Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why The West Rules--For Now

Ian Morris, the author goes beyond the titillating title and makes numerous interesting points about our human cultural history. Readers are attracted to the idea in the title because of their own cultural bias and prejudices. We may be part of the dominant culture, or maybe we are about to become the dominant culture or maybe we should be concerned about who dominates or the dynamics.

One of his favorite methods is to use fictional analogies and he starts off with a story that caught me off guard. I thought I had missed some bits of history, but before too long I realized this was not only fiction, but really science fiction. The best science fiction is basically twisting a fact and see how it affects how people relate to one another. In this case the author speculates on how society would have evolved if just a few details were changed. He suggested that instead of the Chinese kow towing to the superior British, it could easily have been reversed if culture had evolved a little differently.

History doesn't begin with the written word, but goes back much further. For instance Neanderthals play a role in the Eastern Western dichotomy, but not in Africa.

The author devises a system for comparing cultures. He identifies four criteria: energy capture, urbanism, information processing and capacity to make war. The data is a little difficult to pin down, but he uses reasonable comparative information. I agree his system is very arbitrary, but useful to explain progress in any culture system.

For most of history both sides (East and West with some acknowledgement of Africa and America) evolve very similarly and very slowly by recent memory. Each side has some advantages, but at various points circumstances combined to give one side a chance to move ahead.  Edible plants, soil, tamable animals, river systems and other factors play key roles in developing a culture. Europe being closer to North America than Asia, by itself encouraged outward exploration. With the start of the Industrial Revolution western civilization surged ahead.

Ian feels that the three main motors of history are fear, sloth and greed. One contention is that developments are not just due to some individual genius that one side or the other has more of, but happen when the time is right.  For instance when the telephone was invented there were others on the verge and there was a contest to determine the winner.  Yes, individuals found themselves in position of making monumental decisions, however the author might say they were set up to be in those positions, but admits they could have decided differently, or have been replaced.

He has built upon other authors. Jared Diamond is one that I admired for his analysis that cultural development has a strong geographical component. Martin Jacques is another who is considered an expert on Chinese development.

For the future Mr Morris sees two likelihoods. One possibility is what he terms "singularity" which is sort of a blending of cultures with world political unity. East and West have been borrowing from each other for a millennium with important contributions from America and Africa for centuries. The other possibility he calls "nightfall" which is disaster which is what has fallen to individual civilizations from the beginning, but now could involve all mankind. The world is globalized and our concerns cross all borders demanding co-ordination. He quotes Albert Einstein, "If the idea of world government is not realistic, then there is only one realistic view of our future: wholesale destruction of man by man." Necessity has been the mother invention in the past and hopefully will be for the future.

I almost forgot, Ian Morris sees that the East should overcome the West in this century, but that is not as important as the race between singularity and nightfall.

No comments:

Post a Comment