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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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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 6 January 2012
The author sets out, as seems to be almost de rigeur in some academic quarters, to overturn or deconstruct popular assumptions about Western civilisation at a time when others nations are coming into their own economically(i.e. BRICS).

Foremost among these is whether there is anything special about the people who constitute the West, i.e. a biological component. The trouble is that while stating this assumption as being fallacious and important to correct, he does not set out any formal argument in the plain view of his readers, so they are not able to be intellectually persuaded of the argument's merit that he considers it important to challenge. Instead he attempts to do this tangentially.

He expands the area that should be considered as 'Western' to include all the various outgrowths from the fertile crescent making a much wider field of exploration than just fundamentally European culture and history.

Lastly, he downplays many of the geographical areas and cultural high watermarks traditionally associated with Western civilisation in favour of focusing on these new additional cultures that he has brought under the banner of Western civilisation but which have not previously been considered as being key components.

This axe grinding approach will mean that many readers (like myself) may not make it from cover to cover but turn to other sources instead.

After mentioning the book to a colleague, I recently encountered Ricardo Duchesne's devastating review of this title, which more ably than I can deliver here outlines the authors methodology and some of the sins of omission. If you are considering purchasing this book, you may wish to read that first.

If you do purchase the book and thereafter have similar thoughts to me, it is an interesting exercise to consider why this publication received the widespread plaudits it did, becoming prominently displayed within many book store chains and promoted as a demonstration of the heights of human intellect and historical analysis. Is it due to the wordcount? The trumpeted wide historical and geographical scope or something else?
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on 5 March 2011
The central thesis of this book is that the West's development, it's dominance over the "East", has been achieved by the geographic advantages the West has enjoyed, one that may be removed in the future since the impact of geography is altered by the arrival of technological developments. I should say that I have no problem the thesis itself, it seems plausible. I would agree, also, with one of his other points that technological developments, previously regarded as the product of genius and inspiration are, much more mundanely, the product of cumulative technological capacity . The author points out how simultaneous scientific discoveries are commonplace (the emergence of Wallace and Darwin's evolutionary theory is my example, not the author's).

I picked up the book thinking I would get much more detail about how geography and technology had worked together in the past. I thought the book was padded with material which had dubious relevance to the central thesis (the anecdotes about student sit ins on page 141, for example). The book tends to make vast generalisations and then generalises about them. The index the author uses to measure human development over time, for example, based upon energy capture, urbanism, information processing, and the capacity to make war calibrates development in the broadest of terms. How effectively, for example, can we equate levels of urbanism (does this mean urban population density?) with cultural development? The point I am raising here may, to some extent at least, be attributable to the result of the tackling such a vast subject matter, the comparative development of East and West from prehistory to present. In order for this central thesis to be more believable I would have liked an occasional change of perspective, from macro to micro, to show me more of the detail of how the author thinks this process might have worked in a given culture at a given point in time. Sometimes I wanted to know about the specific mechanics of the relationship between geography and technology in detail, and the book stays stubbornly with the general. In short, I would have like a more focused approach, cutting out the extraneous and a variation of perspective, allowing me to see the detail behind the macro approach.

One of the key points the book raises is the way that technological innovations can impact upon hitherto peripheral regions, catapulting them to the forefront of development and power. Technology and geography work in combination, so that new developments can reduce regional advantages. For example, "by 5000bc agriculture had hardly touched Mesopotamia" and according to the book, took off developmentally because, under the threat of climate change, their conventional agriculture was no longer sustainable and that they were forced into innovative irrigation management. The result of this technological innovation was to push Mesopotamia to the forefront of world development. However, I felt that I had to take the strength of these arguments on trust (not having a compendious knowledge of world history) and not having enough evidence provided for me.

