum of his idea is that it is "maps not chaps" that matter. He also takes a huge amount of time "disproving" racist theories of western supremacy which I struggle to imagine anyone believe, an excellent straw man to knock down. He takes almost no interest at all in the (long term) power of ideas to change events and believes everything depends on geography, which is frankly absurd. His theory does nothing to explain why Canada and the USA are so much more successful than Argentina and Brazil, nothing to explain why Britain had the industrial revolution in the first place and not France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal.

4) Why the west rules is bascially a question of "why did the industrial revolution happen in Britain in the 18/19 centuries. He essentially skirts completely over the issue. Claiming that "each generation gets the ideas they need", that because of the Atlantic economy it was (almost) inevitable that the west would rise. He gives no thought for the history of Magna Carta, the English civil war, the Glorious revolution. He ignores all events in England/Britain which destroyed the power of the centralised monarch in favour of individual liberty and the decentralized Barons, knights and then merchants and industrialists. He even shows a super graph showing wages in London and Amsterdam utterly outstripping all other cities. Instead of explaining WHY wages in London/Amsterdam he just mentions they do then explains that these high wages meant that mechanisation becomes sensible. Yes, that's true, but WHY were wages so high in London. That is surely at the crux of the matter and he completely ignores it.

5) His "West" includes all the land west of India (why he chooses to define India as the border I don't know) does not rule now. Large parts of them are very poor. Those that are successful happen to have taken on ideas of individual liberty, secure property rights, respect for businessmen, restrained (at least a bit) bureaucrats and politicians. All these ideas come from the Netherlands and Britain, they were in absolutely no way inevitable, no way simply depend on geography. If all that mattered was geography then West Africa had access to America and should be as rich as Europe. Argentina should be as rich as Canada, Brazil as rich as USA. They are not because it is not just geography. The rise of the west was not occasioned purely by geography, it was ideas.

6) His predictions for the future are basically worthless. He puts forward two possibilities, one utopian, one nightmarish, neither frankly very likely. His final claim that basically the only people that can save the world are historians is so laughably self-reverential it's actually hard to believe he makes the claim. I quote: "Only historians can draw together the grand narrative of social development; only historians can explain the differences that divide humanity and how we can prevent them from destroying us." He probably needs to read some Steven Pinker to see how much better the world is getting, with violence spiralling down. Something by Matt Ridley as well to see how even with "global weirding" (climate change) deaths from weather, famine, war etc are actually in serious long term decline.

I could have gone on for ages longer on the weakness of this book. What I do want to say is that it is an enjoyable history of the world but I believe it's key ideas are fundamentally wrong. If anyone wants a truely interesting take on why the west currently rules try Deirdre McCloskey, an economic historian, who has a fascinating set of ideas written in books about Bourgeois Dignity, which utterly smashes Morris' types of ideas and offers a fascinating set of ideas in its place.
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on 25 November 2010
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 April 2011
It seems that modern historians often feel the need to Brian Coxify themselves by producing very fat books which set out to make complex topics accessible to the general reader, using lots of chatty language and references to popular culture.

The rise of the east would seem a more relevant theme at present than the past dominance of the west, but perhaps because the former has been quite well-covered recently , Ian Morris has chosen to focus on "why the west rules - for now". This is potentially a very interesting subject and I wanted to read a coherent analysis of the difficulties of defining precisely "east" and "west", and of the shifting relationships between the two, but this work frustrated me so much that I had to abandon it.

It all seems very wordy, sometimes stating the obvious, often switching from one field of study to another, say from astrophysics to paleoanthropology on the same page. Yet, although Morris gives more than three pages to the (to us) little known Zhou Dynasty in China, some time in the distant past, he makes only a passing reference to say, Singapore, surely a very interesting example of recent development to rival many western states?

