Weighing History

Why does the Western world dominate? What happens as the East catches up? To find out, Ian Morris went back to the very beginning and crunched numbers.

March/April 2011

Reading time min

Weighing History

Guy Billout

Why the West Rules—For Now is only partly about America ceding global economic leadership to China, even if that's the piece that ends up driving sales for publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Subtitled The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future, the book calls out from the pile with a slick marketer's blend of scholarly gravitas and gripping alarm.

Despite the ominous packaging, the enduring value of Ian Morris's book will more likely depend on the degree to which the Stanford classicist-prehistorian-archaeologist persuades us to rethink how we look at history. Morris challenges scholars to venture more outside their compartments and get to grips with the bigger picture. To explain why Western countries came to dominate the world, when the East was leaps ahead centuries ago, requires looking at the whole sweep of human history, incorporating biology, sociology and geography. It means not settling for conventional explanations that are at worst racist and at best only part of the story, and it means taking a quantitative approach.

Morris concludes, as Jared Diamond and a few other scholars also have argued, that it is not primarily people, but geography—the physical circumstances humans find themselves in at any given time and place—that drives progress. Each time East or West collapsed or vaulted ahead coincided with a period of climate change, for example. Global warming after the Ice Age produced far more abundant plants and animals in the Western core—the Tigris/Euphrates/Jordan valleys—than in the Eastern core, between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. So the West domesticated plants and animals 2,000 years before the East. And it was "the incentive of the oceanic highway," Morris writes, that "unleashed the awesome power of coal and steam"—the Industrial Revolution.

Morris put nearly 10 years into the project, off and on, spending the last three slogging at the keyboard. The original idea was to write a quick book making a coherent whole out of his gleanings from dabbling in different fields. What spurred him to action was a Stanford conference on comparative studies of empires. Out of that grew the design for what became the anchor of a 750-page book: his Social Development Index.

TIME-MOTION STUDY: Morris's comparison shows that while the rates of development differ, milestones come mostly in the same order.
Graph: Ian Morris and Michele Angel

Unlike the United Nations' Human Development Index, which ranks countries, Morris's index tracks societies of growing complexity and size from the beginning of human organization to 2000. It compares the capacity of Eastern and Western cultures to capture energy (consume food, fuel and raw materials), organize/urbanize, make war and manipulate information. Those benchmarks quantify a group's ability "to get things done," Morris's shorthand for social development and dominance.

Morris had to overcome a huge challenge: finding data, or proxies of it, since data collecting was nonexistent to rudimentary through most of human history. But he pressed on, using the archaeologist's toolkit and information from shipwrecks, for example, to compile evidence.

As the table above shows, people of different cultures and races develop in essentially the same way; who does what first depends on the hand geography gives them and how they play it. "Nature just made the whole process earlier in the West," Morris writes. Or, as he likes to say in his still detectable English Midlands accent, "It's all about maps, not chaps."

At the same time, social development—technology, in particular—can alter geography's advantages and disadvantages, Morris points out. And if the rate of social development stays on its current course (figure, below), he writes: "In the twenty-first century social development promises—or threatens—to rise so high that it will change what biology and sociology mean too. We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history."

A former chair of classics credited with rejuvenating the department, Morris says he would be happy if readers just embraced the basic idea of a numerically based, unified approach that sees eras in history as parts of a continuum. "The numerical approach doesn't make you any more objective," he says, "it just makes you more explicit.

"I might make some pronouncement like at the height of the Roman Empire people were capturing 31,000 kilocalories of energy per day. This sounds extremely precise," he says. "But to get to that number you've got to go through this long chain of reasoning. Every step involved means making assumptions, and these assumptions are inherently no more or less silly than someone working in an entirely qualitative way. But to get to a number at the end I have to be explicit to myself about what these assumptions are before I am able to spell it out to other people."

