Book Summary: “Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History” by Ian Morris

Topic of Book

Title: Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future
Author: Ian Morris
Scope: 4.5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system

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Topic of Book

Morris tries to understand humanity’s long-term development, particularly comparing the development of the West compared to the East.

Key Take-aways

  • The broad strokes of human development can be tracked using a statistical formula.
  • The West, in particular Northwest Europe and the United States, have dominated the last few centuries due to long-term factors.
  • The long-term factors are:
    • Biology
    • Sociology
    • Geography
  • The East and the West have gone through the same path of development with technological and organizational innovations occurring in roughly the same order.
  • Biology and Sociology explain this path of development.
  • Geographical factors, though, have favored faster development in the West compared to the East.
  • As regions develop, their overall rate of their development accelerates. This means that the West has, until recently, increased its lead over the East.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

“Both long-termers and short-termers agree that the West has dominated the globe for the last two hundred years, but disagree over what the world was like before this. Everything revolves around their differing assessments of premodern history. The only way we can resolve the dispute is by looking at these earlier periods to establish the “overall “shape” of history. Only then, with the baseline established, can we argue productively about why things turned out as they did.”

“The question requires us to look at the whole sweep of human history as a single story, establishing its overall shape, before discussing why it has that shape”

“I argue in this book that asking why the West rules is really a question about what I will call social development. By this I basically mean societies’ abilities to get things done—to shape their physical, economic, social, and intellectual environments to their own ends.”

“I will use three of these tools.

The first is biology, which tells us what humans truly are: clever chimps.”

“This very obvious truth has three important consequences.

First, like all life-forms, we survive because we extract energy from our environment and turn that energy into more of ourselves.

Second, like all the more intelligent animals, we are curious creatures. We are constantly tinkering, wondering… the third consequence of our animalness is that large groups of humans, as opposed to individual humans, are all much the same”

“These three rather commonsensical observations explain much of the course of history. For millennia social development has generally been increasing, thanks to our tinkering, and has generally done so at an accelerating rate.”

“This is where the second tool, sociology, comes in. Sociology tells us simultaneously what causes social change and what social change causes.”

“Morris Theorem: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.” History teaches us that when the pressure is on, change takes off”

“Between them, biology and sociology explain most of the shape of history—why social development has generally risen, why it rises faster at some times and slower at others, and why it sometimes falls. But these biological and sociological laws are constants, applying everywhere, in all times and all places. They by definition tell us about humanity as a whole, not about why people in one place have fared so differently from those in another. To explain that, I will argue throughout this book, we need a third tool: geography”

“I will try to show that East and West have gone through the same stages of social development in the last fifteen thousand years, in the same order, because they have been peopled by the same kinds of human beings, who generate the same kinds of history. But I will also try to show that they have not done so at the same times or at the same speed. I will conclude that biology and sociology explain the global similarities while geography explains the regional differences. And in that sense, it is geography that explains why the West rules.”

“around seventy thousand years ago their luck changed. Eastern and southern Africa became warmer and wetter, which made hunting and gathering easier, and humans reproduced as rapidly as their food sources. Modern Homo sapiens had been evolving for a good hundred thousand years, with a lot of trial, error, and extinctions, but when the climate improved, those populations with the most advantageous mutations took off, outbreeding less brainy humans. There were no monoliths; no Great Leap Forward; just a lot of sex and babies.

Within a few thousand years early humans reached a tipping point that was as much demographic as biological. Instead of dying out so often, bands of modern humans grew big enough and numerous enough to stay in regular contact, pooling their genes and know-how. Change became cumulative and the behavior of Homo sapiens diverged rapidly from that of other ape-men.”

“Around 12,700 BCE, Earth leaped up the Great Chain of Energy. More sunlight meant more plants, more animals, and more choices for humans, about how much to eat, how much to work, and how much to reproduce.”

