Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ian Morris' "Why the West Rules--for Now": Book Review

Engagingly written and necessarily "all over the map," Ian Morris provides an accessible survey of what in lesser hands could have been too much information. I love history, facts, cultures crammed into such one-volume tomes, but less captivated readers may find themselves in a plethora of Qin, Hurrian, Hilly Flanks, Bactrians--and that's one-third of the way in. Yet, maps and charts (one titled "the dullest diagram in history" to document Morris' key plotting of Eastern vs. Western social development on a point scale) do aid the less geographically and archeologically adept follower. His prose carries the heavy lifting of so much data into a comparatively compact space. Even at 650-odd pages of text, the book balances necessary depth with narrative awareness of how much a reader can comprehend.

For instance, to take three examples from a pivotal portion on the Axial Age: Morris sums up its progress while returning to the post-Ice Age motivator behind this era. "Lazy, greedy, and frightened people found easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things, in the process building stronger states, trading farther afield, and settling in greater cities." (263) He stresses how top-down "high-end" state systems centralize power, and use bureaucracies to run taxation gathering to generate income for a military force who enforces its collection. Lots goes out in revenue, but more comes in, so "the rulers and their employees live off the difference." More pithily, in China: "Lords built icehouses in their palaces; peasants slid into debt." (251) Lessons to be learned--as well as don't wipe out buffer fiercer invaders will likely take down the imperial center of power. Expansion of markets and territory, of course, impels this whole upward spiral that his charts follow over thousands of years.

I was mildly surprised that Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" theories did not gain wider analysis. While Morris challenges both "long-term lock-in" theories (similar to Diamond) and "short-term accident" explanations for Western dominance on pp. 17-18, I was left unsure how Morris improved or challenged Diamond, other than calling the ancient core the "Hilly Flanks" and not the "Fertile Crescent." East and West themselves shift, but a strength of this work is that Morris accounts for why Qin China and the Roman Empire succeeded-- and then due to geography and noble bickering became unable to control the frontiers of its vast territory. Migrations, climate change, plagues, and famine take center stage.

He also attends minutely to weather patterns and how this factor accounts for many periods of stagnation or expansion. "Energy capture" is a novel way to explain why cultures take off and soar as they harness their resources and labor potential. Morris may be criticized for not adhering to historiographical models of leaders or ideas, but as an archeologist, it's expected that he examines the material record and he reminds us early on of this tricky interpretation. Flowers left on a Shanidar grave in today's Iraq may have been brought into the burrow by rats; a puppy buried within the embrace of an elderly woman 11,000 BCE at 'Ain Mallaha may not have been placed there "as if asleep" so conveniently!

Where this balance of facts and research shifts is in spot-checking for sources. For instance, take those Bactrians. I found one source for them cited in the end notes, but that was all, and this section was embedded into a much larger chunk of the chapter at hand, with seemingly few references for a considerable narrative stretch. There appeared a tremendous amount of secondary scholarship examined by Morris. To his credit, yet not all of that was "common knowledge." It's not always easy to track back to the works cited to hunt down facts or data in the narrative. A casual style of giving a key phrase from a page and a citation at text's end is fine, but often Morris makes leaps over what he has compacted down into such a small block of a chapter, so it's hard to "unpack" this scholarship if you wish to track down the primary research.

Yet, any single volume designed to reach out to wider audiences than a monograph or university press tome will get hit with flak. I'd urge an open-minded reader to come to Morris' endeavor with a lively mind and lots of patience. One's curiosity will be rewarded, and one's mind stimulated. Those who enjoy playing games of conquest or watching multi-season series of imaginary realms hacking and scheming should find this real-life predecessor as worthwhile, for it, after all, is our story.

Overall, I liked this book as I teach a class in "Technology, Culture and Society" that looks at Diamond and Ray Kurzweil's "singularity." Morris plays Kurzweil's optimism off of Isaac Asimov's story "Nightfall" well. As with those thinkers, critics will have plenty to carp about in anyone trying to present thousands of complex ideas and findings within a few hundred pages for a wider readership. As with such books, this one-size-fits-nearly-all ambition is both admirable and perhaps doomed to its own minor shortcomings. Still, I recommend Morris' book for its verve and energy, and it will enrich the hours you invest in its unfolding of our own story, told yet again in epic fashion. One wonders if we will last, as a civilization, long enough to see the projected Eastern regaining of the lead over the West in 2103. (To Amazon 4-17-12.)

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