SCALES DONT LIE: Plotting social progress over millennia shows that the West wasn't always ahead, and won't be for long.
Graph: Ian Morris and Michele Angel

Driven doesn't nearly describe the man. To explain the index in more depth, Morris wrote a companion 75,000-word e-book, downloadable gratis on his website. "Should you feel the urge," he says, "you can go through it and look at the assumption behind every number and ask yourself, 'Do I buy that?' " He doesn't expect everyone to agree with every number and argument and says he doubts there can be a perfect index, much less this first effort.

At 51 Morris looks, at mid distance, suitably donnish thatched in thick gray hair, yet close up he can smile like a prankster who's up to something. This is his maiden run at trade publishing, after a career spent writing 10 scholarly books, "read by eight people, five of whom aren't qualified to judge my work." The self-deprecation comes as smooth as a finely tuned teaching aid. (One envious colleague describes his lectures as a howl.) On braving critical reaction to his history of the world: "As I've been assured growing up, I've been wrong in just about everything so there's no reason to think this will be any different." On the struggles of writing: "My first drafts are truly embarrassing."

Morris says he went for decades undisturbed by two conflicting theories jostling in his head. "On the one hand, the Greeks and Romans changed the course of the world and made people in the West better, basically. Then by the time I was in high school in the '70s, people were saying 'no, this is complete nonsense' and that people were all basically the same." (Anthropologists by then were showing how all cultures could function in similar ways.)

The conflict only became a problem "when I began having to teach about this stuff"—first at the University of Chicago, which famously offered its History of Western Civilization program. "The premise behind this is there is something very distinctive about Western civilization and it can be understood in very intellectual terms by going back to what the great minds have said in Ancient Greece, because that was where the great stuff started."

Write that down, everyone: The great stuff started in Greece. The problem was, even undergraduates now challenged that assertion. They might be shy on facts, Morris says, but the smarter ones could sniff out inconsistencies, and he was starting to see that.

Moving to Stanford in 1995, he only ran into more bright sparks who picked away at the contradictions. "I found myself saying things like, 'Ah, yeah, it is kind of confusing,' or even saying things I didn't entirely believe myself, and more and more problems accumulated." Morris pauses to collect his thoughts. "This often happens in scholarship—instead of getting a steady progression to new points of view, people will hang on to their old points of view, ignoring the anomalies until one morning you wake up and say, 'This anomaly is just too big to ignore anymore.'"

Luckily, Stanford proved just the spot for writing a new history of the world. "The great thing about a big university like this is there's always someone out there who knows way more about a topic than I do." Crossing through so many academic fields of inquiry from his base in classics and prehistory would still be bumpy. "This courts all kinds of errors because I don't have the sure grasp of the expert," he says. "But I also found that every discipline has a different set of assumptions." Economists think through problems one way, cultural historians another. If friends at the quantitative hard-science end of the social sciences found his gleanings in the humanities "unbelievably fuzzy," his humanities colleagues were alarmed by all the numbers "and the assumption that you can quantify societies and compare them directly in this way."

Vast in its sweep, Why the West Rules—For Now replays the history of the world against an ongoing contest pitting competing theories of development. The "long-term lock-in" theory holds that the West is on top almost in perpetuity thanks to smarts passed down from Greece and Rome. The "short-term accident" theory holds that all cultures seize opportunities as they come along and make what they can of them, sometimes spectacularly.

In the larger East-West contest, each contender occasionally faces obstacles that stop progress in its tracks—economic, technological or political limitations, for example. Such a "hard ceiling" prevented China—which had mastered mechanized weaving and spinning, and working with coke in iron production, by the 12th century—from launching an industrial revolution six centuries earlier than Europe, which by the 1700s had huge, easily accessible markets and rising wages to keep driving technological innovation. Europe also was looking at the New World—as a market that would prove an overwhelming competitor in the end. In Morris's terms, the right geographic conditions weren't there for China but were there in abundance for Britain.

