Why the West Rules – For Now | Ian Morris

Summary of: Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future
By: Ian Morris


In ‘Why the West Rules – For Now’, Ian Morris explores the historical reasons behind the West’s ongoing global dominance. Dismissing long-term lock-in and short-term accident theories, Morris delves deeper into biology, sociology, and geography to analyze the fluctuations in Eastern and Western social development. He examines the foundation of high-end states, the role of agriculture, and the effects of geography in shaping the East and West’s trajectories over time, taking readers on a journey through thousands of years of history right up to the present day.

Looking Beyond Short-term Accidents and Long-term Lock-ins

The Dominance of the West: A Result of Biological, Sociological, and Geographical Interplay

The West has an undeniable influence on global politics and development. While various explanations exist, two prominent theories suggest that Western dominance resulted from either historical luck or a critical factor present in the West’s foundation. However, long-term lock-in theories based on biological or cultural reasoning do not hold up to scrutiny. For instance, racial genetic superiority arguments fall short since modern humans superseded both Eastern Homo erectus and Western Homo antecessor. Similarly, cave paintings found in Altamira do not indicate Western cultural uniqueness, since the art resulted from the need to stay warm during the ice age. As such, Western dominance requires a more profound explanation that accounts for the interplay between biology, sociology, and geography. Consequently, neither short-term accidents nor long-term lock-ins can explain the West’s dominance.

East vs West: Measuring Social Development

The author creates a social development index based on four fundamental characteristics to evaluate the East and West’s social development scientifically. The author defines the East as civilizations that developed between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China and the West as starting in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East and Egypt and expanding westward. The factors considered for the social development index are energy capture, urbanism, information processing, and the capacity to wage war. The results show that there is little difference between the East and West’s social development, with both scores resembling an exponential curve. The scores rise slowly for thousands of years, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century, there is a surge in scores due to the Industrial Revolution’s full steam operation.

The Birth of Civilisation

Around 11,700 BCE, the Ice Age ended, and humans started to develop more settled communities. Agriculture became the key factor in distinguishing the West from the East. The Hilly Flanks region, stretching from Iraq to the Mediterranean, became the pioneer of civilisation as farming became pervasive. This gave the West an advantage as the cereals and domesticated species that evolved from grasses in the Hilly Flanks were integral to their survival. Eastern agriculture, primarily centered in China, developed later due to geographical limitations.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse and Its Impact on Western and Eastern Development

Over 10,000 years, the West led in development until the Late Bronze Age collapse in 1200 BCE. This left Western civilizations struggling to keep their empires together, while Eastern social development began to catch up. The Western crisis was likely due to the interaction of climate change, famine, state structure disintegration, migration, and even disease between 1200 and 1000 BCE. The West’s implosion reduced its lead over the East by six centuries, with the East’s social development being only a few hundred years behind the West by 1000 BCE. In the tenth century BCE, both the East and West began restructuring themselves in similar ways, shifting from low-end to high-end states. The West was where the first extensive high-end states emerged, including the Assyrian empire.

The Rise and Fall of High-End States

The book discusses the emergence of high-end states, with the Assyrian and Persian empires as Western forerunners and the Zhou dynasty in the East as trailblazers. However, the Chinese Han Empire and the Roman Republic dwarfed their predecessors. While the Romans controlled vast coastline portions of the Mediterranean and defeated their North African rival, the Carthaginians, the Han dynasty dominated China and was one of the world’s largest empires. Despite similarities in both cultures, such as a literate and an agriculture-based elite and extensive trade networks, they eventually disintegrated. The reason for their downfall was mainly attributed to constant invasions from nomadic barbarians and the central administration’s breakdown. The Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western provinces before eventually falling, while the Jin dynasty ruled the southern part of China’s former Han empire, and the northern part broke into five smaller kingdoms in the East.

Social Development in the West and East

In the first millennium, the Western social development was ahead of the Eastern until the Western half of the Roman Empire began to decline. The Eastern empire, on the other hand, recovered quickly from the downfall of its early empire and reached a new peak in social development by 1100 CE. The Sui dynasty reunified China’s north and south, allowing for a China-wide economic boom, and the Medieval Warm Period increased rainfall in the semi-arid north, leading to greater yields from the fields and a population boom. During this time, Eastern social development finally reached the heights previously achieved by the Roman Empire. In the West, the Medieval Warm Period was also transformative but resulted in the devastation of dry Arab heartlands in southwest Asia. Trade became concentrated in cities like Muslim Palermo and Cairo, and Christian Venice and Genoa. Cultural exchange followed hot on the heels of trade expansion, leading to the transmission of scholarship and knowledge from the Muslim empires to Christian Europe and ultimately laying the foundation for the Renaissance.

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