*Why the West Rules — For Now*, the new book by Ian Morris

by on October 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm in Books, History | Permalink

Most of the book is intelligent, well-sourced, easy to read, and non-dogmatic.  It is a "big book" on the scale of Jared Diamond or Paul Kennedy and the author is obviously highly intelligent.  There is a good use of archaeology and mostly the author supports geographical theories of the rise of the West and other civilizations.  It considers energy use, urbanization, and war-making explicitly, all pluses in my view.  Eventually you realize it is going nowhere and has only a weak theoretical framework.  The first two-thirds are still better to read than most books.  It raised my opinion of the importance of coal in the Industrial Revolution.  The final chapter collapses into the lamest of conventional wisdoms.

The WSJ gave it a big review which somehow I cannot find on-line.  Here are other reviews.

liberalarts October 23, 2010 at 8:56 am

Coal was also the driving force according to Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. His thesis was that new energy sources gave a leg up to emerging powers, with coal the key to the industrial revolution.

Grootneck October 23, 2010 at 10:47 am

Attila Smith: Your implication is that Europeans conquered the New World because they are "racially superior" to Chinese. What if China will more or less rule the whole world in 100 years, which doesn't really seem unlikely? Would that be because they becamae "racially superior" on the way? Or is it because the concept of "racial superiority" is not really useful? (Also consider that the Chinese have higher average IQs than any European population)

BPO October 23, 2010 at 10:55 am

"What if China will more or less rule the whole world in 100 years, which doesn't really seem unlikely?"

This kind of statement is what surprises me. I think it seems highly unlikely, and I sincerely doubt there is any cogent argument you can make in favor of the idea that can't be countered just as easily – though, admittedly, those arguments are not ones that make appearances in popular discourse, for reasons that have little to do with the weight they carry.

Millian October 23, 2010 at 11:38 am

I am surprised that Tyler would revise upwards his opinion on the importance of coal to the Industrial Revolution, given his mediocre grade for the book. Surely the high importance of coal, perhaps above that of any other physical substance, is a commonplace in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

Attila Smith October 23, 2010 at 11:52 am

@ Grootneck: no,no, my implication is NOT that the Europeans were or are racially superior to the Chinese, and I do know that the latter have higher average IQ than the former. I even happen to believe that the most intelligent person on earth now is genetically Chinese (can you guess who that is ?)
I was just making fun of the reviewer's banal and politically correct pontification.

Yancey Ward October 23, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Buck Rogers to the rescue.

James Dove October 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm

In all the hype I've come across regarding this book, it seems to me that it is just a rehash of Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Could anyone who has read both books tell me if I'm wrong? Is there any new ground covered?

jk October 23, 2010 at 4:12 pm

China is Japan in the 80s (maybe).

kebmo October 23, 2010 at 8:09 pm

In his book '1,000 Barrels Per Second', canadian oil exec Peter Terzakian goes into the historical military value of maintaining readily available energy sources. Particularly, he focuses on how the Brits went out of their way to secure safe and efficient supply lines of coal for their war ships which contributed greatly to their naval power.

He goes further to compare this situation to the US government's obsession with maintaining access to oil sources – starting with the Truman Edict and moving forward to today in which the US government considers any military act against one of their oil suppliers as an act of was against the USA itself.

In short, energy (the right kind) is important as a driver for both industry and the military. Could be one reason why renewable energy technologies and nuclear don't get the same subsidies as oil because, at least for now, you can't protect your empire with with electric jets, tanks and such.

guy in the veal calf October 25, 2010 at 5:53 pm

I'm curious how today's professors determine what grasses and fauna are "domesticable" by 5,000 year experimentation across climates and conditions?

I can't imagine they study domesticated descendents, find some commonality and call it the cause.

M Schwartz October 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm

***The past shows that, while geography shapes the development of societies,***

I wonder if Morris has read UC Davis economist Greg Clark's material?

"In my recent book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World I argue two things. First that all societies remained in a state I label the “Malthusian economy” up until the onset of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In that state crucially the economic laws governing all human societies before 1800 were those that govern all animal societies. Second that was thus subject to natural selection throughout the Malthusian era, even after the arrival of settled agrarian societies with the Neolithic Revolution.

The Darwinian struggle that shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution but continued right up until the Industrial Revolution. But the arrival of settled agriculture and stable property rights set natural selection on a very different course. It created an accelerated period of evolution, rewarding with reproductive success a new repertoire of human behaviors – patience, self-control, passivity, and hard work – which consequently spread widely.

And we see in England, from at least 1250, that the kind of people who succeeded in the economic system – who accumulated assets, got skills, got literacy – increased their representation in each generation. Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world. Modern people are thus in part a creation of the market economies that emerged with the Neolithic Revolution. Just as people shaped economies, the pre-industrial economy shaped people. This has left the people of long settled agrarian societies substantially different now from our hunter gatherer ancestors, in terms of culture, and likely also in terms of biology. We are also presumably equivalently different from groups like Australian Aboriginals that never experience the Neolithic Revolution before the arrival of the English settlers in 1788."

The Domestication of Man: The Social Implications of Darwin

cnm November 19, 2010 at 9:18 am

All chinese are inferio to whites genetically. Therefore, Whites are the kings, and chinese are slave, like or not.

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