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An interesting history of the world but it explains nothing that it claims to.
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.