A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
Sometime around 1750, English entrepreneurs unleashed the astounding energies of steam and coal, and the world was forever changed. The emergence of factories, railroads, and gunboats propelled the West's rise to power in the nineteenth century, and the development of computers and nuclear weapons in the twentieth century secured its global supremacy. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many worry that the emerging economic power of China and India spells the end of the West as a superpower. In order to understand this possibility, we need to look back in time. Why has the West dominated the globe for the past two hundred years, and will its power last?
Describing the patterns of human history, the archaeologist and historian Ian Morris offers surprising new answers to both questions. It is not, he reveals, differences of race or culture, or even the strivings of great individuals, that explain Western dominance. It is the effects of geography on the everyday efforts of ordinary people as they deal with crises of resources, disease, migration, and climate. As geography and human ingenuity continue to interact, the world will change in astonishing ways, transforming Western rule in the process.
Deeply researched and brilliantly argued, Why the West Rules―for Now spans fifty thousand years of history and offers fresh insights on nearly every page. The book brings together the latest findings across disciplines―from ancient history to neuroscience―not only to explain why the West came to rule the world but also to predict what the future will bring in the next hundred years.
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IAN MORRIS is Willard Professor of Classics and History at Stanford University. He has published ten scholarly books, including, most recently, The Dynamics of Ancient Empires, and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
BEFORE EAST AND WEST
WHAT IS THE WEST?
“When a man is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can aff ord.” It was 1777, and every current of thought, every bright new invention, was energizing Dr. Johnson’s hometown. London had cathedrals and palaces, parks and rivers, mansions and slums. Above all, it had things to buy—things beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations. Fine ladies and gentlemen could alight from carriages outside the new arcades of Oxford Street, there to seek out novelties like the umbrella, an invention of the 1760s that the British soon judged indispensable; or the handbag, or toothpaste, both of them products of the same decade. And it was not just the rich who indulged in this new culture of consumption. To the horror of conservatives, tradesmen were spending hours in coffee shops, the poor were calling tea a “necessary,” and farmers’ wives were buying pianos.
The British were beginning to feel they were not like other people. In 1776 the Scottish sage Adam Smith had called them “a nation of shopkeepers” in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he had meant it as a compliment; Britons’ regard for their own well-being, Smith insisted, was making everyone richer. Just think, he said, of the contrast between Britain and China. China had been “long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous, countries of the world,” but had already “acquired that full complement of riches which the measure of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.” The Chinese, in short, were stuck. “The competition of the labourers and the interest of the masters,” Smith predicted, “would soon reduce them to the lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity,” with the consequence that “the poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe . . . Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries.”
Johnson and Smith had a point. Although the industrial revolution had barely begun in the 1770s, average incomes were already higher and more evenly distributed in England than in China. Long-term lock-in theories of Western rule often start from this fact: the West’s lead, they argue, was a cause rather than a consequence of the industrial revolution, and we need to look back further in time—perhaps much further—to explain it.
Or do we? The historian Kenneth Pomeranz, whose book The Great Divergence I mentioned in the introduction, insists that Adam Smith and all the cheerleaders for the West who followed him were actually comparing the wrong things. China is as big and as varied, Pomeranz points out, as the whole continent of Europe. We should not be too surprised, then, that if we single out England, which was Europe’s most developed region in Smith’s day, and compare it with the average level of development in the whole of China, England scores higher. By the same token, if we turned things around and compared the Yangzi Delta (the most developed part of China in the 1770s) with the average level of development across the whole of Europe, the Yangzi Delta would score higher. Pomeranz argues that eighteenth-century England and the Yangzi Delta had more in common with each other (incipient industrialism, booming markets, complex divisions of labor) than England did with underdeveloped parts of Europe or the Yangzi Delta did with underdeveloped parts of China—all of which leads him to conclude that long-term theorists get things back-to-front because their thinking has been sloppy. If England and the Yangzi Delta were so similar in the eighteenth century, Pomeranz observes, the explanation for Western rule must lie after this date, not before it.
