Ups and Downs: The Making of a Hegemon

Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History,
and What They Reveal about the Future

Ian Morris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

I n the period between the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, the fall of Saigon, and the rise of Japan as an economic power, volumes were written on American decline. This brief chapter of intellectual history was followed, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, by an emphasis on American revival—books about globalization and the Washington Consensus could not be written fast enough. Now, as the pendulum continues to swing in an ever diminishing arc, there are renewed doubts about the place of the United States in the world and its ability to deal with radical Islamists and the economic power of China. In Why the West Rules—For Now , Stanford archaeologist Ian Morris puts these and other questions of decline and renewal into a larger context.

A much larger context, in fact. Morris examines the whole two hundred thousand years of Homo sapiens history, focusing on the period from the Neolithic Revolution—the beginning of agriculture some ten thousand years ago—to the advent of industrialization, two hundred years ago. Within that framework, he discusses the comparative social development of two “civilizational cores”—the Eastern, which formed eight thousand years ago around the Yellow River, expanded south to form modern China, and spawned satellites that today include the states of East and Southeast Asia; and the Western, which was born with agriculture in the hills of southwest Asia, grew in nearby Mesopotamia, and then inexorably moved westward, first into the Mediterranean, then into northwestern Europe, and eventually across the Atlantic, to settle in North America. In drawing a picture of opposing geographic East and geographic West, however, the author also points out that Greeks and Persians, Muslims and Christians really belong to the same socioeconomic and cultural matrix; that they co-evolved on the same turf, if often antagonistically.

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Surveying these two hundred thousand years, Morris tries to construct an index of social development based on variables such as literacy, military capability, the size of major urban centers, and energy capture per capita. The broad conclusion he derives from the index is that while Eastern and Western cores were indistinguishable in the long dawn of humans as hunter-gatherers, the West started on the road to social development at the end of the last glaciations, with a couple of thousand years’ head start over the East. Both “cores” faced numerous ups and downs along the way, the West retaining its advantage until 500 AD, when the East took over. The East kept the lead until the mid-1700s, when the West leaped into industrialization and came to rule the world, at least for a while. Now the East is catching up quickly, and both cores should become evenly matched in the near future, assuming they do not merge into one single civilization.

W ars, famines, epidemics, invasions, religions, ideas, politics, technologies, dynasties, even the fortunes of individual rulers and the quirks of history: Morris includes everything in his account. He proposes that groups of humans are the same everywhere, genetically and culturally. They are bound toward social evolution, and it is natural circumstances—their immediate geography and climate—that determine how and at which pace they journey along this road.

In their social evolution, humans everywhere faced similar challenges: climate change, limited natural resources, new pathogens. They invented the cultures and technologies they needed as they went, stumbled numerous times, but picked themselves up and continued inexorably toward modernity. If different regional pockets did better than others at certain historical junctures, it was because of peculiar circumstances. One example is what Morris calls “the advantage of backwardness,” and what economists call “the catching-up effect”: the fact that comparatively less developed societies can enjoy higher rates of growth by importing and adapting the technology of more developed societies. New developers are also less burdened by the side effects of development. Adapting someone else’s technology to local conditions often means improving it, hence the boost in productivity of
late bloomers.

For most of the two hundred thousand years that falls within Morris’s purview, East and West moved along the scale of social development without being in competition with each other due to the great distances between the cores, and the great arid steppe that separated them. That changed in the early modern period, after the 1500s, when contacts intensified and conflict arose. Suddenly, lags in East-West social development became crucial issues, and the edge gained by the West from the mid-seventeenth century assured its eventual military and economic hegemony.

The facts of Western hegemony are little disputed. The issue is why it happened as it did. Many authors have sought to explain the historical “Rise of the West” by considering a host of variables: climate, the size and shape of rivers, the distribution of domesticates, genetic superiority, proximity to the Americas, Greek philosophy,
Christianity—even the will of God—and so forth. These explanations compete with each other and share a common aspiration to parsimony. Science hates thick narratives that expose fact after fact but explain nothing, and Morris has to defer to that bias. He chooses to emphasize geography—a parsimonious variable that has the
secondary advantage of being politically innocuous.

In 1500, Western Europeans discovered the Americas in their attempt to plug themselves more directly into the great East-West trade nexus. It was their luck to be sitting by the Atlantic Ocean, narrower and more easily navigable than the Pacific. Since native populations of the Americas were bound to be wiped out following their first encounter with the Old World—they had not developed immunity to Eurasian pathogens—whoever settled there first would enjoy a “Ghost Acreage,” the term used by E. L. Jones in The European Miracle to describe the surplus of land (worked by slaves) that made European labor so productive.

