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Daring to predict future from patterns of the past

"Why The West Rules -- For Now" is a monumental effort by Ian Morris, professor of Classics and History at Stamford University, to encapsulate 50,000 years of history and estimate the future based upon patterns of human behavior. The book is even broader in scope than similar efforts this year by Bill Bryson, "Seeing Further", an encomium about the future of science and Diarmaid MacCulloch, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years."

Why do people attempt these books? An answer is that they do it in part because they are looking for a unifying theory -- historic, scientific, religious -- to capture and understand patterns of human behavior and the world around us.

Morris begins his scan of history by saying that it may appear that he has not set himself a very difficult task. After all, he writes, "Nearly everyone agrees that the West rules because the industrial revolution happened there, not in the East. In the eighteenth century British entrepreneurs unleashed the energies of steam and coal. As a result, nobody is surprised when a Malaysian lawyer admits to a French journalist, 'I am wearing your clothes, I speak your language, I watch your films, and today is whatever date it is because you say so.' "

So what's the issue? The problem is that there's more than one way to approach the problem. Some scholars think that the approach should involve a long-term, lock-in theory that argues "some critical factor made East and West massively and unalterably different, and determined that the industrial revolution would happen in the West." Factors might include climate, topography, resources, culture, politics, a la Karl Marx, or religion.

Short-term theorists, on the other hand, argue that more recent accidents of history since 1800 CE, the dwindling of a silver supply for China from the West and European mechanization of industry for example, enabled the West to pull ahead of the East. Not unimportantly, one may wonder about the basic premise in 2010. It could be argued that the East is ahead -- China and India and Golden Rim nations -- seem to be moving briskly beyond the West because of their countries' yearly productivity gains.

Part of the analysis, as cultures and countries vie for leadership in the world, is in asking the right question about their competition. Morris wants the question to be a "a look at the whole sweep of human history as a single story, establishing its overall shape, before discussing why it has that shape."

How to do this? Morris explains, "we need a broad approach, combining the historian's focus on context, the archaeologist's awareness of the deep past, and the social scientist's comparative methods." In short, a multidisciplinary approach of specialists, guided by an "academic impresario" using an interdisciplinary approach who advances what Morris calls "social development," shorthand for the ability to get things done.

Morris' surprising "least bad way" to begin, as he puts it, is to produce a graph that shows the shape of history. It charts social development over millennia. His graph shows that neither East nor West has always been in the ascendancy of social development. It does show that the West was best for the last 14 of 15 millennia, the East on top from 550 through 1775 CE. So Western rule over the long haul was neither predetermined nor the result of recent accidents of history.

In practice, Morris argues that this broad approach has to center on why the West developed so quickly in the past 200 years and enabled a few countries to "dominate the planet."

Of course, the analytical proof of such an approach is in the detail. Morris chooses three tools to make his case: biology, sociology and geography. Morris writes that we humans are "clever chimps" with fast brains, vocal cords and opposable thumbs. Of course, we are more than his facetious definition suggests.

Sociology, including anthropology, economics, political science, demography and psychology, will enable us to know what causes social change -- and what social change itself causes.

Morris has a theorem about how change takes place. He writes, "Change is caused by lazy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they're doing." This doesn't seem an inspiring paradigm for the future-casting to me, but he claims it is what his research reveals.

The most important tool is geography, Morris says. Sociology and biology explain global similarities of people, but geography explains regional differences. For example, think about England, Spain, France and Portugal's positions near the North Atlantic during Columbus' time and then cast your thought back to Mesopotamia before the Arab invasion of 637 CE, and you get his idea. Both areas, far from each other, were hotbeds of social activity at different times.

Definitions are the bedrock of logic in "Why The West Rules -- For Now." East "refers to all those societies that descend from the easternmost (and second-oldest) of the Eurasian cores, stretching today from Japan in the north into the countries of Indochina in the south."

Today, the West is described as including "all the societies that have descended from this westernmost (and earliest) of the Eurasian cores. The West long ago expanded from the original core in southwest Asia to encompass the Mediterranean Basin and Europe, and in the last few centuries the Americas and Australasia, too."

Morris' book is a cautionary tale. Cultures can either be disrupted or explode with development. Where we were once on the edge of an ancient flint, we are today riding a ballistic missile. If we are not careful, the Ice Ages of the past may seem a day at the beach compared to future pandemics or terrible wars.

Therefore, whether the West continues to rule is not a simple question. It may not even be the main one. Morris is an engaging writer with deep insights from archaeology and ancient history that offer us compelling visions about how the past influences the future. They are ours to use, for now.

Michael D. Langan is a former official with the U.S. Labor and Treasury departments.


Why The West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future

By Ian Morris

Farrar, Straus And Giroux

750 pages, $35

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