Overview of the Work of Ian Morris

Ian Morris Why the West Rules - For Now, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010. Subtitled: The Patterns of History and what they Reveal about the Future.

The book by Ian Morris is remarkable because it attempts to explain historical events in a scientific way. While one may argue about specifics, his approach sets a standard for history texts. He defines social development as a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done. He then calculates a social development (SD) from four traits: energy capture, urbanism, information processing and capacity to make war [MORR, pp. 143-150]. The SD can measured on the basis of archeologicla data and Morris presents a plot of SD for East (China and surroundings) and West (Middle East and Europe) from 14,000 BCE to 2000 CE (Figure 3.7). The SD has been normalized to be 1000 in 2000 CE and it is plotted on a logarithmic scale.

He tracks historical events through changes in social development that are caused by several factors starting with climate change. He points out that the earth’s orbit around the sun changes slightly over time and so does the wobble of its axis. As a result we have climate change (p. 180.) Here a sample of how he applies this technique to developments in Mesopotamian. A cooling period that started around 3800 BCE was tough on agriculture, forced people to co-operate more, and led to urbanization,. Mesopotamians invented the curses of modern life: management, meetings, and memoranda! …. Uruk had 20,000 people. “Birth of management as the monsoons dried up must have been traumatic.” Religion (incl. charity) eased the way. The key point is that cooling of the earth forced urbanization and also boosted religion. Priest would pray for rain and get credit when it came (p.183). By 2700 BCE scribes report that kings claimed gods for ancestors. Uruk became a state with warriors, merchants and bureaucrats. Everybody surrendered freedoms but that was needed for success in hard times (p. 183).

Other factors that affect history are

  • The advantage of backwardness: Adopting techniques from a more advanced region to make them work in less-developed area make result in better overall techniques (p.179)
  • Growing social complexity implies growing social fragility (p. 191). To use a modern analogy, think of the power grid. If it fails it creates havoc but that was not an issue 200 years ago.

Morris uses this methodology to track all human history.

A striking feature of Social Development plots is that West leads East until 541 CE and then East moves ahead. The situation reverses in 1773 when the West moves ahead of the East. The first crossover point occurred during the reign of the Roman (Byzantine) emperor Justinian I (527-567) and Morris devotes a lot of space in discussing the upheavals during Justinian's reign including a plague. But he does not mention the attacks on secular learning that started two centuries earlier and culminated in Justinian's reign when the last pagan scholars were eliminated. According to Gibbon "Justinian suppressed the schools of Athens and the consulship of Rome, which had given so many sages and heroes to mankind. Both these institutions had long since degenerated from their primitive glory; yet some reproach may be justly inflicted on the avarice and jealousy of a prince, by whose hand such venerable ruins were destroyed." He was on to describe in detail the suppression of secular scholarship ([EG], vol. 4, Chapter XL(40), pp. 201-208).

Summary of Chapter 9 "The West Catches Up" with comments

The chapter covers roughly the period 1500-1800 when social development rose in both East and West but it rose faster in the West.

As a result of the depopulation caused by the black death epidemic average wages double between 1350 and 1450 but then they feel sharply as the population increased. That created a financial crisis. The Chinese and Japanese rulers opted against territorial expansion.

The Crown Imperial: The Chinese Empire dominated the East while the Ottoman Empire dominated the West and there were fears that they could take over the rest of Europe. (1529 was the year of the first siege of Vienna.) The Hapsburg (Charles V) were dominant in NW Europe but they never achieved complete control. In the meantime the religious reformation started by Luther (1517) was gaining steam. So Western Europe remained fragmented into several states.

The Hard Ceiling: Social development continued in spite of wars (in both East and West). The cooling period that started in 1300 made things tough but did not stop development. The "hard ceiling" is the value of the social development index where previous advances had stopped. In Rome circa 100BCE (in the West) and in China circa 1100 during the Song dynasty. But in the 1600's development continued past the hard ceiling. Morris asks "why did development buck the historic trend?" But we can also ask the question "what is so important" about the "hard ceiling"? Different times lead to different results. The SD index is an observed variable, not a state variable. For example, a car going at 40 mph on icy road is likely to skid and crash. But a car going at 40 mph on a dry road is safe.