Judging by the large number of catchily titled subheadings - "The Elephant in the Room", "Hotlines to the Gods", "The Gods made Flesh" or "The Wild West" to take the first four in the chapter on "The East Catches Up" (referring to a past period), perhaps we are only meant to dip into the book. But that surely means losing sight of the "unifying theory" - whatever that is. I felt I was being patronised by an attempt to popularise challenging concepts e.g. Neanderthal man grunting "Me Tarzan you Jane", past figures likened to Mafia bosses, even Indiana Jones, those subheadings again such as "Mice in a Barn", or entitling a graph on the health of US army veterans, "Be all that you can be". Yes, the range of topics covered is mind-boggling.

Then there are the meaningless maps, say Figure 5.4, "The chill winds of winter: climate change in the early first millenium BCE" which includes arrows which do not show any climatic change at all. Or Figure 1.2 defining the Movius Line, an early division between west and east according to types of stone axe used - only why does the line run so precisely through the middle of what is now France, and why say that the eastern dwellers didn't need elaborate hand-axes because they had access to bamboo when this may have been the case in east Asia, but hardly seems likely in, say modern Denmark? I could go on for ever, like this book. Take Figure 5.1, "The dullest diagram in history, social development" which shows an upward trend for the west, consistently above the east for 1000-100 BCE. My question is, how can you have such a precisely calibrated vertical axis to show social development - why not just say it doubled, and the west as a whole consistently had the edge?

This book seems to be an over-ambitious, rambling mess. Select a page at random and find the author galloping through, often back and forth between, several centuries. There are some interesting facts and anecdotes on the way, but some of the simplistic theorising got my hackles up. "There are basically two ways to run a state...high end and low end strategies". This is expanded at some length (compared with the usual grasshopper approach), but left me unconvinced

Buried within its 645 pages, there may be a valid theory. However, it is lost through a lack of editing and self-restraint - all too frenetic and chaotic.

Reading a thorough well-written history of say, the United States or the Soviet Union or China or Byzantium seems to me to contribute much more to one's overall understanding of changing fortunes between the elusive concepts of east and west. And what about the Aztecs and the Incas?
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on 7 December 2010
Morris manages his book like a composer orchestrating complex themes. Like music, the blend of ideas makes logical and aesthetic sense. Yet the book is not full of its own worthiness; it is often humorous, often vernacular, always well-read and always accessible. The short chapter sections (with witty headings) lead you to read this episodically, so it could be an ideal bed-side book. Above all, it is a cogent analysis of history from a true polymath who sees the horizon as much as the ground under his feet; even if you do not buy the analysis, it is a stimulus to thinking about global development in ways you had not previously contemplated.
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on 1 January 2014
The author claims that he does not give another "long term lock-in" theory but this what he does albeit his theory is disguised with probabilistic alternatives; states that the ultimate factor that differentiates West form East is geography, hardly a novel idea. Bases his theory on "social development" arguments but ignores the crucial effect of innovation on capitalism and the industrial revolution; The book scores well on its historical narrative from 10000BC to the end of the Roman Empire. It offers a decent, albeit simplistic, account on how people moved from hunter-gatherers to city dwellers and then imperial subjects. But unfortunately it does not offer a convincing explanation why the industrial revolution started in England and not e.g. in Spain or for that matter, and more importantly, why it started at all.

The core weakness of the author's approach is that he assumes a deterministic approach in explaining social and historical developments. Indeed, there are similarities in development in the East and West, as populations in both regions moved from hunters to farmers to city dwellers and then to empires. However, observing such similarities does not support the conclusion that capitalism was inevitable or even highly probable as a next stage in historical development. The author's tacit assumption that the industrial age would appear somewhere is only that, i.e. an assumption. The author believes that he has a theory why "the West Rules". But basing your theory on assumptions will not take you very far.
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Pictured on the dust cover, Ian Morris looks like central casting's idea of the rather less than satisfactory new husband of the ex-wife of the hero in a US TV cop series, probably, like Morris himself, English. Fortunately, given this image, Morris proves himself a much more than satisfactory author and analyst of the past, placing him firmly close to David Landes's tour de force The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations in its scope and ambition, marginally superior to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs And Steel in its audacity and conclusions, and almost on a par with Douglass North's Understanding The Process Of Economic Change in providing a coherent framework for doing exactly that. I will also claim a sort of affinity with a working class boy from the industrial Midlands, who got Betta Bilda for Xmas when he was young and developed an interest in everything and how it all joins together.