One implication is clear: if we want to know why the West rules, we first need to know what “the West” is. As soon as we ask that question, though, things get messy. Most of us have a gut feeling about what constitutes “the West.” Some people equate it with democracy and freedom; others with Christianity; others still with secular rationalism. In fact, the historian Norman Davies has found no fewer than twelve ways that academics define the West, united only by what he calls their “elastic geography.” Each definition gives the West a diff erent shape, creating exactly the kind of confusion that Pomeranz complains about. The West, says Davies, “can be defined by its advocates in almost any way that they think fit,” meaning that when we get right down to it, “Western civilization is essentially an amalgam of intellectual constructs which were designed to further the interests of their authors.”
If Davies is right, asking why the West rules means nothing more than arbitrarily picking some value to define the West, claiming that a particular set of countries exemplifies this value, then comparing that set with an equally arbitrary set of “ non-Western” countries to reach whatever self-serving conclusions we like. Anyone who disagrees with our conclusions can simply choose a diff erent value to exemplify Westernness, a diff erent set of countries exemplifying it, and a diff erent comparison set, coming—naturally—to a diff erent but equally self-serving conclusion.
This would be pointless, so I want to take a diff erent approach. Instead of starting at the end of the process, making assumptions about what count as Western values and then looking back through time to find their roots, I will start at the beginning. I will move forward through time from the beginning until we reach a point at which we can see distinctive ways of life emerging in diff erent parts of the world. I will then call the westernmost of these distinctive regions “the West” and the easternmost “the East,” treating West and East for what they are—geographical labels, not value judgments.
Saying we must start at the beginning is one thing; finding it is another altogether. As we will see, there are several points in the distant past at which scholars have been tempted to define East and West in terms of biology, rejecting the argument I made in the introduction that folks (in large groups) are all much the same and instead seeing the people in one part of the world as genetically superior to everyone else. There are also points when it would be all too easy to conclude that one region has, since time immemorial, been culturally superior to all others. We must look into these ideas carefully, because if we make a misstep here at the start we will also get everything about the shape of the past, and therefore about the shape of the future, too, wrong.
IN THE BEGINNING
Every culture has had its own story about how things started, but in the last few years astrophysicists have given us some new, scientific versions. Most experts now think time and space began over 13 billion years ago, although they do not agree on just how that happened. The dominant “inflationary” theory holds that the universe initially expanded faster than the speed of light from an infinitely dense and infinitely small point, while a rival “cyclical” theory argues that it blew up when a previous universe collapsed. Both schools agree that our universe is still expanding, but while inflationists say it will continue to grow, the stars will go out, and eventually infinite darkness and coldness will descend, cyclists claim it will shrink back on itself, explode again, and start another new universe.
It is hard to make much sense of these theories unless you have had years of advanced mathematical training, but fortunately our question does not require us to begin quite so early. There could be neither East nor West when there were no directions at all and when the laws of nature did not exist. Nor could East and West be useful concepts before our sun and planet took shape 4.5 billion years ago. Perhaps we can speak of East and West once the earth’s crust formed, or at least once the continents reached something like their current positions, by which point we are already into the last few million years. Really, though, all these discussions are beside the point: East and West cannot mean anything for the question in this book until we add another ingredient to the mix—humans.
Paleoanthropologists, who study early humans, like controversy even more than historians do. Their field is young and fast moving, and new discoveries constantly turn established truths on their heads. If you get two paleoanthropologists into a room they are likely to come out with three theories of human evolution, and by the time the door shuts behind them, all will be out of date.
The boundary between humans and prehumans is necessarily fuzzy. Some paleoanthropologists think that as soon as we see apes that could walk upright we should start speaking of humans. Judging from the fossilized remains of hip and toe bones, some East African apes began doing this 6 or 7 million years ago. Most experts, though, think this sets the bar too low, and standard biological classifications in fact define the genus Homo (“mankind” in Latin) by bundling together an increase in brain size from 400–500 cubic centimeters to roughly 630 (our own brains are typically about twice as big) with the first evidence for upright apes smashing stones together to create crude tools. Both processes began among bipedal East African apes around 2.5 million years ago. Louis and Mary Leakey, the famous excavators of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (Figure 1.1), named these relatively big-brained, tool-using creatures Homo habilis, Latin for “Handy Man.” (Until recently, paleoanthropologists, like most people, thought nothing of applying the word “man” to individuals of both sexes; that has changed, but by convention scientists still use single-sex names like Handy Man.)
