Yet another review of Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris, which may be getting a bit tedious, but I have been reading and rereading this book for a couple of weeks now, trying to understand what is right and wrong about it. Morris is a major historian and has been a professor at some of America’s most prestigious universities, whose names I will leave out of this post to avoid embarrassing them.
I am grieved when he makes technical errors which an above average high school student would be challenged upon making them in an essay. An easy one to criticize is on page 510.9 — “By then the Wright brothers, two bicycle mechanics from North Carolina, had bolted wings onto a gasoline engine and made it fly.” — This type of minor technical error followed by a cavalier disparaging remark seems to be more appropriate to a late night comedian like Jon Stewart, but at least in that venue it would have had a comic twist; but in a serious, if popularly written in style, theoretical book about the foundations of history, that sentence can only be condemned as unworthy of his august position.
The Wright brothers as one would hope everyone knows, or could discover from even the most perfunctory web search, were bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio.
Note the similarity of parts of their bicycle to their airplane, and to say they simply bolted wings onto a gasoline engine is ridiculous in the extreme. The Wright brothers had gone to infinite pains to conquer the innumerable problems which many famous researchers struggled with for years but failed to solve. Also, they and their bicycle shop mechanic Charlie Taylor had built one of the best gasoline engines in the world, to their specifications, which was in itself a major feat. They had developed methods of controlling the airplane once it was off the ground, which had eluded everyone else, many of whom died in the attempt, and that included methods for controlling the wings and other surfaces using logical hand and foot movements. Even the propellers were near perfect as has been showy by modern tests. None of these many things working in harmony together were obvious before they were successfully done; they had to be invented out of a pure vacuum in a blizzard of unknown necessities, the infamous unknown unknowns.
Morris’s errors of fact and of tact may be blamed on the proofreaders and editors but errors of logic must come full force down upon the author. One of his favorite and oft repeated ideas, with various spins, is that every civilization’s people solve the problems which confront that large group of people. He usually states this idea as if it were a law of nature. But it appears to be more of a fallacy of finding the result you are searching for by sifting through the facts after they happen, and then claiming it was inevitable.
It would seem that Europeans needed many things which had been in the East for hundreds of years, such as paper, printing, wheelbarrows, horse collars and many other things. Obviously these were useful things, but no Europeans had them because they hadn’t thought of them. The ideas could have been explained in a minute to anyone in a similar trade and then made in Europe, but that didn’t happen. Many if not all of the seven million patents in the US Patent office would have had uses before they were invented. But the point is they were not invented because no one thought of them. Morris seems to miss that simple fact by saying they were invented when a need for them arose. But he makes that observation after the thing in question is already in existence. That no one needed bicycles before 1890 or could have made them is nonsense. A basic bicycle is more complicated than the early items mentioned above but if even the ancient Egyptians had a single one they probably could have manufactured even that complex and highly energy efficient machine. But they never thought to do so.
Fifty years ago in my favorite Berkeley coffee shop I frequently challenged my friends to write something down on a single sheet of paper that would change the world.
Things did come out of the Mediterraneum which made history.