Civilization | Niall Ferguson

Summary of: Civilization: The West and the Rest
By: Niall Ferguson


Embark on a journey to understand the remarkable ascendancy of the West over the past 500 years. In the book summary for ‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’, author Niall Ferguson explores the six ‘killer apps’ that enabled Western societies to dominate global culture, despite their early impoverishment and unsophistication compared to their eastern Asian counterparts. Discover how factors such as competition, scientific advancement, military power, strong property rights, and even blue jeans contributed to the rise of Western civilization. This summary will unapologetically delve into the good, the bad, and the ugly of European imperialism, offering a fresh perspective on the impact the West has had on the world.

The Myths of Western Domination

The book challenges the belief that everything wrong with the world can be traced back to colonialism. Rather, it argues that the West gained its primacy not through cultural superiority or brute force but by developing six “killer apps” of successful civilization. These were a capitalist market economy, science, medicine, democracy, the consumer society, and the work ethic. The book shows how these apps were essential to the success of Western nations and how they laid the groundwork for the rise of Asia and the decline of the Western world. The author challenges the assumptions that underlie a pervasive anti-Western sentiment and makes the case that the West’s achievements are too often overlooked or taken for granted.

Competition: The Driving Force Behind Europe’s Advancement

Before 1400, China boasted of superior technology and was lightyears ahead of Europe, inventing plows, compasses, furnaces, and bridges. But how did Europe move from being a backward hinterland to an advanced civilization that surpassed China? Simple, competition. Unlike China and Japan, competing European nations sought advantage over one another, striving to become richer and more prosperous, and ruthlessly seeking new trade routes and colonies. While the Chinese rigidity to bureaucracy stifled innovation, European nations competed aggressively, learned from each other, becoming affluent while Asia stagnated. Competition for resources, new discoveries, and trade led to the flourishing of the West while the East lagged behind. Europeans grew taller, stronger, and more massive than their Asian counterparts, a clear indication of their protein-rich diet, which their Asian counterparts hardly enjoyed.

The Muslim World and the Scientific Revolution

The Muslim world was at the forefront of science for a period. The Abbasid caliphate established hospitals and translated Greek texts into Arabic. Muslim scientist Ibn al-Hayatham was the first true experimental scientist. However, Arab supremacy declined, and Europe became more prominent due to better exchanges of ideas and acceptance of scientific breakthroughs. The Scientific Revolution took place in Europe, leading to hundreds of breakthroughs that included the classification of minerals and the discovery of cells. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton dominated their fields in Europe, but the Islamic world was nonpartisan. The Muslim world remained untouched by the Scientific Revolution because Islamic clerics held that questioning God’s will was blasphemy. The European technology gap over Ottoman weapons widened, and the chasm between the Western world and others has remained wide. Although some Muslim countries have begun to embrace science, the pace of technological development lags behind the Western world.

North America vs. Latin America

The differing approaches to property rights in North America and Latin America shaped the two regions for centuries. English colonists promised land and representative government, which fueled upward mobility and widely distributed wealth. In contrast, Latin America was an oligarchy with only a fortunate few enjoying most of the spoils. Settlers never owned land in Latin America; it all belonged to the Spanish crown. The Spanish New World encouraged slavery while the Catholic Church held a religious monopoly. Latin America suffered two chaotic centuries, featuring revolution, coups d’état, poverty, and inequality. Since gaining independence in 1811, Venezuela has cycled through a total of 26 constitutions; the US has had only one.

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