My first review of Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris touched on some good things about the book, but in this one I want to complain about some of the unnecessary annoyances. But before that I should proclaim clearly my admiration for a job well done on creating a really new and valuable way of looking at history and of measuring the difficulties encountered by humanity in its quest for an easier, more abundant and safer world.
One of my complaints is the graphics in this book, which are very marginal in quality, especially annoying in a book of this importance. The basic ideas in this book might become classic, but they are unnecessarily diluted by these poor graphics. Most of them barely maintained the flow of the general argument and even really important ideas are often so poorly illustrated they were virtually impossible to follow. For example, try to figure out which city is supposed to go with what line in the graph below. It is not impossible but it is unnecessarily taxing on the reader.
The information presented in the chart is important to the argument presented in the book, and fortunately, in this case, Florence has a dashed line showing the huge variation in wages of an unskilled worker. In 1450 during the construction of Il Duomo they were well paid, but by 1800 this graph represents them receiving a starvation wage. This is clear enough for Florence, but how do you tell the difference between London and Beijing? Or, between Amsterdam and Constantinople? The data are supposedly there and it shows better in this contrast-enhanced photo than in my original book print. Usually in a monochromatic graphic like this one each grey line has a unique identifier and not just a box. Various symbols, like a black circle, or an X would have helped, but a capital letter for each city would have been better and so very easy to have inserted. That small improvement would have made these confusing lines instantly readable and understandable. Also, since the graph is based on bare subsistence as unit-one, that should have been drawn in.
The graph begins at the height of the Bubonic Plague, where because of the massive die off of workers the surviving workers’ wages were much higher. Then as population increases, the pressure upon resources becomes greater, and wages are generally dropping back toward pre-plague levels. The general wages are even dropping in London and Amsterdam in 1800 just as the industrial revolution is getting started. The book explores the reasons for these fluctuations. Cold weather may have been part of the cause of the dip from 1550 to 1650.
Because the graphics are so poor it makes me wonder if the other reasoning is equally poor. The author has worked in this field for decades and has an abundance of data readily available, far beyond the general historical information I will ever have, but it seems he stirs the facts and assumptions too easily and slips off the main proofs of his basic thesis; which is, that it is possible to compare civilizations across time and space using his measuring device — the Social Development Scale, based on: 1. Energy capture per person, 2. Size of the largest city, 3. War-making potential, 4. Information technology.
History is really big, detailed, messy, poorly documented, etc., so Morris’ method of measurement will become very helpful in going to the core of social development. Perhaps others will follow in his footsteps and clarify the outlines which he presented.