Now, Morris predicts China will be the world's largest economy in 19 years and No. 1 in terms of GDP per capita sometime in this century's second half, or by 2103 at the latest. These markers may be decades away, but the dislocation they promise for the West has long since begun. China has already clawed at America's preeminence in everything from the Olympics (most medals in 2008) to skyscrapers, car and consumer manufacturing, banks (taller/bigger) and mobile/Internet users (many more). And it's overtaking the United States with massive road, rail, air, power and port infrastructure development, while it pummels competitors in areas like high-speed rail and green power, where the United States already trails Europe.

In 2010, China claimed its homegrown Tianhe-1 outpaced America's best and fastest Cray supercomputer; got a seat on the board of the World Bank as befits America's biggest debt collector; rolled out its first stealth fighter (even if Defense Secretary Robert Gates judged it "not very stealthy"); and, sampling issues aside, watched its students outshine American and other Western students in high school science, math and reading tests.

Against this, the United States still claims many more top-flight universities and a commanding lead in R&D in aerospace, biosciences and in more letters of the alphabet than any other country—all pivotal to innovation. But how long can it lead as public funding shrinks in the face of soaring debt and as the private sector, more dependent than ever on foreign markets, sends research overseas to meet the rising price of market entry? A headline in the New York Times on January 18 hinted of a trend: "G.E. to Share Jet Technology With China in New Joint Venture."

If anything, predicting China's first-place finish is the easy piece, as Morris acknowledges. Many people have been saying similar things for a while now.

Still, Americans might reasonably wonder how a country held back for decades by dysfunctional central planning and by horrors like the Great Leap Forward, which wasted tens of millions of lives, didn't follow the script and implode like the Soviet Union. Equally, they might wonder if people didn't have more influence for good or evil on events than Morris gives them credit for. At the micro level, they do to an extent, he agrees. But it is still geography that determines the course of history over the long run.

Morris agrees with history's judgment on Mao, but Mao did stamp out the warlords. "When they get rid of the warlords, growth resumes very quickly even with somebody as appalling as Chairman Mao," he says. "When Mao is willing to take his hand off the controls, then things come along at a really healthy clip." But that opens the way for worrisome rivals, so he sets about getting rid of them, positioning China for a whole new set of problems. The fact remains, the economy still averaged respectable growth from "liberation" in 1949 to the mid '70s—even factoring in Mao's catastrophic years when it shrank, Morris says.

The economy got a huge break when Mao expired in 1976, clearing the way for Deng Xiaoping, nominally a vice premier but effectively China's paramount leader. "In the ways we define great men, Deng Xiaoping counts as a great man," Morris says. "But he didn't have to be all that great. He just had to prevent people from doing really stupid stuff. And his greatness was managing to do that in a country where there were a lot of people really keen to do really stupid stuff."

China's pent-up potential started to boom, mimicking the tiger economies of East and Southeast Asia. "In a lot of these countries, once the regimes stop being too appalling, once colonialists are kicked out, you start getting this pretty healthy economic growth across the board," he says. "This was obvious to people in the 18th and 19th centuries. China was the great center of potential—the great motor for East Asia."

As obvious as it is today, Morris says, "Once China shakes off the shackles that held it back, there's nothing surprising about what's happened in the last 20 years. This a lot of people were able to predict. The surprising thing is that China could saddle itself with all these problems for so long."

In the unsettling eve of China assuming economic leadership, Morris predicts the United States and others will keep growing in wealth, just as Britain did after it was overtaken. Besides, almost immediately after it takes top spot, China will have to worry about fast-rising India, which brings up another of history's riders: Every strengthening trend sparks a counter-trend that can lead to unpredicted outcomes.

