Why the West Rules – For Now

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris, Profile RRP£25 768 pages

Recently, science has profoundly transformed almost every aspect of life, and as a result we look quite differently at medicine, communications, even our network of friends. But until now, the discipline of history has not been greatly affected by the advance of technical possibilities. Indeed, a great deal of historical writing in universities has denied the importance of science, economics and politics.

Ian Morris, an archaeologist and historian at Stanford University, has written the first history of the world that really makes use of what modern technology can offer to the interpretation of the historical process. The result is a path-breaking work that lays out what modern history should look like.

Morris’s story is focused around a thesis of challenge and response. Societies develop and populations move as a response to climatic change that shapes the yield of crops and the nature of disease. Regular crises, driven by disease and famine as well as war, constitute a cyclical mechanism, in which human advance stalls and prosperous societies and complex political regimes simply collapse. Such crises form the “patterns of history” and they have so far occurred at repeated intervals: 2200 BC, 1750 BC, 1200 BC, 800 BC, 540 AD, 1250 AD, or 1645 AD. Every 400 years or so, climate change and drought set off migrations and state failure.

For Morris, the breakthroughs of the first millennium BC – Confucianism, Buddhism, the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy – were simply a response to greater prosperity, more long-distance trade and the stronger states that regulated it. Society, in Morris’s formulation, gets the culture it needs.

Morris is especially interested in the relation of the eastern and western end of the Eurasian landmass. For most of human history, the west’s response proved more innovative; only from around 550 AD to 1776 (the year of the steam engine, of Adam Smith and of the American Declaration of Independence) was the east dominant and more prosperous.

The book tells us that we should not look back to very distant origins of the west-east divergence, nor to very recent origins, since the calculation of levels of social development show long-term continuities. Instead, we need to think of the middle-term explanation, which covers a couple of thousand years.

The thousand years of Chinese superiority were the result of a period of trade and intellectual openness that followed a political collapse. The Roman Empire and the Han Empire both fell because temperatures and rainfall were declining. In the third century, both the Roman and Chinese cities shrank, literacy declined and military power was eroded. But in the east, migration produced a move into fertile areas where new ways of growing rice allowed a rise in living standards and led to a new possibility for political advance. The last real Roman emperor, Justinian, failed because he lacked those productive paddy fields.

At this point, China grew because it was open to foreign influences and could blend them into a new synthesis. There was a Chinese Renaissance in the 11th century that preceded and paralleled the European development of the 15th. Decline set in when China’s rulers were so convinced of their superiority that they had no need to turn to foreign barbarians.

Morris’s writing is full of entertaining anecdotes as well as references to popular science and pseudoscience – but he also uses high-tech archaeological evidence that includes the analysis of pollen and other plant remains to give an indication of climatic change, and of DNA to show the migrations that occurred over tens of thousands of years. This is a history driven by close attention to every archaeological remnant, in which buried animal bones tell a story about the prosperity of the society that bred and then killed and consumed them. The latest confirmation of Morris’s thesis of constant and intense interchange between east and west is the 2010 discovery of bones, probably from a farm slave, buried in the second century AD in southern Italy; mitochondrial DNA suggested that his maternal ancestors came from east Asia.

Statistics, psychology and history might allow societies to plan the future. But then Morris shows how grim the future could be. The comforting conclusion for western readers implied in his title – that westerners are still top dogs – is dramatically undermined by the bleak last chapter. The book ends with a scary account of the likely – in his eyes, certain – impact of global warming that will lead to what he calls “global weirding”: extreme climatic occurrences, increased struggle over resources, failing states.

This entertaining and plausibly argued book in the end tells us that debates about the rise of China or the fall of the west are ultimately a side-show. Nature will bite back at human society, and we don’t yet have a psycho-history that can plan out an adequate response.

Harold James is professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University and author of ‘The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle’ (Harvard University Press)

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