Closing the Steppes: One happening of the 1500's was the transformation of the principality of Moscow to the Russian Empire. In 1547 Ivan the Terrible (reigned 1533-1584) took the title Tsar of All the Russias with the word Tsar derived from the word Caesar. That was followed by the conquest of Siberia and Russian trappers clashed with Chinese troops along the Amur river. But the 1680's the Russian and the Chinese agreed on a border along the Amur river that has stood till today. That action closed the steppe highway and the nomads were hemmed in within the two empires. The nomads last hurrah came in 1644 where the Manchus took Beijing and established the Qing dynasty that lasted till the 20th century. The Manchus became in effect Chinese, repeating the pattern of the Yuan dynasty 300 years earlier. (See Two Centers.)

Opening the Oceans: While the Russians took over Siberia the Spaniards were taking over Central and South America. Both powers did a lot of "outsourcing" with the king taking a cut of the profits. Fur fever drove the Russians and silver fever drove the Spaniards. The Hapsburg (rulers of Spain) used most of their silver to pay their debt Italian financiers who in turn spent the silver on imports from China. Both the Chinese and the Spanish rulers focuses on enlarging their slice of the economic pie than enlarging the pie itself. The coastlines of the empires and their possessions attracted pirates and, eventually, privateers or state sanctioned pirates such as Francis Drake. English and French privateers also started colonizing North America. Native Americans were decimated by diseases carried by the new settlers (see [GGS] for more on that).

Trade expanded by involving Africa that supplied slaves. Europeans created "an independent, intercontinental economy, linked via overlapping triangular networks of trade \" (p. 465). The Dutch and English were the main actors of the new economy while the Spaniards had relied on simply extracting wealth from the colonies. "By 1750 the first consumer culture had taken shape around the shores of the North Atlantic" (p. 468). The Spanish rulers (and Chinese) had treated merchants as cash machines to be squeezed. In North Western Europe, where kings were weaker, merchants acquired wealth and power.

Like Clockwork: The rise of the merchant class encourage empiricism. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), Galileo (1564 -1642), Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), and others advocated a new approach to understanding nature. They removed the supernatural and thought of nature as mechanical, "like clockwork." They ignored the ancients, in contrast to the Chinese who revered ancient wisdom. That set off a scientific revolution. The church tried to stop it (by persecuting Galileo, for example) but they could not stop it. Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) and Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) were next. Newton's Principia Mathematica came out in 1687 and it expressed the laws of Physics that modern technology continues to rely on. Einstein's theory of relativity (1905) supplanted Newton's laws only for objects moving close to the speed of light and in the subatomic world.

There was a parallel development in China called "evidential research" (kaozheng) but it could not go far because of the reverence for ancient wisdom. In the West the study of the ancients led to the adoption of their methods (inquiry, reason) rather than their conclusions. It is worth adding that the ancient Greeks and the golden age Arabs were far more advanced in mathematics and astronomy than their contemporary Chinese. (See The Pursuit of "Useless Knowledge") So reverence for ancient wisdom is not the sole reason that Chinese evidential research failed to go far. One can make a plot of scientific development in the West that illustrates this point.

Morris points out that the ideas about nature as a machine led to ideas about society as a machine and this led to the Enlightenment. This is a big topic and we have to return to it.

Trial by Telescope: The section starts discussion of Noel Needham (1900 – 1995), the British scientist who became obsessed with Chinese science and why it had failed to develop after a promising start. The "Needham problem" is "why, after so many centuries of Chinese scientific preeminence, it was western Europeans who created modern science in the seventeenth century?" (p. 475). That, I think, misses the point. Westerners were ahead in science until the church suppressed and once the church fetters were weakened development resumed. Morris claims that the new frontier across the ocean needed precise instruments, etc. Chinese pursue of knowledge took a hit because Jesuit missionaries who arrived in China in the late 1500's demonstrated that they could predict solar eclipses more accurately than the Chinese or Muslim astronomers (1644). Because the Jesuits were also promoting Christianity they were eventually sidelined. Morris places a lot of stock on the greater challenges posed by the Atlantic frontier as opposed to the Steppe frontier. I think the Jesuit story is a distraction. The Jesuits could equally well have animated scientific pursuits.

The Iron Law: "The conquest of the steppes and had not shattered the hard ceiling" that stopped Roman (West) and Song (East) development (p. 482). By 1750 living standards were falling. Western rulers thought that war would solve their problems, Eastern rulers (esp. Japanese) that it would not. Both Japan and China discouraged trade. East was isolationist! (p. 484).

The Dutch and the British innovated by establishing disciplined armies and navies. These needed money and hence the need for the government to borrow. That boosted banking. By 1700 both countries had national banks. Long wars were being fought over the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ottoman besieged Vienna in 1683 but they were soundly defeated. By the 19th century they were hopelessly behind.

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