East and West meant little when Homo habilis walked the earth—first, because these creatures lived entirely within the forests of East Africa, and no regional variations had yet developed, and second, because the expression “walked the earth” is actually overly generous. Handy Men had toes and ankles like ours, and certainly did walk, but their long arms suggest that they also spent a lot of time in trees. These were fancy apes, but not much more. The marks their stone tools left on animal bones show that Homo habilis ate meat as well as plants, but it looks like they were still quite low on the food chain. Some paleoanthropologists defend a man-the-hunter theory, seeing Homo habilis as smart and brave enough to kill game armed with nothing more than sticks and broken stones, but others (rather more convincingly) see in Homo habilis man-the-scavenger, following the real killers (like lions) around, eating the bits they didn’t want. Microscopic studies show that marks from Handy Man’s tools did at least get onto animal bones before those from hyenas’ teeth.
For 25,000 generations Handy Men scampered and swung through the trees in this little corner of the world, chipping stone tools, grooming each other, and mating. Then, somewhere around 1.8 million years ago, they disappeared. So far as we can tell this happened rather suddenly, although one of the problems in studying human evolution is the difficulty of dating finds precisely. Much of the time we depend on the fact that the layers of rock containing the fossil bones or tools may also contain unstable radioactive isotopes whose rate of decay is known, so that measuring the ratios between the isotopes gives dates for the finds. These dates, however, can have margins of error tens of thousands of years wide, so when we say the world of Homo habilis ended suddenly, “suddenly” may mean a few lifetimes or a few thousand lifetimes.
When Charles Darwin was thinking about natural selection in the 1840s and 1850s he assumed that it worked through the slow accretion of tiny changes, but in the 1970s the biologist Stephen Jay Gould suggested instead that for long periods nothing much happens, then some event triggers a cascade of changes. Evolutionists nowadays divide over whether gradual change (evolution by creeps, as its critics call it) or Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” (evolution by jerks) is better as a general model, but the latter certainly seems to make most sense of Homo habilis’s disappearance. About 1.8 million years ago East Africa’s climate was getting drier and open savannas were replacing the forests where Homo habilis lived; and at just that point, new kinds of ape-men* took Handy Man’s place.
*The word “ ape-man,” with its Tarzan-and-Jane connotations, was much favored in schoolbooks when I was young. Nowadays paleoanthropologists tend to think it condescending, but it seems to me to capture nicely the ambiguities of these prehuman hominins, and is certainly less of a mouthful.
I want to hold off putting a name on these new ape-men, and for now will just point out that they had bigger brains than Homo habilis, typically about 800 cc. They lacked the long, chimplike arms of Homo habilis, probably meaning that they spent nearly all their time on the ground. They were also taller. A million-and-a-half-year-old skeleton from Nariokotome in Kenya, known as the Turkana Boy, belongs to a five-foot-tall child who would have reached six feet had he survived to adulthood. As well as being longer, his bones were less robust than those of Homo habilis, suggesting that he and his contemporaries relied more on their wits and tools than on brute strength.
Most of us think that being smart is self-evidently good. Why, then, if Homo habilis had the potential to mutate in this direction, did they putter along for half a million years before “suddenly” morphing into taller, bigger-brained creatures? The most likely explanation lies in the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. A big brain is expensive to run. Our own brains typically make up 2 percent of our body weight but use up 20 percent of the energy we consume. Big brains create other problems too: it takes a big skull to hold a big brain—so big, in fact, that modern women have trouble pushing babies with such big heads down their birth canals. Women deal with this by in eff ect giving birth prematurely. If our babies stayed in the womb until they were almost self-sufficient (like other mammals), their heads would be too big for them to get out.
Yet risky childbirth, years of nurturing, and huge brains that burn up one fifth of our food intake are all fine with us—finer, anyway, than using the same amounts of energy to grow claws, more muscles, or big teeth. Intelligence is much more of a plus than any of these alternatives. It is less obvious, though, why a genetic mutation producing bigger brains gave ape-men enough advantages to make the extra energy costs worthwhile a couple of million years ago. If being smarter had not been beneficial enough to pay the costs of...
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