The book reads, at times, as a racing commentary on human development, with not enough time devoted to a detailed analysis. Whilst the enormous scope of the book can perhaps account for these deficiencies, the author writes a great deal that has little or no direct bearing on the central thesis and the book needs editing. An example of such 'asides', of which there are many, is his discussion of Von Daniken's books and how implausible his ideas are (there is some irony in this, given the extent to which I felt I needed more evidence from the author). Given the book's ambitions there wasn't time to stray off subject. I think its central thesis would have been better served by a more closely argued and cited approach, even if this was at the expense of its massive scope. As it is currently set out, it is unconvincing, and at times tedious (tedious because it strays so much from developing its central argument). I wanted to be convinced by rational argument, but the tone of the book, its title, leads me to suspect that it was written to ride the tide of current interest in the 'West verses the East'. I can understand an author who wants to write a book that responds to the concerns of the times but I was a dissatisfied by it's lack of detailed persuasiveness.
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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 14 March 2011
Yes, this is a great act of scholarship -containing one or two generalisations that are very, very politically correct. Necessary, of course, for a professor at Stanford. But the PC-ness was not the only turn-off for me. It seemed to me very early in the book that the author was minimizing the rise -unique to the West- of freedom and various forms of democracy. The author dismisses the achievements of ancient Greece, with a wave of the hand -according to author, other civilizations did as well as Greece at the same time, so Greece was nothing much really. Oh dear, how not true. Then, my favourite: the index includes The Magnificent Seven (!), but not Magna Carta. Well, I understand that we live in modern times and anything goes, really. But not to emphasize the event and circumstances of Magna Carta in 1215, its attack on the divine right of kings, its establishing key rights of the common human being, and the fights that followed over the many centuries to protect and retrieve the civil safety of ordinary folk is just plain destructive. Nowhere but in the West was this fight started and continued, until the 20th century, and even then not everywhere. Magna Carta opened up the path to individual freedom and other human rights, and was the first move in getting the Church far enough out of the way for science to blossom.

Well I know that academics for many decades have made good livings by dissing the acheivements of the West. When you cannot think up something fresh, rebel against the existing scholarship. But I expect more from an author of this scholarly background.
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on 14 March 2018
I'd like to compare this book with a book I read and reviewed 8 years ago, David C. McClelland: The Achieving Society (1961).
'The Achieving Society' seems to have been well-known, and quite influential amongst some social science types, when new.

It really is quite an odd book, but deserves to be commended for its boldness. However, I think it fails completely. In a way, it's an example of applied maths—throughout there are tables of analysis of variance, chi-squared, and so on. However, the it's not clear that underlying theory of these tests (for example, normal distributions of pencil and paper tests), could be expected to operate, or even that the theory is understood. They appear to be sausage-machine applications.

I don't think I'm being far-fetched in being able to identify this as a pre-word processor book. The first parts seem to aim at one, modest, proven claim; then this is expanded; and again—the 'goal' of the book turns out to be a series of 'goals'.

The bibliography lists ten books from the 1950s jointly-written by McClelland, or books to which he contributed a chapter. Some are on children and parents; most are on motivation, achievement, talent, success. This book therefore is McClelland's attempt at a significant work of synthesis. It tries too be something like a look at the rise, decline and fall of societies.

What's striking is the way immediate post-war US attitudes are taken for granted. There's something to be said for ignoring the past; to look at (say) Ireland, or the USA, or Japan without taking their histories into account, to step away from the past and take a fresh look. However, this is easier said than done, and McClelland settles for attitudes of the New York Times of the era. Adorno's book on authoritarianism was new. McClelland seems to have no doubts that the USA is democratic, although he must have heard comments to the effect that it was run by a few dozen (or hundred, or whatever) men. Germany and Japan are of course judged. There's vagueness over Spain and Portugal. 'Russia' is talked of, not the USSR, a clear ideological point—he compares 1929 with 1950! Israel has no mention of subsidies. Vietnam is not known of. McClelland throughout assumes 'entrepreneurs' are responsible for 'achievement'. He doesn't seem to have noticed the statism introduced by the Second World War. He's perfectly aware that (e.g.) Mexico's electrification was being carried out almost entirely by American bosses—hardly 'entrepreneurs' in any traditional sense. He's aware Kuwait and Arabia were wealthy, but without any noticeable prior 'achievement'. Moreover he says nothing about the vast expansion of the military. All this is entirely conventional, part of the post-war censorship tradition. Because of all this, 'entrepreneurs' tend to morph into 'managers'.

