Posted: May 28, 2012
an Morris's new book is important, less for its intellectual content (though it provides some stimulating provocations) than its likely influence. Jacketed with prestigious endorsements and written with a lively insouciance, it clearly aims at winning more than just History Book Club kudos. Why the West Rules is laid out as a textbook, giving a chronological account with tons of picturesque detail of the history of Europe, the Middle East, and China (India receives rather short shrift). World history courses are a growth industry at the college level, and my guess is that Morris, a professor of classics and history at Stanford, conceived the volume with the intent of becoming their text of choice. A large number of American university students (and honors high-schoolers as well) will probably be taking their bearings on human history through the lens Morris grinds. Alas for that.It's not so much that the book is anti-Western (though the jabs increase as the West rises). Morris's tone is one of amused, universalized asperity, finding foibles and cruelties, idiots and occasional geniuses, in all of humanity's haunts. Nor is Why the West Rules politically radical. Morris appreciates capitalism's productive powers and foretells a West eventually eclipsed by entrepreneurial Asians. What it is, is dreary. Morris formulates as simplistic and mechanical a theory of human achievement as one could credibly get away with, yielding a historical narrative bereft of adventure, heroism, or surprise. Despite its literary craft, the book's monotony eventually exhausts.
Basically, Morris argues that humans are problem-solving machines that, when present in large enough numbers and allowed sufficient time, will progress adaptively in a more or less linear fashion, given one caveat: that the geographic surroundings offer a sufficient variety of resources and challenges (the focus of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel ). Thus, Western Eurasia kicks off the Neolithic breakthrough to civilization by virtue of the plenitude of domesticable plants found within Mesopotamia's hilly borderlands. Less abundantly blessed, East Asian and other civilizations begin later. As productive innovations tend to be retained, each civilization advances, its progress tracked by Morris's ingenious four-item scale, measuring city size, information storage, energy control, and war-making capacity. The "West," as he broadly construes it, having started ahead, naturally stays there until the 10th century or so, when China, having colonized the agriculturally rich Yangtze Valley, overtakes it in a sudden acceleration. China's lead is lost only when the discovery of America stimulates an enormous burst of innovation that launches the West into the scientific, industrial age. It's all location, location, location.
Well, not quite. Morris does occasionally concede something to political events. Rome's demolition by barbarians enables medieval China's seizure of primacy, and Islam's cultural demoralization follows its ravaging by the Mongols. But this is merely byplay in a narrative with just three essential elements: a fixed level of human adaptiveness, the retention of helpful adaptations, and the opportunities afforded by land, air, and water. Ideas and culture are treated as the most dependent of variables, conveniently called into existence as humanity requires them. As Morris baldly puts it, "each age gets the thought it needs." This indifference allows him to lump the Muslim Middle East with Europe in the "West," and to regard the so-called "Axial Age" thinkers—Socrates, Confucius, and Buddha—as representing pretty much the same intellectual outlook.
Even if this were the very big picture—the path that human reason must inevitably take—one comes away feeling that some pretty vital details have been lost along the way. Morris's scheme ignores a whole batch of things that a snooping Martian might think trifles but about which we humans do care. His four measures of civilizational accomplishment take no notice of the arts, religious belief, the incidence of war and peace, security of property, status of the sexes, or individual, intellectual, and political freedom. The aesthetic, spiritual, social, psychological, and normative dimensions of life, its quality as opposed to its quantity, simply lie outside Morris' interpretive scheme. Why they flourish, or what they produce, doesn't interest him.
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This leads to a yawning gap in his analysis considered even in its own crude terms. No doubt if one counts by millennia there is world enough and time for almost everything finally to get done. Had the West fumbled the technological ball, it probably would have been recovered again, if not by Westerners than by Easterners, Africans, American Indians, or Antarcticans. From a merely mortal perspective, however, the relative pace of progress matters. It certainly mattered to the British that their gunboats steamed up the Yangtze instead of having to watch Chinese vessels plowing up the Thames—a counterfactual playfully laid out by Morris at his book's outset.
It is here that the author's materialist assumptions fail to persuade. It is hardly convincing to attribute the West's modern advantage to voyages of discovery, which Morris asserts juiced its brain cells just enough to invent science and industrial technology. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton weren't, after all, trying to explain the motion of the trade winds, but those of planets equally visible in the skies over Persia, India, and China. Newcomen and Watt, for their part, were trying to pump mines, not power shipping. If geographically expansive moments inevitably spark breakthroughs of this type there were certainly such in Chinese history—but without comparable effect. Something else was impelling these discoveries that had never really been at work, and might have been quite a while in the making, beyond the West's borders. And that something surely had more to do with the landscape of ideas than of continents.
