How the West Was Won

Steve Balch

A version of this review originally appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, volume XII, number 2, spring 2012, and online at The Claremont Institute.

Grandma was picky at the butcher’s. Always prime, never choice, only flank or loin, never tongue, tripe, or organ. And, needless to say, invariably kosher. She was a material girl who knew just what material she desired.

So generally with scholars, especially those who describe themselves as “materialists,” some favored material is always in, but a good deal of the rest is invariably out. Marxists probably comprise the best examples. The means of production and distribution are everything, the human organism, the putative roots of a human nature, nothing – although the former are as much social arrangements as mechanisms, and the latter most palpable substance. Biology notwithstanding, human nature is viewed as putty in the hands of history’s dialectic and the social engineers who take its cues. Yet Marx sought to dedicate his magnum opus to Darwin. Go figure.

Ideas, in particular, are a recurrent problem. Perhaps because they can’t be seen, materialists have difficulty conceding them independent force, regarding them instead as epiphenomenal – functions of something else, anything else, that actually can be observed or handled. In this strange way many materialists become virtual idealists, putting ideas outside of material reality. For true idealists, of course, this only adds to their impact; for materialists, it allows them to be ignored.

History on a grand scale is the materialist’s forte. If you deal with the substance, why not get right to the sum? Marx showed the way and a great many have followed, even when departing from the Old Moor’s favored formulae. World systems theory, for example, still in widespread vogue today, translates Marx’s conflict of classes into exploitation of periphery by center, economically undeveloped nations by a greedy, globalist heartland. Others, however, take entirely different tacks. Jared Diamond, for instance, made a notable splash not long ago, rekindling with Guns, Germs and Steel the geographic determinism once associated with the likes of Mackinder and Mahan, though now with an ecological twist. For Diamond it is the size, positioning, and physical heterogeneity of land masses that determines the strength and promise of the civilizations that grow upon them, heterogeneity permitting a multitude of experiments in domestication, east-west orientation easing cultural diffusion by reducing climatic gradients, and largeness allowing for more of both. By contrast, civilizations on more uniform, north-south continents are at a disadvantage.  So long as the question is confined to “Why did Eurasia, rather than the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia or Greenland lead in human achievement?” his thesis probably helps.        

But what if the question is: “Why the West?”, or, more specifically, “Why did the breakthrough to technological modernity occur in Europe, instead of in one of the other high civilizations of Eurasia such as Islam, India, Southeast Asia, or the Confucian Far-East?” Whatever merits it may have at intercontinental scale, Diamond’s theory lacks the resolving power to distinguish one end of Eurasia from the other, at least over a period as short as the last five hundred years.  Enter Ian Morris, a Stanford archeologist who, having dug his way through classical sites in Greece and Italy, has materialism engrained under his very fingernails. Why the West Rules – For Now (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010, 750 pages), gives him a chance, in the spirit of Diamond, to answer this more precise query without resort to anything as insubstantial as mentality.

Morris has, nonetheless, produced an important book, less for its intellectual content, though it provides some stimulating provocations, than its likely influence. Jacketed with prestigious endorsements, including one by Diamond himself, and written with a lively “what fools these mortals be” insouciance, it clearly aims at winning more than just History Book Club kudos. Why the West Rules is laid out as a textbook giving a chronological account with tons of picturesque detail on the history of Europe, the Middle East, and China (India receives rather short shrift). World history courses are a growth industry at the collegiate level, and my guess is that Why the West Rules was conceived with the intent of becoming their text of choice. A large number of American university students (and honors high-schoolers as well) will probably be taking their bearings on human history through the lens Morris grinds. Alas for that.    

It’s not so much that the book is anti-Western (though the jabs increase as the West rises). Morris’s tone is one of amused, universalized asperity, finding foibles and cruelties, idiots and occasional geniuses, in all of humanity’s haunts. Nor is it politically radical. Morris appreciates the productive powers of capitalism and foretells a West eventually eclipsed by entrepreneurial Asians.  What it is, is dreary – and strangely so, because otherwise packed with colorful incident, anecdote, and wry wit. Its dreariness arises from the world-weariness of the author’s interpretative scheme, which, having formulated as simplistic and mechanical a theory of human achievement as one could credibly get away with, yields a historical narrative bereft of adventure, heroism, or surprise. There is a monotony about the book that, despite Morris’s literary craft, eventually exhausts.