The book tries to correlate three things with rise, stasis, and fall of civilisations. These are 'n Achievement' (lower case n, upper case A), 'n Affiliation', and 'n Power'. These aren't described or defined, or even listed in the index. They're supposed to be something like raw achievement, presumably of many people—hence the 'n'—is some way contributing jointly to their 'society'. 'n Affiliation' is something like friendship or kinship or tendency to associate together. And finally 'n Power' is something like the impulse to selfish power, rather than societal cohesion and advance. Although it's supposed to apply to civilizations, this morphs into 'the economic development process'. McClelland doesn't seem to know about raw materials, so the idea of locally appropriate technology is entirely missing. Roads, gasoline cars, airplanes, suburbs are the unquestioned measures of progress, whether in Africa, Asia, or presumably Greenland. He even uses electrical power output as a measure of 'achievement' despite the fact that it was introduced by a few experts. Moreover his idea of history is taken from the traditional easy 19th century outlook—Greece and Rome; then the Middle Ages; then modern times, including the Reformation and a few other advances. South America, Africa, China and central Asia, and the Indian peninsula aren't part of history, though he does consider them as modern states.

Part of what attractiveness the book has, is its odd choice of ways try to measure things which are rather hard-to-measure. This is where his previous academic contacts come in. We have doodles, children's stories—usually mass published ones, though he also uses ancient Greek literature, colour preferences. However most of the research was carried out on children, who were administered pencil and paper questionnaires—typically in rather tiny numbers. Why children—who after all can't have much idea of progress, technology, careers, or work—should be considered suitable targets, rather than adults, isn't clear to me; probably it reflects his earlier writings. How can a schoolboy be expected to know how risky stockbroking is?

A couple of chapters which may have been based on stand-alone chapters, don't fit this scheme: there's one on Hermes, which must be influenced by a classicist trying to keep up to date; there's another on race and climate, which as per fashion, McClelland doesn't think much of as explanatory factors.

Conclusion: of great interest if you want to examine the shallow post-WW2 optimism of academics who do the safe thing and publish rather than perish. I don't think it's of much help in charting the course today.
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on 19 June 2011
This is an awesome tome of a book, and a thrilling project, to attempt to bring insights from the worlds of archeology and history to bear on our understanding of modern times. Morris is at his best when explaining his conclusions about early human societies and their gradual evolution into the basis of our lives today.

Whilst of much of this is rich and interesting, it turns out that Morris really wants to use this heavy lifting for a much lighter argument about the future. His purpose in investing so much time and energy in telling us about the distant past is to make a claim that we can learn something from it about what lies ahead of us as a species. Morris' chatty style, which I found quite irritating and often tangetial to the project, takes us on a range of by-ways from the promising opening: how was it that the West avoided becoming vassal states of a civilization that had lead it in technology and culture for much of the previous millenium. Morris concludes it has to do with geography, given that people are broadly the same wherever they are, and it turns out that the opportunities of location are what created the differentials (though there is some mysticism here when it comes to Western exploitation of Eastern technology).

So far, so good. We can easily follow the granularity of the argument when it comes to something like the Industrial Revolution, the crucial historical moment for Morris when his self-defined 'social development index' breaks a glass ceiling that has foiled everyone who came earlier. This is consistent with any number of 'short term' historians who have concluded it was the utilisation of energy that created the greatest opportunity for technological development (and pointedly not social development which actually went backwards for most people at this point for another century: see Griffin's A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution as an example).