The activity Europeans created around the Atlantic economy enabled them to shift westward the Western core’s center of gravity. But geography was not the only variable that counted. There was also politics. Bitterly divided and constantly at war, Europeans were driven by necessity to build up more and more complex politico-military machines, a process that pushed them along the route of social development faster than the East.

Morris is right when he says that the West did not invent anything the East could not have invented. He shows that similar Enlightenment thinking occurred around the same time in the Eastern core, but that local conditions prevented those ideas from getting the traction there that they got in the West. The fact that the East was far more advanced for twelve long centuries (the 500s to the 1700s AD) proves that neither core is destined to be always ahead of the other. For Morris, certain geographic areas have unique advantages at certain historical junctures; they have specific needs that prompt technological, political, and economic innovations responsible for the next leap in social development.

Yet focusing on the determinism of comparative geography (the Atlantic economy) and political economy (European mercantilism and warfare) to explain the shift in the West’s favor after 1700 ignores many other factors that contributed to the Western hegemonic moment. Despite Morris’s best efforts, one is left with the sense that it was perhaps only the randomness of history that prevented the East from moving faster than the West on the path to industrialization and modernity. In fact, he admits that history could have plausibly and easily gone another way.

One haunting question is why China was so advanced in the twelfth century, only to stall and lose its advantage, to the point of becoming an almost-colony of the West at the turn of the nineteenth century. The proximate cause is that Western Europe thrived because it sought aggressively to trade with the world, using force when necessary, whereas China preferred to trade with itself. But the ultimate causes remain mysterious. The relative size of oceans, wind directions, political centralization, and other generic differences do not entirely explain why two so opposite routes were taken toward the modern world. None of these factors prevented Japan, for example, from mirroring Portugal in the sixteenth century: a small but technologically advanced power, bound on exploring the world, and greedy enough to cut for itself a slice of global commerce.

I f understanding the relative developmental gap between East and West is one goal of Why the West Rules , understanding the rise and fall of human social development is another. Morris sees humans as temperamentally bound to multiply in numbers, and he uses population growth as a measure of social development while also warning that both population growth and social development often occur at the cost of human well-being. All else equal, labor in densely populated areas is necessarily less productive than in places with lower human density, forcing humans to do more work for less in return. Mass death works wonders on human wages, and Morris reminds that the quality of life among lower classes improved considerably after the great plague epidemics of the fourteenth century wiped out most of the population.

The key variable in stable social development is energy. A basic principle of physics is that any form of organization needs energy to maintain its cohesion. Capturing more energy makes for stronger humans, and larger, more stable societies. For most of human history, societies grew in density and complexity until they reached the limit of the energy they could capture and exposed themselves to systemic shocks that prompted social decay and often state collapse. Shocks could come equally from barbarians or pathogens, both of which plundered the energy necessary to maintain life in the great metropolises humans had created for themselves.

This changed in the nineteenth century when fossil fuels were harnessed. With considerably more energy per capita, modern societies are not only far more developed than those of the past, but also, apparently, far more resilient to shocks. Yet resistance to social decay remains predicated on a given people’s ability to capture enough energy to maintain modern forms of social organization, i.e., the ten-million-strong cities of the twenty-first century. Morris believes that the continuous quest for energy, more than anything else, will decide the fate of East and West—and of humanity itself.

In the past, human numbers always kept growing, demanding more and more energy, until the balance between people and carrying capacity was destroyed, only to grow anew somewhere else. But contraception and behavioral modifications are producing voluntary demographic loss in some of the most developed parts of the world. Consumption of energy per unit of GDP produced is also declining, showing that humans have learned techniques for achieving more social development with less energy and perhaps with fewer humans too. Morris admires the human ability to innovate out of necessity, and admits that progress in energy use and declining demographics, if confirmed in the decades to come, could turn around the mechanics and metrics of the human history he has described.

While it is a work of tremendous erudition, Why the West Rules—For Now is also very accessible. It successfully crosses the boundaries between disparate academic disciplines to offer an integrated model to explain the march of human social development. All the reasons Morris adduces in explaining why things turned out as they did may not be equally convincing, but his deliberate effort to break down the big picture into its constituent parts seems just right.
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