This, of course, doesn’t debunk his thesis. It may indeed testify to its power, a compactness of explanation resembling natural science. So what is this Spartan construct? Basically, that humans are problem-solving machines that when present in large enough numbers and allowed sufficient time, will progress adaptively in a more or less linear fashion, given one caveat; that à la Diamond, the geographic surroundings offer people a sufficient variety of resources and challenge. Thus, Western Eurasia, understood as everything west of the Indus, kicks off the Neolithic breakthrough to civilization by virtue of the plentitude of domesticatables found within the hilly borderlands of Mesopotamia. Less abundantly blessed, East Asian and other civilizations begin later. As productive innovations tend to be retained, each civilization advances, progress manifested by a four-item scale measuring city size, information storage, energy control, and war-making capacity that Morris has ingeniously created and operationalized. The “West,” as he broadly construes it, having started ahead, naturally stays there until the tenth century or so, when China, having colonized the agriculturally rich Yangtze Valley, overtakes it in a sudden acceleration. Its lead is maintained for the next millennium, only to be lost when the discovery of America confers a new premium on Atlanticism, stimulating an enormous burst of innovation that launches the West into the scientific, industrial age. It’s all “location, location, location.”

Well, not quite. Morris does occasionally concede something to political events. Medieval China’s seizure of primacy is enabled by Rome’s barbarian demolition, and Islam’s cultural demoralization follows its ravaging by the Mongols. But this is merely byplay in a narrative with just three essential elements: a fixed level of human adaptiveness, the retention of helpful adaptations, and the opportunities afforded by land, air, and water. The place of ideas and culture in all of this? The most dependent of variables, conveniently called into existence as humanity requires them. As Morris’ baldly puts it “each age gets the thought it needs.” This indifference to (or complacency about) ideas and culture allows Morris to lump the Moslem Middle East with Europe in the “West,” and to regard the so-called “Axial Age” thinkers, Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha, as all representing pretty much of a muchness with respect to intellectual outlook.                                            

As human history observed from earth orbit this might not be completely devoid of merit. Once you have sapience, all that may be required for it to turn paleo into pomo is sufficient running time. Perhaps, short of an extinction event, man’s trajectory is preset, with even the problems induced by his own biology eventually solved via gentech and cybernetics, leaving him an evolved/created, natural/artificial brave new being. (A species transmogrification Morris actually anticipates occurring before the twentieth-first century ends, robbing, alas, Eastern civilization of any long enjoyment of its reclaimed top-dog status). But even if this were the very big picture – the path that reason must inevitably take – one comes away feeling that some pretty vital details have been lost along the way.

Morris’s scheme ignores a whole batch of things that a snooping Martian might think trifles but about which we humans do have a care. The four measures, for instance, by which Morris grades civilizational accomplishment have no reference to the state of the arts, religious belief, the incidence of war and peace, security of property, status of the sexes, or individual, intellectual, and political freedom. The aesthetic, spiritual, social, psychological, and normative dimensions of life, its quality as opposed to its quantity, simply lie outside of Morris’ interpretive scheme. Why they flourish, or what they produce, don’t rate as issues.        

This leads to a yawning gap in his analysis considered even in its own crude terms. No doubt if one counts by millennia there is world enough and time for almost everything finally to get done. Had the West fumbled the technological ball, it probably would have been recovered again, if not by Westerners than by Easterners, Africans, Amerindians, or Antarcticans. From a merely mortal perspective, however, the relative pace of progress matters. It certainly mattered to the British that their gunboats steamed up the Yangtze instead of having to watch Chinese vessels plowing up the Thames – a counterfactual playfully laid out by Morris at his book’s outset.

It is here that the gross nature of Morris’s materialist explanatory systems completely fails to persuade. It is hardly convincing to attribute the West’s modern advantage to voyages of discovery, which Morris asserts juiced its brain cells just enough to invent science and industrial technology. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton weren’t, after all, trying to explain the motion of the trade winds, but those of planets equally visible in the skies over Persia, India, and China. Newcomen and Watt, for their part, were trying to pump mines, not power shipping. If geographically expansive moments inevitably spark breakthroughs of this type there were certainly such in Chinese history – but without comparable effect. Something else was impelling these discoveries that had never really been at work, and might have been quite a while in the making, beyond the West’s borders. And that something surely had more to do with the landscape of ideas than of continents.                    

Morris’s interpretive scheme has power only insofar as it deals with what might be called “first-order” cultural adaptations, that is to say, those that produce something immediately useful – a stone blade, reaped wheat, woven cloth, etc. Such inventions have obvious utility and don’t require any special augmentation of basic human problem-solving technique. Several quite critical innovations fall under this rubric. Agriculture, for instance, seems to have been invented several times in separate parts of the world. Once population pressure became sufficiently intense it was not difficult for humans to recognize that the seeds of the plants they already gathered could be deliberately sown.