But if Morris thinks we ought to understand long term historical trends to prognosticate about the future, why does he so embarassingly drop the lot at the end. Rather than extrapolating from the trends he claims to have identified, he resorts to Asimov and Kurzweil, to the suggestion that geography no longer matters, and that digital technology (which has scarcely been with us long enough to allow the kind of long term assessment that Morris claims to be so important) is the destiny of humankind? By abandoning his central method, he becomes guilty of the short term thinking he criticizes earlier in the book in order to create a few scare stories of the type that might emerge from the RAND corporation or the World Bank to galvanise us all in the protection of the status quo. This dramatically undermines the earlier argument of the book, and one cannot help rejecting his conclusions on this basis alone.
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on 9 February 2011
Sometimes a book turns out to be a disappointment, you maybe struggle through it or give up half way through. Thankfully many books are wonderful; a joy to read and a disappointment to finish. But now and again, maybe only a handful of times in a lifetime, there comes along a book that profoundly affects you, leaving you somehow a different person to the one you were before you read it.

Such a book is Professor Ian Morris' Why The West Rules - For Now. I always felt the title was a little clumsy, although I'll confess I couldn't think of a better one, so it will have to do. In the book Morris compares and contrasts the Western and Eastern `cores' of civilisation, the one encompassing all the subsequent societies that derive their way of life from the development of agriculture in the middle east around 9,500 BC and the other that derive from its independent development in the Yangzi valley some 2,000 years later. These two core civilisations developed largely independent of each other with little or no direct contact until modern times.

The medium that Morris uses for this is his `Index of Social Development'. Basically a measure of how developed a particular society is derived from four factors; its per capita energy consumption, information processing ability, military power and its social organisation, the latter expressed in terms of the population of its largest cities.

The book charts, literally, the rise and fall of great civilisations east and west over the millennia. For most of this period the west led the east in social development. Morris is careful to reiterate that this has nothing to do with any notions of the innate superiority of westerners. Agriculture developed first in the middle east because that part of the world was uniquely gifted in its supply of useful and domesticatable plants and animals. Over time, during rises and falls in both cores the gap gradually narrowed. The ancient world's high water mark was the Roman Empire which still outscored its contemporary Han dynasty in China but after the fall of both civilisations China recovered faster to lead the west until the 18th century when the Atlantic economy and subsequent Industrial Revolution propelled the west's levels of social development into orbit.

Its fascinating to observe the rises of civilisations and their terrifying falls, when the four horsemen of war, famine, disease and climate change are unleashed and everything comes tumbling down. Morris postulates a `hard ceiling' at about 43 points on his index, the point achieved by the Roman Empire, from which its almost impossible to break through and at which point the various pressures set in train collapse of the social order.

It took until the 18th century for western Europe (by then the core of western civilisation) to get back to where the Romans had been over a thousand years earlier and at that point those various pressures were again building up and a new social collapse appeared likely. Only this time, largely due to benefits that flowed from the discovery and exploitation of new worlds and industrialisation the west was able to break through the hard ceiling and its social index scores soared skyward.

So far so good. Through 11 chapters Morris outlines and discusses what has been. But in the final chapter he turns his attention to what will come. And the implications are stark and shocking. All the more so in that we are not looking at some sort of `far future' but what is likely to occur over the next few decades, in the lifetimes of most people alive today.

The choices are between what Morris terms Nightfall and the Singularity.

Nightfall basically is the collapse of civilisation. Nothing new in that. That has been the recurrent pattern of things ever since civilisation began. Although since the scale of social development is today so much greater than it has ever been in the past and since the separate cores have now merged into one global social order, that collapse will be correspondingly more terrible. Nuclear annihilation, disease, famine, migration and competition for diminishing resources will result in the deaths of billions of people. Its likely that this will all kick off from somewhere in the `arc of uncertainty', basically a region stretching from the middle east through Iran and Afghanistan and into Pakistan. When its all over the survivors, if there are any, may find themselves blasted back into the stone age on a ruined and toxic planet.

Nightfall seems almost inevitable. The only chance human civilisation may have of staving it off lies with the wisdom and quality of our world leaders and international institutions to work together to prevent it happening. If the likes of Sarah Palin were ever to become American President then we all might as well slit our throats there and then, `cos Nightfall will be coming soon.