And in a more distant, difficult-to-pin-down time, assuming the world can avoid catastrophe in the interim, East and West shouldn't matter as much anyway. Managing the environment, human migration, diffused terrorism and other problems will be too big for nation states to solve on their own; some sort of world governance or "institutions that can find global solutions for global problems" will be required. Indeed, catastrophe—nuclear war, pestilence, global meltdown or some other form of what Morris calls "Nightfall"—is one of the author's standing caveats as he plots human development trends forward, and he sees only more nuclear proliferation coming.

By the final chapter, Morris is rocketing into the future to explain how in just one century humankind will realize four times the change witnessed in its first 150 millennia advancing from cave painting to the Internet. An astute follower of futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, Morris can envision humans evolving into carbon-silicon hybrids whose computerized intelligence is capable of instant recall and instant connectivity; war managed by machines because humans can't analyze situations fast enough; or even Kurzweil's "Singularity," where humans evolve into a single global consciousness. Morris says it is unreasonable to assume the world will change without humans changing, too—they already are, with life-altering medical electronics and pharmaceuticals.

Morris found the exercise of pulling together his bibliography revealing. Sources for the beginning chapters and the end of the book are dominated by science writers, he notes, and the middle chapters by historians. What do the discontinuities mean? "I think we have developed wildly different approaches to very early stuff and very recent stuff and all the middle stuff is treated in a completely different way by historians."

Natural scientists and evolutionists tend to be put off by 5,000 years or so of documented history, Morris contends, because on the whole historians work in such different ways than scientists. Yet that period is where "a lot of theories about social evolution could really be tested." On the other hand, historians feel equally uncomfortable straying into prehistory or "very modern stuff" where supposition has to stand in for hard evidence. "So historians don't root what they're doing in this very long time perspective, which I think would produce a different way of looking at things."

Morris knows many historians are troubled by prehistory's maybes. "If you're a prehistorian, you have to be happy with chainsaw art, just hacking away, whereas if you happen to be working on Bismarck's foreign policy from 1873 to 75, you can be pretty damn precise."

Techniques are different, too. Prehistorians don't have to know how to analyze sections of bone or pottery, Morris allows, but they do need to know enough to be conversant with the people who have these skills. "You're forced to develop at least a nodding acquaintance with how things are done in the natural sciences."

Morris puts historians at the top of the evidentiary food chain: If it's documented it's real, and if it's real they'll consider going deeper. "Prehistorians and social scientists more generally tend to study some big question they're interested in," Morris says. Question first, evidence second; if the evidence is really scant, they might look for another topic that offers at least more. Still, "More 'sciency' people will look for evidence wherever it might be or, more likely, say, 'we don't need any evidence.' "

Morris gives an example. "We have no direct evidence for the domestication of plants. We have seeds, but they don't tell you what happened—you cannot dig up somebody watering a plant. But when you look at these rye seeds, botanists tell us that certain things have to have happened in order to generate this rye seed. Unless someone can come up with a more compelling explanation for these rye seeds, the most plausible explanation will stand."

So far, reaction to the book seems largely enthusiastic. Writing in the Financial Times in December, Princeton historian Harold James called it "the first history of the world that really makes use of what modern technology can offer to the interpretation of the historical process . . . a path-breaking work that lays out what modern history should look like."

Morris has won plaudits from reviewers in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and other publications, though the author expects historians especially will quarrel with his maps, not chaps thesis. He got an early taste of that on a campus visit in Michigan. "I made one of the local historians so angry he could barely speak. It appeared to be something about [my] saying people are all the same—obviously there was more to it—but he was really, really annoyed. It seems to be a general-purpose sort of annoying-people book," he says, looking just a little like the kid who left the thumbtack on teacher's chair.

He's taken other hits. In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Duke University economics and political science professor Timur Kuran criticized the book's "curiously broad" definition of East and West. Among other complaints, Kuran said Morris overlooked advantages that could keep the West on top through this century and into the next.