Some of Morris's tale is, of course, fairly familiar to anyone who has read from the embarrassment of riches in the published economic, social, political and science histories of the last decade or so. Most will know of the extraordinary scale of the eunuch admiral Zheng-he's imperial Chinese fleet of the early 15th Century, and of how insularity and complacency curtailed its adventures; of how Muslims invented or protected an awful lot of what was worth having and knowing for a millennium, before conservative zealots decided that such things threatened their power; and of how the largely man-made miseries of the 20th Century gave way to a less zero-sum world in which second place was still first loser, but at least you didn't need fifty million body bags to start to clear up the mess (which isn't to say we're completely through with large-scale blood-letting, unfortunately). In short, he confirms for us enlightened (and possibly self-satisfied) liberals (a category which here would include both David Cameron and Vince Cable, not to mention Ed Miliband and bro Dave) the downside of a closed mind.

Less often encountered previously, if at all, are the parallels he draws between events in the West and those in the East, with developments in the Roman and Qin empires looking remarkably similar. And certainly unique is his measure of development, an index based upon energy capture, urbanism, information processing and capability in war, which gives Morris the gauge by which he evaluates relative progress, and most dramatically enables him to chart the breath-taking, nose-bleed invoking rise of the West in the 19th Century. And it is this that gives it an edge over analyses such as that of Niall Ferguson in Civilisation, although Scotland's latest Best Export Historian compensates a little in brevity (but only by 200 pages) and in having a catchy, if slightly irritating hook in the form of the six "killer apps". (Ferguson also strikes me as the kind of guy who would give the TV cop a run for his money in muscle flexing. In a parallel universe he likely heads up a Glasgow razor gang.)

Morris's analysis thus helps us to discern that whilst environment, geography and biology certainly had a lot to do with the West's advantage - the dice are totally loaded towards the region with most of the world's quota of domesticable fauna and edible flora, for example - the people involved were themselves essentially the same, and it was ultimately down to an accident of what he (somewhat irritatingly) labels as "maps, not chaps". The East and West have had the brilliant and the bungling in almost equal measure, but Morris, much like Landes and Diamond before him, though all by different routes, concludes that it has been the resources handed to them locally that have made the big difference.

Now, however, with the world moving from "small" to "tiny", everything is homogenising, the advantages of locale are being eroded, and the East appears to be drawing level. Nevertheless, it has to be pointed out that the West still remains the more innovative, and that the R&D expenditures of India and China are still dwarfed by those of the West. Moreover, as Morris and Ferguson point out, in some respects the West is maintaining its hegemony through the legions of consumerism.

Morris concludes by presenting two polarised visions of the future, one a Brave New World-like "good", the other an Apocalyptic "bad". This is interesting and worthy of note and caution, but probably less weighty as he extrapolates a continuing trajectory of progress or a cataclysmic outcome of hubris which, despite his assertions, both seem too extreme.

Whilst at times, particularly towards the end, circling around itself in its reasoning, generally this is a well-written, well-presented piece of work. The author employs an eclectic battery of sources and analogies, including the space invader fantasies of Eric von Daniken, Isaac Asomov's futurism and The Life Of Brian's riff on what the Romans did for us. The editing is well done, with only a few typos and some inconsistency in possessives (seriously, it's Marcus's, not Marcus'!). And, good, secular, 21st Century author that he is, Morris gives dates as BCE or CE.
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on 11 November 2010
I saw all the reviews for this book and thought I should buy it to learn more about global history, and I wasn't disappointed. Reading this book is like getting a brilliant lesson (maybe double lesson) in world history from the best kind of teacher - it makes you see why the world is as it is by taking you through how East and West developed. He also likes throwing in lots of cultural references which makes the text much livelier and more readable than most history books.
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