Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris is a book worth reading because it gives the world a new way to measure historical progress. That was discussed briefly last week, but there are serious errors of reasoning which permeate the book, and the one I want to comment upon today is Morris’s recurrent statement that civilizations, or at least very large groups of people have so much brain power available to them that the group always gets the thoughts it needs for the progress they group needs. He is able to assert that nonsense and prove he is right, in his own estimation, by finding examples of successful adaptations to similar general problems by different groups and then declaring, after the fact, that it is a proof of his assertion.
Morris seems to think it is some sort of law of nature that Necessity is such a Mother of Invention that it is infallible, that groups of people problem solving is like gravity. He gives a few examples and there are many similar cases without doubt where two scientists or inventors or writers came to very similar results even though they were working on similar problems but that is no guarantee that they would have come to similar results, it just happened that they did. There may have been thousands of people working on a problem for years without any good result, even though the answer was desperately needed and obvious after the right idea was exposed. Here are a few of the many I have found which haven’t been acknowledged just yet ( 1 – 2 – 3 ) and I am no great thinker, I just look at things a little differently. I look at the obvious.
There is a tendency for a convergence of evolutionary trends, in thoughts as well as in biology, if there are similar feedback organisms needing to adapt to a given situation; but also there are a great many reasons why things can’t proceed in a straight line to a a similar conclusion. When large groups of people are exposed to similar problems for a long time and there is the opportunity to find a similar answer that works well, it will eventually be found – but only if a similar workable answer isn’t discovered sooner which prevents the other one from being discovered. It is similar to the Betamax problem. There may be an infinite number of these kinds of situations.
Morris claims that with a large civilization such as The West or The East that the needs of those societies are ultimately so similar, that those large and diversified groups of people will eventually come to essentially the same answers to their essentially identical problems.
Apparently, to disprove his own theory Morris then gives many examples of really simple things, like wheelbarrows, which were known in the East for a thousand years without being discovered in the West. Another really important one was the manufacture of steel which had reached industrial scale hundreds of years before the West discovered it. Then the well known ones of, the horse stirrup, printing and paper all of which were desperately needed but not discovered independently.
When people are thinking along similar lines they will often come up with similar answers but it requires thinking in a similar way about a problem and sometimes a society dies before that happens.
Billions of people have died without finding out many things which we now consider obvious.