Ian Morris: Is the west still the best?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ian Morris is Willard Professor of Classics, History and Archaeology at Stanford University, and author of “Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future”.]

The west is still the “best”—if by that we mean richest, strongest, and most inventive. True, China now has the second biggest economy in the world and Japan the third; but Europe and north America still generate two thirds of the world’s wealth, own two thirds of its weapons, and spend more than two thirds of its R&D dollars—all despite having less than one-seventh of its population. The west still rules the roost.

But will this last? No. This much we know, because history tells us so. As Winston Churchill (no mean historian himself) put it: “The farther backwards you can look, the farther forwards you are likely to see.” If we look back far enough (to the last ice age), on a scale big enough (the whole planet), we can indeed identify the forces that drive history—and where they are taking us.

The west dominates the world not because its people are biologically superior, its culture better, or its leaders wiser, but simply because of geography. When the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, making farming possible, it was towards the western end of Eurasia that plants and animals were first domesticated. Proto-westerners were no smarter or harder working than anyone else; they just lived in the region where geography had put the densest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals. Another 2,000 years would pass before domestication began in other parts of the world, where resources were less abundant. Holding onto their early lead, westerners went on to be the first to build cities, create states, and conquer empires. Non-westerners followed suit everywhere from Persia to Peru, but only after further time lags.

Yet the west’s head start in agriculture some 12,000 years ago does not tell us everything we need to know. While geography does explain history’s shape, it does not do so in a straightforward way. Geography determines how societies develop; but, simultaneously, how societies develop determines what geography means.

Take the case of the hot, humid valleys of south China...

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