“The biggest beneficiaries of global warming lived in a band of “Lucky Latitudes” roughly 20–35 degrees north in the Old World and 15 degrees south to 20 degrees north in the New. Plants and animals that had clustered in this temperate zone during the Ice Age multiplied wildly after 12,700 BCE, particularly, it seems, at each end of Asia, where wild cereals—forerunners of barley, wheat, and rye in southwest Asia and of rice and millet in East Asia—evolved big seeds that foragers could boil into mush or grind up and bake into bread”

“This cumulative pattern also explains why increases in social development keep speeding up: each innovation builds on earlier ones and contributes to later ones, meaning that the higher social development rises, the faster it can continue rising.

Yet the course of innovation never did run smooth. Innovation means change, bringing joy and pain in equal measures. Social development creates winners and losers…. Its growth depends on societies becoming larger, more complicated, and harder to manage; the higher it rises, the more threats to itself it creates. Hence the paradox: social development creates the very forces that undermine it. When these slip out of control—and particularly when a changing environment multiplies uncertainty—chaos, ruin, and collapse may follow, as came to pass around 2200 BCE”

“we might draw a tentative conclusion from this: that when the four horsemen of the apocalypse—climate change, famine, state failure, and migration—ride together, and especially when a fifth horseman of disease joins them, disruptions can turn into collapses, sometimes even driving social development down.”

“This suggests a second possibility: that collapse comes out of the interactions between natural and human forces. I think we can probably be more specific about this: bigger, more complex cores generate bigger, more threatening upheavals, increasing the risk that disruptive forces such as climate change and migration will set off thoroughgoing collapses”

“social development rose in both the core and in the peripheries around it. Traders and colonists left the core, whether pushed out by rivals or pulled by tempting opportunities, and some people in the peripheries actively copied core practices or independently created their own versions. The result was that higher levels of social development spread outward from the core, overlaying earlier systems and being transformed in the process as people in the peripheries added their own twists and discovered the advantages in their backwardness.”

“If I had been writing this book around the year 500 CE I might well have been a long-term lock-in theorist. Every millennium or so, I would have observed, social development undermined itself, and for every two or three steps forward there would be one step back. Disruptions were getting bigger, now affecting the East as well as the West, but the pattern was clear. During steps forward, the West pulled away from the East; during steps back, the gap narrowed; and on it would go, in a series of waves, each cresting higher than the last one, with the West’s lead varying but locked in.”

“541 ought to be one of the most famous dates in history. In that year (or somewhere around the middle of the sixth century, anyway, allowing for a certain margin of error in the index) the East’s social development score overtook the West’s, ending a fourteen-thousand-year-old pattern and disproving at a stroke any simple long-term lock-in theory of why the West rules. By 700 the East’s score was one-third higher than the West’s, and by 1100 the gap—nearly 40 percent”

“Societies rarely—perhaps never—simply get stuck at a ceiling and stagnate, their social development unchanging for centuries. Rather, if they do not figure out how to smash the ceiling, their problems spiral out of control.”

“A second great geographical contrast between East and West then came into play; the East had nothing like this extraordinary inland sea, providing cheap and easy transport”

“What all this adds up to is the conclusion that Western rule by 2000 was neither a long-term lock-in nor a short-term accident. It was more of a long-term probability. It was never very likely, even in 1100, that the East would industrialize first, gain the ability to project its power globally, and turn its lead in social development into rule the way the West would subsequently do. It was always likely, though, that someone would eventually develop guns and empires capable of closing the steppes, and ships and markets capable of opening the oceans. And once that happened, it would become increasingly likely that new geographical advantages would lead Westerners into an industrial revolution before Easterners. The only thing that could have prevented it, I suspect, was a genuine Nightfall moment, ”

  1. “Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity” by Walter Scheidel
  2. “Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850” by Joel Mokyr
  3. The WIERDest People in the World” by Joseph Henrich
  4. “A Culture of Growth” by Joel Mokyr
  5. “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  6. “The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created” by William J. Bernstein
  7. “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  8. “Why Europe?: The Rise of the West…” by Jack Goldstone
  9. “Why did Europe Conquer the World?” by Philip Hoffman

If you would like to learn more about why Europe got rich first, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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