Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why the West Rules - For Now

This is a talk by Ian Morris about the thesis of his book Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future

Here are my thoughts and summary of the talk. The video can be found at the bottom of the post.

Morris starts with an apposite quote from Winston Churchill: "The farther backward you can look the farther forward you are likely to see."

Three kinds of things to know before answering the question, "Why the West Rules - For Now:

1. Biology - the study of what we are. Human Beings are all much the same, where ever you find them.
2. Sociology - similarities and differences between societies: why societies innovate and respond effectively to crises and why they sometimes don't.

These two issues help to provide a general theory of human history, about all people in all times and all places. But it is not enough to tell us why the West Rules for that you need:

3. Geography - but it gives an answer in complicated ways. Geography drives the development of societies but on the other hand, the development of societies drives what geography means. Simply put, geography drives the current distribution of wealtha and power. Agriculture (which was essential to civilisation) could only develop initially where there existed concentrations of domesticable plants and animals - ie a geographical effect. The place where these creatures were most densely concentrated was in the Fertile Crescent (in the current Middle East) so that is where agriculture first appeared, followed a few thousand years later by East Asia (China), the Indus Valley (Pakistan) and the Americas. As societies developed, based on agriculture, the meaning of geography changed, initially access to great rivers was very important which led to the great civilisations on Mesopotamia, and then access to seas - the classical European civilisations developed around the Mediterranean.

So far this is fairly familiar to readers of Jarred Diamond's books, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse which is why I find the presentation compelling. The section of Diamond's Guns ... was his explanation of why Western Europe develped much more quickly than it main competitor, China, after about 1400. Ian Morris provides an interesting explanation, embedded in his geographical theme - that European development was driven by the discovery of the Americas, and that the Americas were twice as close to Europe as to East Asia. Before Europeans had ships that could safely traverse the Atlantic Ocean, this fact of geography was not important, but once they has such ships the meaning of geography had been changed by the new technology. This change of technology set up a cascade of new effects - in the fields of economics, the natural sciences, technology and mathematics.

So what about the future?

Great trends can help us predict future developments, but historical analysis also shows that the great trends of history have steadily developed forces that undermine them.

Projecting forward: the East will catch up the West early after 2100, assuming that rates of change will occur at 20th century changes. If changes occur more quickly (as is likely) then the East will castch up during the second half of this century. Morris predicts extremely rapid change in Social Development. Morris's description of a utipian future left me somewhat disturbed until he started discussing the counter point: that trends constantly generate the trends that undermine them. The same set of problems come up when civilizations collapse are familiar today: uncontrolled migration, failure of state organisatins, famine, epidemic disease, and climate change.

One of the most disappointing aspects of popular discussion of current events is the lack of a historical context, talks like this put our current predicament in a broad context - 15,000 years!

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