But what if Nightfall is somehow avoided. Does that just mean we go on largely as now, experiencing gradual economic growth and pursuing life, liberty and happiness in the traditional ways. The answer to this is a resounding no. And to many people the Singularity may appear almost as terrible a future.

There's a whole host of scientific advances that have been made with increasing rapidity over my lifetime. The `Singularity' here refers to a point, not too far in the future, when the pace of technological advance becomes so fast that it overtakes our abilities to predict or control it.

We've all known for decades about the concepts of Genetic Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology, Neurotechnology, computer processing power, etc., and their potential to decisively alter our existence; sometime in the future. Well, it seems easy for some of us oldies, sleepwalking along as we do, to be unaware that we're actually already living in the second decade of the 21st century. The future is here. And, barring Nightfall, these things will `decisively' alter the existence of most people alive today.

I have a two-year old granddaughter. She came to this world in the usual way. A random fusion of her parents genes. With a healthy, clean, nutritionally perfect lifestyle and continuing medical progress, she has every prospect of living into the 22nd century. And, after some 250,000 years, her generation is liable to be amongst the last of the homo sapiens.

By the time she comes to have a child, say in 25/30 years, its most likely that the fertilised cell can be scanned for hereditary and genetic diseases. And any found eliminated and corrected at the touch of a keyboard. Given the choice, who is likely to refuse that. But why stop there. When the same keyboard can give you the choice between, say, high intelligence or low intelligence, physical stamina or weakness. There'll probably be a deluxe package where in addition to being born physically perfect your baby can have the brain of an Einstein, the body of a Schwartzenger, the musical ability of Beethoven, and so on. For some, perhaps many, it won't just be a question of making these adjustments to the DNA of a fusion of two parents' genes. Rather you can improve your own genes in a cloned cell.

Furthermore, consider this. Suppose a 60 year old, a 30 year old and a 13 year old live together and all consume exactly the same food and drink every day. Now, the raw material that powers their activity and cell growth is exactly the same for all three. But what the body's genetic instructions do with that raw material is quite different. In the 13 year old the body takes what it needs to power rapid cell division and growth towards maturity. In the 30 year old an equilibrium has been established between growth and decay. In the 60 year old cells are dividing less rapidly and the body is gradually decaying. This process has been hard-wired into us almost since we ceased being amoebas and obviously serves the evolutionary purpose of clearing away the dead wood for coming generations. Its most likely that those same genetic engineers will be able to alter the instructions that tells the body `come in, your time is up' and instead, allow you to grow to that optimum point, around 30 years old, and then maintain that indefinitely. Barring traumatic accidents and illness, both becoming increasingly rarer, your perfected individual is also virtually immortal.

And that's just Genetics. I won't here go in to the equally amazing implications of Artificial Intelligence, Neurology and Nanotechnology, although the options might be there to swap our inconvenient bodies for nice unbreakable machines.

Human beings today are essentially no different from what they have been for probably at least 100,000 years or more. Certainly no different from what we've been for the past 12,000 years. Given a good diet and if they were lucky enough to avoid disease and injury a Roman citizen had every prospect of living as long as me. If Julius Caesar or Cicero were here today then they might lack the knowledge of the last few thousand years of accumulated science. But these things could be explained to them and they would understand. In an IQ test they might very likely outscore me. But after all this time we finally find ourselves on the threshold. What is about to take place will transform us so radically that it will no longer be appropriate to call us Homo Sapiens. We will have taken an evolutionary step every bit as profound as when we first came down from the trees.

By the dawn of the 22nd century such transformations have to have occurred to account for any continuing explosive rise in our levels of social development. Of course questions over a clean and abundant energy supply, food and water and the supply of raw materials will have to be addressed and, if they are not, then Nightfall is certain, but the scale of the transformation of what we are and what are abilities might be, could very well obviate those concerns of our inferior species.
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on 27 March 2015
I’m giving this book two stars to acknowledge the huge amount of work that must have gone into it. It certainly contains vast quantities of facts. But then so does the Phone Directory. From a professor at a world-class university one expects something wiser.

