Morris’s Why the West Rules For Now - Part II


Jason Collins


April 28, 2011

Following yesterday’s post on Ian Morris’s approach to biology in Why the West Rules - for Now, below are my thoughts on the some other elements of the book.

In general, I found the book to be an interesting and easy to read description of the history of the West and East, and I will probably use it as a reference for that in the future. I recommend the book for this. At times it felt like Morris was describing “one damned thing after another”, and I found that I was waiting for the theoretical tie-ins. When they did come, they seemed weak, as Morris frames his theoretical explanations with what might be described as slogans, somewhat in the style of Thomas Friedman.

So, to Morris’s main points. First, Morris provides his central line that:

[H]istory is made by lazy, greedy, frightened people (who rarely know what they’re doing) looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things.

Morris takes this to be a universal human characteristic (no argument from me there), although as I suggested yesterday, Morris does not address whether there are differences in the inherent characteristics of the people who seek to meet these goals.

On geography, Morris is of the “maps, not chaps” school of thought. In addition to supporting Jared Diamond’s geographic account for the origins of agriculture and why development is higher some parts of the world, Morris uses geography to explain why the West discovered the Americas first and obtained the associated bounty.

As Morris describes, the size of the Atlantic and Pacific, island positions and prevailing winds made it far more likely that someone from the West would bump into the Americas before someone from the East. I don’t find that controversial. However, this leaves unexplained why small ships and crews were pouring out of Europe, with various degrees of incompetence, while China had become quiet on this front. For example, Morris describes Columbus’s systematic search for someone to sponsor his voyage to China. Morris suggests that it was inevitable that someone would support Columbus, and there were plenty of other explorers willing to take similar risks.

Given the level of exploration by explorers from the West and the absence of explorers from China, if the advantages of geography were reversed, China probably would still not have discovered the Americas, unless Zheng He had discovered it during China’s ocean going days in the early 1400s. Someone from the West, possibly through accident or incompetence, eventually would have. Morris explicitly counters the argument that culture led to this lack of exploration by the Chinese, suggesting that people develop solutions to the problems they face, which in turn creates new problems and so on. Morris argues that China was not engaging in this process of exploration and technological innovation as it did not match the problems faced by it at the time.

I found this approach by Morris to be a state or whole of culture centred view. The question in my mind is what were the problems faced by the majority of individuals. Whether from the East or West, people in the 1400s (or most eras) would be trying to increase family income and well-being, innovate new ways to increase business profitability and so-on. Morris spent little time considering what problems individuals faced, and most of his time on the state, which I am not sure reveals the true motivations of most of the economic actors.

Following from this concept that people respond to the problems they face, Morris writes of the advantages of backwardness and how social development creates the very factors that undermine it. I would rephrase it slightly to state that the traits, skills and ideas that are most useful at a point will depend on the environment, but the concept provides a useful encapsulation why development is not linear and why there is no steady lead of the West over the East (although as I discussed yesterday, that does not mean that there are no long-term underlying factors to be considered). Morris describes a Red Queen type scenario, where each side needs to run to stay still and over time each will have different advantages.

This approach allows Morris to weave in a Malthusian thread to the story. He notes that people can be better off when disaster occurs in per capita sense, such as after the plague, but that this may be negative for social development . At many times in the book I wished his index of development (which consisted of energy usage - which dominated the results until after 1800, war-making, communications and the largest city size) was accompanied by an individual level measure of well-being. Apart from individual well-being being what economists tend to be interested in, it might also have given some shape to the specific problems faced by individuals at any point and their respective motivations.

Finally, Morris closes his book with some predictions about the future. With a framework that suggests there are advantages to backwardness, you can argue that China will pull ahead. But drawing on Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the singularity and the looming horsemen of the apocalypse, such as climate change, it might all go bad. At this point, the book degenerates a bit into some home-spun wisdom, but I do give credit to Morris for making his predictions with an underlying theme that it is inherently unpredictable.