This is a must read book for anyone wanting an overview of history, but what makes it interesting and valuable is Ian Morris’s method for measuring the success of various civilizations. As his method develops it focus’s on those civilizations that developed out of what used to be called the fertile crescent from modern day Israel to Iraq, and that one which developed out of the river plains of China. These areas have possessed advanced cultures from the beginning and because of the various developments associated with their geographic advantages they grew into the major civilizations we live with today.
The chart above illustrates a core idea of the book, which is that the growth of a civilization can be plotted on a log linear scale. Morris defines what these lines mean and the quality of their accuracy, but an interesting observation he makes is what heights of culture the Romans had achieved before they fell back and how similar the Chinese attainment was before they too fell back, and by observing the logarithmic chart several things become instantly obvious. 1st is that there has been an upward trend over the sixteen thousand years tracked. 2nd, there have been several setbacks both East and West and 3rd, The last two hundred years has greatly outstripped everything which has gone before. This curve is primarily a measure of humans ability to extract food energy out of the environment. The plateaus were caused by the technology of farmers being exploited to the limits and then the land being exhausted and the population declining. The explosive rise in the line beginning about 1750 was created by humans exploiting the stored energy of minerals such as coal and oil. There is only so much energy that can be derived by the use of human muscles and that can be enhanced somewhat by exploiting animal muscles but with the advent of steam power derived from coal there was a terrific increase in productivity of humans. They convert this energy into food and in the not too long run convert that surplus energy into babies. They of course grow up and for the time being at least are able to exploit even more energy from the fossil fuel mineral resources. That success creates cities and armies which are generally measurable.
I want to contest some of the things which Morris asserts. To lay a little foundation; at first the West got off to an early start because of the especially desirable situation in the Wests homeland, with a good climate and easy domestication plants and animals. In the same basic area with the decline of the Roman empire and the continuing rise of the Chinese Social Development a point was reached similar to the Roman one and then the East began to decline. About 1350 CE China was still well beyond the West as Marco Polo had reported and they were more technologically developed and if Morris were asked who was more likely to rule in the year 2000 he suggest it would seem to be the East. But something happened — the East stagnated and the West took off. Why? Morris tries to make a case for it being inevitable because of geology. But his argument isn’t very convincing to me because what happened when the Western sailors got to the East makes clear why the West came to dominate. The Chinese and Japanese authorities tried with all their power no keep out the Westerners and ignore the rest of the world. They wanted to maintain the beautiful and stable societies to which they had grown accostemed. The Chinese had sent out a great navy to explore the African coast in the mid 1300s but they didn’t like what they found and came home. The later Chinese Emperors even destroyed all maps and references to the voyages.
Japan had at first welcomed Western guns and religion but after a while, melted down the guns and shut the doors to all things foreign and kept them closed for hundreds of years until the upstart American’s forced them open again in 1859. The proof that the East could rise came about rather quickly when the Japanese decided to copy the Western technology because in only forty years the technologically primitive Japanese were able to build modern weapons and soundly defeat a modern Russian army and navy. This is a simple proof that had China and Japan been willing to develop their technologies right along with whatever the Western technology presented to them, they would have remained parallel to the West right along and possibly moved ahead.
In the West the societies were encouraging individual initiative, the creation of new technologies and the search for new lands, but apparently the East was discouraging exploration because it would upset their superior culture’s status quo. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it and their society was clearly not broke so they were motivated not to introduce things which made life more risky. When it comes to disturbing new technology, Morris has a great one liner on page 595.4
“Those who mastered their qualms flourished; those who did not, did not.”