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Feb 27, 2011 5:09 pm

What a Disappointment!

I expected Ian Morris’s book Why the West Rules—For Now to be much better than it is, having read Tyler Cowen’s recommendation on Marginal Revolution. Frankly, I hated it.

The book is one of those grand-themed books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence but it is not nearly as insightful as those (I’ve directed conferences on both). Morris’s ambition is to explain the progress of mankind starting about 50,000 years ago and, in particular, to answer the question of why the West overcame the East in social development.

But his theories are pallid, almost nonexistent. The major theory is that people are greedy, lazy, and afraid. Social development (his label for progress) occurs because people respond to changing circumstances—especially climate change—in ways that reflect these attributes.

Yes, that's basically it. And it's a pretty horrifying book because in his view history is mostly about the slaughter inflicted by a changing array of brutal chieftains, kings, and emperors. The history of the world is like a chessboard; sometimes White dominates, sometimes Black, but all the pieces are playing the same game.

There’s not a word here about institutions. Thus, in the end, in spite of 750 pages of sometimes arresting detail, history turns out to be just one damn thing after another, as Arnold Toynbee once characterized it.

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