Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: Why the West Rules For Now - By Ian Morris

35 minute lecture (followed by Q&A)

Nothing jumped out at me in the paper today, so I am taking the opportunity to plug for my new favorite book. Why the West Rules - For Now by Ian Morris. It is one of those rare books that has changed the way I view the world.

Morris's book builds on my previous favorite book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.  Diamond used archaeological evidence, historical record, and other scientific evidence to demonstrate that Western Civilization got an early head start due to geographical luck.

The hilly plains (slightly north of the fertile crescent, the land between the rivers) were blessed with more plants and animals suitable for domestication than anywhere else in the world. There were no pack animals capable of plowing or hauling in the Americas (llamas don't cut it) . Without easily stored high protein crops or  animals suitable for domestication, it is difficult to muster the surplus labor needed to philosophize or invent things. Furthermore, innovations in agriculture were much harder to spread across the extreme climate variation in vertical land masses (like the Americas and Africa) than horizontal land masses (like Eurasia). Finally, centuries of exposure to the diseases of domesticated animals gave early European conquistadors a potent invisible weapon that decimated the native populations of Central and South America.

After reading Diamond, I was left with a nagging question. I was convinced Eurasia had a big leg up, but it was still unclear to me why Europe industrialized before China or India.  China developed agriculture and domestication of animals independently very early (about 6800 B.C., about 3000 years after hilly plains) and had similar advantages of crops and animals suitable for domestication. China and India also share a horizontal land mass with Europe, and had traded with Europe for centuries.

Ian Morris was able to fill in this gap for me.  Morris organized his book to answer the question: Did Western Civilization's head start give it a long term lock on industrializing first? He started early in history (with the big bang!) and provided genetic evidence over the evolution of man to show that people across the planet are pretty much the same.  Explanations for economic differences do not have a racial foundation. Morris then plunged into a long, exhaustive (and a bit exhausting) chronicle of human history. I admit I may have skimmed some in the middle, but he grabbed me again by the end.

Many have argued against the long term lock idea, especially since China was more technologically advanced and wealthier from roughly 500 A.D. until about 1800 A.D. As I understand it, Morris argues that the main reason Western Civilization ended up industrializing first was the discovery of the new world. Europe had more motive to get there first - Europeans were trying to reach the wealth of India and China. Geography also helped again. Europeans were much closer to the Americas - crossing the Atlantic from Europe is much easier than crossing the Pacific from China. China had the technology to make the crossing before the Europeans, but had burned its fleets and turned inwards. Instead of crossing long seas for no clear reason,  China instead expanded into their northern steppes.

Spoiler alert: Morris concludes history was likely to play out like it has, even if key players were changed. He argues that modern times are different; with world destruction at risk, key players matter.
Morris concludes that the distinction between West and East will become irrelevant. Once the full potential of technological progress reaches its culmination, human society may become so different as to be unrecognizable today. As a science fiction fan, I enjoyed his multiple references to Isaac Asimov and  the speculations of futurists about where technology will take us.

I am still left with a few questions. Morris focuses on the dichotomy between China and the West with scant mention of other societies, in particular India. While I would be loathe to ask for an extra 100 pages of historical details, I am curious about other possible "cores" of civilization in Eurasia. I  am also curious why the Eastern Core did not bounce around, as opposed to the Western Core (from Egypt to Rome to England etc.)

After finishing Morris, I watched a few interviews with Ray Kurzweil, a leading guru on the future of technology. Kurzweil's talk at Google in 2009 is linked under top 5 videos (see right). For the more conservative skeptics among you, you may prefer to watch Kurzweil's  interview on the Glenn Beck show (on YouTube in four parts).  For me, it doesn't get much more interesting than "Rapture for Nerds".

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