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Morris's interpretive scheme has power only insofar as it deals with what might be called "first-order" cultural adaptations, that is to say, those that produce something immediately useful—a stone blade, reaped wheat, woven cloth, etc. Such inventions have obvious utility and don't require any special augmentation of basic human problem-solving technique. Several quite critical innovations fall under this rubric. Agriculture, for instance, seems to have been invented several times in separate parts of the world. Once population pressure became sufficiently intense it was not difficult for humans to recognize that the seeds of the plants they already gathered could be deliberately sown.
Harder are "second-order" adaptations, in which what is created is not immediately useful except as a means of generating other adaptations. Patents are one example, first emerging as a protection for inventors, as opposed to a privilege for favorites, in 17th-century England and Holland. By far the most important second-order adaptation, however, is experimental science, which entailed much more than an innovation in law, and arose less through deliberation than a fortunate combination of cultural circumstances.
Experimental science required at a minimum four cultural elements, none of which implied the others. It required a willingness and ability to analogize the world as a mechanical system governed by clear-cut rules. This was a Greek achievement, crystallized by Aristotle, and found elsewhere only via inheritance. It required an intellectual environment sufficiently open to permit sustained speculation along these lines, eventually denied Islam's Aristotelians. It required a system of mathematical notation capable of describing complex, dynamic relationships, passed to Europe during the high middle ages from India via the Middle East. And it required a willingness on the part of men-of-mind to get their hands dirty working with contraptions (or at dissecting tables), a kind of unsnobbish marriage of philosophy with craft not historically easy to come by, indeed, only likely in societies where commerce wasn't deeply déclassé. The West, or parts of it, by complicated happenstance, ended up with all four items in this package. Other civilizations lacked one or more and—until imported from the West—were never close to having the full set.
Undoubtedly geography had a role in assembling this amalgam but not in any direct or determining way. If one thing needs to be understood about the West's ascent it is how little of it was inevitable and how readily it could have had, and still could have, its foundations undone. Complexity, contingency, improbability, are what make the West's story so worth telling, among other reasons because the fragility of its achievements emphasizes the need for serious stewardship. In hindsight they also imbue Western history with a drama not found anywhere else. No other history can offer such an inspiring tale to an American youth culture now so sorely in need of inspiration. Too bad that that inspiration can't be found amid Morris's geographic determinism.
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Niall Ferguson's approach contains more uplift. Though it's hardly a panegyric, Civilization: The West and the Rest makes no bones about ascribing the West's recent supremacy to what Ferguson, a celebrity historian at Harvard and Oxford, calls its six "killer apps"—peculiarities of ideas and institutions, not dumb geographic luck. Ferguson brings no novel insights to his definition of these—competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, mass consumption, and the work ethic—but in each case he supplies reams of persuasive, fascinating narrative about how it conferred unique advantages on the West and, through the West, transformed the world. Before modern medicine, for instance, genius commonly died young, cities were pestilential sinkholes, and the tropics were full-fledged killing grounds for outsiders. Secure property rights distinguish the exuberant development of North America from the economic aridity of South America. And so forth.
Each killer app stands on its own, no simple system here, and they're exportable. Ferguson's statistics make clear the extent to which the work ethic has fled from Europe and North America to various points east. Like Morris, he foresees a China ascendant by mid-century (underestimating, in my view, its current regime's grave illegitimacy and cronyism). About the West's future, on the other hand, Ferguson is much less sanguine. Sudden collapse is not a far-fetched possibility.
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Civilization isn't textbook-shaped but, as with Why the West Rules, it aims to educate a mass audience, and is coupled with a television series the author hosts. (Its title, not coincidently, echoes the great cultural panorama presented to TV viewers by Sir Kenneth Clark in 1969.) If ideas count, then historians and educators count, too, and Ferguson thinks their conduct may actually be counting Western civilization out. "Throughout the English-speaking world...the argument has gained ground that it is other cultures we should study, not our own." His killer appraisal:
Yet any history of the world's civilizations that underplays the degree of their gradual subordination to the West after 1500 is missing the essential point—the thing most in need of explanation. The rise of the West is, quite simply, the preeminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve. And we should solve it not merely to satisfy our curiosity. For it is only by identifying the true causes of Western ascendancy that we can hope to estimate with any degree of accuracy the imminence of our decline and fall.
Ian Morris might reply that's he's done just that, and in his way he has. But unless one is satisfied with what is, at best, a coarse-grained, idea-blind, exospheric take on human history, he obscures far more than he reveals. Could Ferguson have had Morris's book in mind when he muses at the end of his own that "[m]aybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors...and by the historical ignorance that feeds it?"
Appropriately, Civilization is dedicated to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a veritable Joan of Arc in her courageous and eloquent defense of the Western heritage, who hails from—Somalia.