Is history too important to leave to historians?

historyWhy the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Something strange was afoot. A mere geographer, Jared Diamond, had had the temerity to publish a history book, upending centuries of historians’ speculations about the reasons why civilization first developed in the Middle East. It was 2005, and the book was Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Five years later an archaeologist, Ian Morris, wrote another history book (for the general reader!) called Why the West Rules—for Now. Building on Diamond’s thesis, Morris laid out his own, more comprehensive view of the course of human history, reaching back 15,000 years and venturing into the 22nd Century.

While many historians still engaged in the stale debate about whether “Great Men” or social forces are dominant in history, Diamond and Morris convincingly laid out the case for the greater influence of the larger context in which human history takes place, delving not just into geography but also (in Morris’ case) into biology, sociology, and archaeology. In fact, Morris has little patience for the Great Man Theory of History: “the most that any of these great men/bungling idiots did was to speed up or slow down processes that were already under way. None really wrestled history down a whole new path. Even Mao, perhaps the most megalomaniac of all, only managed to postpone China’s industrial takeoff.”

As you may surmise, this is not a dry college textbook. Just for example, the author advances what he calls, tongue in cheek, the “Morris Theorem” that “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.” There are times when the pace drags, as when Morris follows the endless rise and fall of Chinese dynasties, but on the whole the book is lively and eminently readable.

Like Diamond, Morris set out to understand why what today is called “the West” has dominated the planet for at least the past two centuries. The standard historical explanation is that sometime around 1800, the Industrial Revolution caused a sharp increase in development in Europe and North America. As Morris explains, however, “this upturn was itself only the latest example of a very long-term pattern of steadily accelerating social development.” In Why the West Rules, he explores the state of society and the quality of life in both West and East since long before the onset of written history in the first millennium BCE—in fact, since the passing of the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago. With a four-factor analytical tool of his own, Morris measures “social development” since then in each of the two broad regions a thousand years at a time, concluding that “the East has been the most developed region of the world for fourteen of the last fifteen millennia.” (His four benchmarks are “energy capture, urbanization, information technology, and war-making capacity.”)

It is that exception—a period of about 1,200 years from the Sixth Century until the 18th, when the West finally wrested itself out of the legacy of the Dark Ages—that Morris seizes upon to refute those who assert that the West has always “ruled” and is destined to do so forever.

As telegraphed in his subtitle (The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future), Morris’s ultimate goal is to discern the shape of times to come. His conclusion is noncommittal: “The great question for our times is not whether the West will continue to rule. It is whether humanity as a whole will break through to an entirely new kind of existence before disaster strikes us.”

To be precise, Ian Morris has been a Professor of Classics and History at Stanford for more than 15 years. However, he describes himself as an archaeologist and his interests are clearly more expansive than those of the typical college history teacher. In Why the West Rules, he draws upon insights and examples from science fiction, popular film and television shows, and from his own personal experience on excavations in Sicily. This is how history should be written!

For other books that take a broad view of history, see Big History: New perspectives on world history.

I’ve found that I can also learn a great deal from historical novels. For links to my reviews of scores of them, go to 75 readable and revealing historical novels.


Mal Warwick