Book review: Why the West Rules for Now

Explaining 16,000 years of civilisation is a daring ambition, and this book proves fascinating - until the arrival of dodgy Sixties sci-fi theories

Graphs look convincing, that's their job: dull old facts, maybe not the safest facts, but drawn to look shiny and scientific. You're half-ashamed to argue, which is why you must. In this one, the grey line, almost flat, wriggles against the black line, almost flat, and sometimes they cross, and then all at once they both shoot up dizzyingly. It's as though the world was horizontal for the longest time, and all of a sudden it's vertical: a revelation of some sort.

The graph is the essence of Ian Morris' remarkable book, and maybe its ruin. The black line, you see, represents the West, and the grey line is the East and the graph is meant to show which one is "ahead". The bottom line is time - 16,000 years of time - and against time, Morris plots something called "social development". You might think it's odd to plot an abstract noun against time, and odder still to assume "East" and "West" kept the same meaning for sixteen millennia.

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You pick up a book by a distinguished scholar, take one look at the graph and all at once you feel nervous. One minute, you're revelling in a literate, knowledgeable page-turner, a lively, highly selective account of all history. The next, you don't know whether to listen to the brilliance or move very carefully, very slowly away from this bright-eyed loon who drew the graph of history.

Morris also says he knows what happens next. Being an archaeologist and a classicist, Morris is addicted to the very long view, and the very long view is a very general view; he keeps saying that all human beings, in large groups, are more or less the same. He sees geography as all important, the "fortunate latitudes" where food was easy and there were seas for easy transport. But he's not so interested in the incidents that change the whole meaning and use of geography - as when, for example, the great dam at Marib collapsed in the 570s AD, ruined the irrigation channels of Mesopotamia and brought down with it the Miaphysite Christian nation. Christian Arabia was ruined just as a man called Mohammed was starting his life of prophesy; it matters who gets lucky in the lucky lands.

A very general view can be exciting, of course, a bit like the world seen through the wrong spectacles or else "The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get," as Niall Ferguson says on the cover. The old-fashioned kind of unified field theory, the kind we don't yet have, sets out to see shape in all the workings of the physical world, to explain why we have gravity and why atoms stick together. It predicts, which historical theory can't. It is an equation, an elegant statement about how things relate to each other, while even Morris admits his new kind is "chainsaw art".

He says he wants to explain history, but that's not quite the point. What we have here, in disguise, is an old historical chestnut: why didn't China do what we did and become an early industrial power? And a pressing question: will China or America be the last superpower standing?

These questions beg the big one: what does it mean to say the West rules? We have more "social development," Morris calculates, which means how big the towns are, how much energy is used, how good a civilisation is at making war and also information technology (which for most of history just means literacy; Morris doesn't think much of printing as a development). He's very willing to acknowledge there could be other criteria, but less willing to see how very Western, even Californian, are his own assumptions: the West is ahead on being the West.

He says he wants to start from the beginning, not work backwards from where we are now, but his troubles run through all 16,000 years: including the basic issue of what East and West mean. He says there are possible differences between East and West that go back 1.6 million years, separating the hominids who carved their axes (in Africa, in Western Europe except for Scotland, in Southern India) from the hominids who just picked up stones.

That's one boundary, and in 2010 it doesn't seem so very important, but even inside the 16,000 years he chooses to study in detail, "West" starts by meaning the "hilly flanks" of Mesopotamia, and ends up including his home base of Stanford in California; this is an elastic boundary. "East" seems to mostly mean the Yangtze basin, but doesn't often mean India, and "West" doesn't seem to include Brazil, which is odd for someone concerned with the present and future power of the West.

Meanwhile, Disney films go everywhere, NATO armies are forever on the move, every business wants to go public, but is that dominance? Sending armies to Iraq and Afghanistan hasn't yet allowed the West to "rule" there; empires can be costly. Disney movies give way more and more to Bollywood (they don't fill a whole evening, for a start.).

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The once self-confident American economic model would seem to be spluttering, if not stalling, if not stalled, and could in theory be capsized altogether if the Chinese stopped lending money to Washington. And China, having failed to make war recently, has been making friends across Africa, just to be sure of access to the raw materials needed in the next decades; which sounds like a way to rule. Morris' notion of "social development" includes only war, not diplomacy.

He wants to do more than just explain our situation, though. He means "to explain the differences that divide humanity and how we can prevent them from destroying us". If he's right that only historians can manage this, by "drawing together the grand narrative of social development", then he shames all those who reckon the humanities are luxuries in these straitened times. But you might not be wise to bet the funding for the history department on his ideas.

He is afraid of Nightfall, the wreck of the planet, which doesn't easily fit the historical run of civilisations' seesaw rise and fall. We are, he says, approaching one of those "hard ceilings" on his graph, where development can't move on without some revolution in how we live or what we are or how we make things. The last one was the coming of industry, powered by fossil fuels, in the West.

So we need one more revolution, or else we risk unleashing all five horsemen of the Apocalypse once again (number five, it will not surprise you to hear, is "climate change"). And what do we need? We need the Singularity. And when do we need it? Now.

So many dense, thoughtful pages and we end up with a notion straight out of the Sixties sci-fi for which Morris has an exaggerated respect. Humankind, you see, is going to have to "transcend biology". We're all going to be equal, East and West won't count for anything any more now the West is no longer top dog, and we're all going to be cyborgs, machine intelligence married to our own. Not since L Ron Hubbard has sci-fi taken on itself the task of saving the whole world

What's gone wrong here? This cyborg fantasy shows how inevitably limited is the history in which any one man looks for patterns: it can't be more than the history he knows, and the patterns reflect how he knows it. And all he knows about the future is sci-fi - that, and the fact that we're in trouble, which we knew already, that our models don't work, that we have to do something about our butchered and tattered environment, that China is now disconcertingly relevant to all our futures.

Even his evidence reflects his particular values as an archaeologist. Morris is used to dealing in an impersonal kind of history, built on statistics, bits of pot, the distribution of sharp flints, patterns which then get written up as stories and historical fact. This is a very sophisticated business, but it can quite easily be upset, its narrative spoiled by finding the wrong kind of chopper in the wrong place or a new species of homo. And it's not at all the same as the modern history - and the present situation - that Morris wants to discuss, which deals in people, accidents, and tidal waves of details; which means his unified theory, unlike modern physics, starts from at least two kinds of fact.

The foundations shiver, the top argument sometimes sounds like the madman at the bus stop, and yet: Ian Morris is a considerable scholar and his gloriously readable account of history is a journey worth taking. You should know, though, that it may well not get you anywhere at all.