But Morris doesn't claim to have a crystal ball. "Maybe great men and women will come to America's aid, preserving Western rule for a few generations more; maybe bungling idiots will interrupt China's rise for a while," he writes. "Maybe the East will be Westernized or maybe the West will be Easternized. Maybe we will all come together in a global village, or maybe we will dissolve into a clash of civilizations. Maybe everyone will end up richer, or maybe we will incinerate ourselves in a Third World War."

Does Morris's Theory Add Up?

By the time this sees print, Stanford classics professor Walter Scheidel should be settled in at NYU's Abu Dhabi campus, as a visiting professor teaching world history. Ian Morris's new book proved useful as Scheidel set to work on a syllabus: "I agree with most of what he says."

Scheidel is definitely a maps chap. "I don't have any problem with the general idea [that geography drives history]," he says. Not even a quibble? He thinks of one, Morris's assumption that people react to their surroundings in similar ways. "There is never one path or solution."

For example, Morris argues North America was closer to Europe, making it easier for Europeans to colonize it, so "the implicit counterfactual is if it was the other way around [and China was closer] the Chinese would have gone there first," Scheidel says. But would they necessarily colonize it? "My view is that if you have a very large monopolistic super-state like the Chinese empire, they're far less likely to do that."

Or take Morris's Social Development Index, a stroke of brilliance in some ways, Scheidel reckons, because "We need to have some idea of what we are comparing." Problem? Some things like largest cities are easy to measure, but it's hard to measure a variable like energy capture empirically from one century to the next. "The underlying idea is sound. The question is, to what extent it can be done well enough to be meaningful. [Morris's] argument is he'd have to be very wrong for the number to be different, and that's a fair enough point."

Morris himself maintains his index is a first step, and he'd welcome any effort to improve it. "In a perfect world this book would have been written by half a dozen people," Scheidel says. "That's what scientists would do—and social scientists." But this isn't a perfect world and no one person can make it better. "It would have to be a team of people. I don't see historians teaming up to look at this because it's not what they do," Scheidel says. Unfortunately, he adds, books by committee can make for grim reading.

He guesses many historians won't like the book but general readers will, because it makes the inaccessible so accessible. Scheidel expects Why the West Rules—For Now to add momentum to curricular changes under way as schools and universities feel the tug of globalization and focus less on Western Civ, more on world history.

Academic quibbles aside, political science professor Stephen Haber calls it "the kind of book we all dream of writing." On board with its basic premise, he offers a quick example of how geography drives history. Abraham Lincoln, inarguably a great president, ended slavery; but cotton picking machines would have ended it eventually anyway, he says—just as slavery had ended in Brazil and Cuba.

"So if your theory about the world is all 'chaps,' you'd have a hard time explaining divergences of outcomes across societies. You would have to believe that some places have more high quality people, and that gets pretty hard to believe," Haber says.

"To say it's all one or all the other is kind of nutty," he concedes. "But if I had to choose, I'd say a lot more basic outcomes are driven by geographic factors. If you take a look at the world map and then you take a look at the distribution of democracies and long-run autocracies, what you find is that countries with very low rainfall also happen to be a map of the world's long-run autocracies," he says. There are some exceptions, he allows, but many more that fit the pattern. "There's basically a belt (called the Upper Eurasian Dry Belt) that runs from Mauritania through North Africa, through the Middle East and through Central Asia to Mongolia. Every country in that belt has been an autocracy since antiquity with the exception of Israel."

Haber and a University of Washington colleague sussed this out in their paper "Rainfall and Democracy." And if geography doesn't explain this enduring outcome, Haber can't think what does. Why doesn't democracy ever take root? His answer: No small farms, which rainfall nurtured, and thus no sedentary farmers, who made up 19th-century North American society and pushed for representation. The belt was populated by nomadic tribes who typically submitted to leadership by the most powerful among them.

So geography shapes outcomes, but Haber still reckons China will have to reform its political machinery before it ascends to the top. "I'm not as sanguine on China as Ian is."

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