Harder are “second-order” adaptations, those where what is created is not immediately useful except as a means of generating others. Patents are one example, first emerging as a protection for inventors, as opposed to a privilege for favorites, in seventeenth century England and Holland. By far the most important second-order adaptation, however, is experimental science, which entailed much more than an innovation in law and arose less through deliberation than a fortunate combination of cultural circumstances.

Experimental science required, at a minimum, four cultural elements none of which implied the others. It required a willingness and ability to analogize the world as a mechanical system governed by clear-cut rules. This was a Greek achievement, crystallized by Aristotle, and found elsewhere only via inheritance. It required an intellectual environment sufficiently open to permit sustained speculation along these lines, eventually lost to the Aristotelians of Islam. It required a system of mathematical notation capable of describing complex, dynamic relationships, passed to Europe during the high middle ages from India via the Middle East. And it required a willingness on the part of men of mind to get their hands dirty working with contraptions (or at dissecting tables), a kind of unsnobbish marriage of philosophy with craft not historically easy to come by, indeed, only likely in societies where commerce wasn’t deeply déclassé. The West, or parts of it, by complicated happenstance, ended up with all four items in this package. Other civilizations lacked one or more and, in no case – until imported from the West – were close to having the full set.

Undoubtedly geography had a role in assembling this amalgam but not in any direct or determining way. If one thing needs to be understood about the West’s ascent it is how little of it was inevitable and how readily it could have, and still could have, its foundations undone. Complexity, contingency, improbability, are what make the West’s story so worth telling, among other reasons because by suggesting the fragility of its achievements they also emphasize the need for serious stewardship. In hindsight they also imbue Western history with a drama not found in those of relatively static societies, one involving a vast and encompassing enrichment of the human estate, contested, uncertain, but finally successful beyond any prior imagining. No other history can offer such an inspiring tale to an American youth culture now so sorely in need of inspiration. That that inspiration won’t be found in Morris’s geographic determinism is perhaps the only genuinely predetermined thing about it.

Civilization The West and the Rest (The Penguin Press: New York: 201, 402 pages) by celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, contains more uplift. It is hardly a panegyric, but Ferguson makes no bones about ascribing the West’s recent supremacy to what he calls its six “killer apps” – peculiarities of ideas and institutions, not dumb geographic luck. Ferguson brings no notably novel insights to his definition of these – competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, mass consumption, and the work ethic – but in each case he supplies reams of persuasive and fascinating narrative about how they conferred unique advantages on the West, and through it transformed the world. Before modern medicine, for instance, genius commonly died young, cities were pestilential sinkholes, and the tropics full-fledged killing grounds for outsiders. Property rights distinguish the exuberant development of North America from the economic aridity of the South. And so forth.

The killer apps each stand on their own, no simple system here, and they’re exportable. Ferguson’s statistics make clear the extent to which the work ethic has fled from Europe and North America to various points east. Like Morris, he foresees a China ascendant by mid-century (underestimating, in my view, the grave deficits of legitimacy and cronyism from which its current regime suffers). About the West’s future, on the other hand, Ferguson is much less sanguine. Sudden collapse is not a far-fetched possibility.

Civilization isn’t textbook-shaped, but as with Why the West Rules it aims to educate a mass audience, and is coupled with a television series the author hosts (its title, not coincidently, echoing the great cultural panorama presented to TV viewers by Sir Kenneth Clark in 1969.) If ideas count, then historians and educators count too, and Ferguson thinks the conduct of these may actually be counting Western civilization out, observing that “throughout the English speaking world the argument has gained ground that it is other cultures we should be studying, not our own.” His killer appraisal:

Yet any history of the world’s civilizations that underplays the degree of their gradual subordination to the West after 1500 is missing the essential point – the thing most in need of explanation. The rise of the West is, quite simply, the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second-half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve. And we should solve it not merely to satisfy our curiosity. For it is only by identifying the true causes of Western ascendancy that we can hope with any degree of accuracy to estimate the imminence of our decline and fall.

Morris might reply that’s he’s done just that, and in his way he has. But unless one is satisfied with what is, at best, a coarse-grained, idea-blind, exospheric take on human history, he obscures far more than he reveals. Could Ferguson have had Morris’ book in mind when he muses at the end of his own that “maybe, the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors…and the historical ignorance that feeds it”?

Appropriately, Civilization is dedicated to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a veritable Jeanne d’Arc in her courageous and eloquent defense of the Western heritage who hails from – Somalia.

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