What we get instead is dreary historical determinism, summarised as three slogans, as follows:

1. “History is maps, not chaps,” i.e. history is determined by geography.
2. “Each period gets the thought it needs,” i.e. culture is determined by economics and technology.
3. “History consists of greedy, lazy, frightened people, without knowing what they’re doing, finding ways to make life easier, safer, and more profitable.” This one’s his favourite- he calls it “Morris’s Theorem” and repeats it word for word at least seven times through the book, like an evangelist chanting Bible verses.

The first point is very overstated. Geography consists of physical geography, which mostly doesn’t change except for climate fluctuations, and human geography, which is about “chaps” and therefore contradicts his thesis. He is very good on climate change (not a new phenomenon) and its effect on history. Also on the effects of plagues- he could have written a much better book focused on these topics.

The second point is so vague as to be meaningless. To be sure, cynical governments will always try to use new thought systems to maintain or enhance their own power, as Constantine did with Christianity. But most periods bring forth all kinds of new philosophies, and government support is not the only factor deciding which prevails. More fundamentally, his slogan as worded seems to reify a historical period, as if it were a living organism feeding on ideas. This might make sense to a magical practitioner, who might understand such an organism in terms of an “egregore,” but it doesn’t sit well with Morris’s reductionist atheism. He reminds me of non-believers who when disappointed say “it wasn’t meant to be.” To which I exasperatedly retort- “WHO didn’t mean it to be?”

The third point reminds me of Morris’s equivalents in academic psychology- the radical Behaviourists who assert that Gandhi, Mandela, Hitler and Mother Teresa can all be explained by studying pigeons and white rats. Sure, Behaviourism explains many peoples’ behaviour for much of the time, but to fulfil its own promise it needs to explain all of it all the time, which it fails to do. That’s why the 1970s needed Aaron Beck to add cognition to the behaviourists’ simplistic dogma, thus creating CBT. Thinking, the one thing only humans really do, explains a lot of human behaviour! What a surprise!

Morris should’ve talked more to his working class dad and granddad. If his theorem were true, my parents’ and his parents’ generation would have followed Lord Halifax instead of Churchill. They’d have appeased Hitler, stayed out of the War, and hung onto the British Empire.

This could have been a much better, smaller book. If he wanted to present his reductionist, determinist theory he could at least have stated it more clearly and defended it from obvious objections- also compared and contrasted with other overarching theories such as Marxism, socio-biology, and the work of Oswald Spengler whom he doesn’t even reference- apparently beneath his notice although such diverse talents as Churchill, Hitler, and Malcolm X all rated him. But Morris prefers to focus on the “straw man” of Erich von Daniken! If he was going to spent so much time refuting ancient astronaut theories he could at least have chosen Zechariah Sitchin, who’d be much more familiar to most contemporary readers. Anyway he doesn’t actually refute Daniken, just mocks him, which is not the same thing at all.

Or he could have focused on the effect of climate change and epidemics on history on which he is very good.

Or he could have homed in on the questions most eastern and western readers are probably most interested in, i.e. why did the Islamic world and China fall so far behind Europe from the 17th century onwards after being ahead for centuries? Instead he defines his terms of reference much too vaguely. By “the East” he means China. But his definition of “the West” seems to encompass wherever suits his argument at different periods. He includes ancient Assyria and Egypt and the Islamic world, which no ordinary reader would include under “the West.” And he almost totally ignores India- understandably for his simplistic thesis, as India is neither east nor west in his terms, but to leave out this vast, ancient and important culture is a huge omission.

Finally he might possibly have written a more evidenced, logically incisive book about the future, rather than fizzling out into extreme speculations such Transhumanism and Kurzweill’s “Singularity” concept, which are about as scientific as the Rapture- the kind of mush that poor old Tim Leary used to peddle after the CIA had fried his brains in prison.
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