Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future

by Ian Morris

Hardcover, 2010



Call number




Profile Books (2010), Hardcover, 608 pages


Archaeologist and historian Ian Morris explains that Western dominance is largely the result of the effects of geography on the everyday efforts of ordinary people as they deal with crises of resources, disease, migration, and climate. As geography and human ingenuity continue to interact, however, the world over the next hundred years will subsequently change in astonishing ways, transforming Western rule in the process.

Media reviews

A British-born archaeologist, classicist and historian now at Stanford University, Morris is the historians’ equivalent of those physicists who search for a still elusive unified field theory. In his new book, he sets out to discover broad patterns, “the overall ‘shape’ of history,” by
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sifting through the world’s long development process. Following the oscillating forces from prehistory to the present, he shows how both the East and West managed to catalyze themselves at different times and in different ways to progressively new heights of development. But his ultimate challenge is to make sense of all these cycles of rise and fall, the better to judge whether either side was in possession of any innate superiority. His answer to that question is an emphatic no. East and West, he tells us, are just “geographical labels, not value judgments.”
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1 more
Morris’s attempt to tackle the history of the world, while refreshing, might be dismissed as the exercise of a 19th-century generalist fraught with 21st-century specialist perils.

User reviews

LibraryThing member VisibleGhost
If human history is looked at from a far distance for the past 50,000 years, do any patterns emerge? Morris thinks so and this book is his hypothesis on what patterns emerge. Any history book that covers this length of time is not a detailed dive into history. Some empires are covered in a
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paragraph or two. It's a dizzying, fast trip through human history. The East and the West have gone back and forth on the progress front for thousands of years now. The industrial revolution catapulted the west into the recent lead with England leading the way. He uses social development indexes to score the East and West through the years. There is lots of two steps forward and one step back.

So what drives progress? Here's the Morris theorem: " Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they're doing."
I especially like the lazy people part. I've long thought that without lazy people we would all still be riding donkeys around. Lazy people will spend inordinate amounts of time figuring out how to avoid onerous tasks. The result of this is astounding. A hunter-gatherer used around 4,000 kilocalories per day. Someone living in the West today uses roughly 230,000 kilocalories per day. Energy capture is what makes modern lifestyles possible and creates most of the environmental challenges that face humanity.

The only constant is change and civilizations never step into the same river twice, anymore than humans do. Morris' social development indexes show (speculation) that the East overtakes the West around 2100. However, there's a good possibility it will not play out that way. The reasons are Nightfall and the Singularity. Ray Kurzweil's prediction for the arrival of the Singularity is 2045. That is also the year that Sagan and Shklovskii predict Nightfall. An advanced civilization will destroy itself within one hundred years of developing nuclear weapons. In his view the competition between West and East gives way to a competition between Singularity (or a Singularity type world) and Nightfall (either nuclear events or climate collapse). Futurists have mentioned the Singularity for years and it is interesting to see the historians beginning to mention it. If a Singularity-like event happens it probably is the end of humanity as we know it. If a Nightfall event(s) happens that too could be the end of humanity as we know it, maybe even the complete end of humans. Morris claims that the next forty years are the most important in human history. They very well could be that.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Ian Morris has written a highly pleasurable comparative history of China and the West that highlights the similarities and parallelism of the human development at both edges of the Eurasian continent. The social development index he constructs allows both a longitudinal comparison (when does the
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West return to a Roman level of development?) as well as lateral between the West and China. The big flaw is that while China more or less remains one cultural player, the West is an amalgam from Assyria to the United States of America. A more honest accounting would have split the West, showing that for much of the time, England was a backwater. A multi-actor model would also have allowed for the inclusion of India, the big civilization left out of the picture (except for its transfer of Buddhism to China). Still, the book is an enjoyable read of big picture history that is marred by the author's predilection for cheesy movies and crank authors (von Däniken, Gavin Menzies, ...). His weak account of the 20th century which relies upon such important "thinkers" as Tom Friedman severely damages the overall impact of the book. It is truly puzzling how such a great read could end up with a train wreck ending.

Another element I found severely missing is accounting for inequality. Morris basically measures and compares the pinnacle of a civilization. That size and wealth of Rome was built upon the backs of millions of slaves and plundering of peoples is something that escapes his conservative 1 % point-of-view. All is well as long as the Virginia and Orange county suburbs enjoy a pleasant lifestyle. A parallel read of David Graeber's Debt and especially Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level is highly recommended as an antidote. One can only hope that his next book will not follow Niall Ferguson down the conservative rabbit hole.
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LibraryThing member Mary_Overton
"[T]he West has maintained a global dominance without parallel in history.
"My goal is to explain this.
"... Nearly everyone agrees that the West rules because the industrial revolution happened there, not in the East. In the eighteenth century British entrepreneurs unleashed the energies of steam
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and coal....
"This did not mean that everything had to turn out exactly as it did, of course....
"One of the reasons people care about why the West rules is that they want to know whether, how long, and in what ways this will continue - that is, what will happen next." loc 301

"Will the West, Scrooge-like, reinvent itself in the twenty-first century and stay on top? ...
"I have argued throughout this book that the great weakness of most attempts to explain why the West rules and to predict what will happen next is that the soothsayers generally take such a short perspective, looking back just a few hundred years (if that) before telling us what history means....
"[W]e need to identify not only where current trends are taking us but also whether these trends are generating forces that will undermine them. We need to factor in the paradox of development, identify advantages of backwardness, and foresee not only how geography will shape social development but also how social development will change the meanings of geography." loc 9593

"I have made two general claims in this book. The first was that biology, sociology, and geography jointly explain the history of social development, with biology driving development up, sociology shaping how development rises (or doesn't), and geography deciding where development rises (or falls) fastest; and the second was that while geography determines where social development rises or falls, social development also determines what geography means. I now want to extend these arguments. In the twenty-first century social development promises - or threatens - to rise so high that it will change what biology and sociology mean too. We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history.
"The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil calls this the Singularity." loc 9743

"In the first century CE and again a thousand years later, social development ran into a hard ceiling and the forces of disruption that development itself had created set off Old World-wide collapses. Are we now discovering a new hard ceiling, somewhere around one thousand points on the index? Are the hoofbeats of the horsemen of the apocalypse overtaking our baby steps toward the Singularity even as you read these words?
"The five familiar figures - climate change, famine, state failure, migration, and disease - all seem to be back. The first of these, global warming, is perhaps the ultimate example of the paradox of development, because the same fossil fuels that drove the leap in social development since 1800 have also filled the air with carbon, trapping heat." loc 9854

"[T]he twenty-first century is going to be a race. In one lane is some sort of Singularity; in the other, Nightfall. One will win and one will lose. There will be no silver medal. Either we will soon (perhaps before 2050) begin a transformation even more profound than the industrial revolution, which may make most of our current problem irrelevant, or we will stagger into a collapse like no other." loc 10013
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LibraryThing member jaygheiser
I started with an enthusiastic 5 stars for this text, but having finally struggled to an inclusive finish 500+ pages later, I am downgrading it to average. The bulk of the book consists of countless comparative anecdotes drawing parallels and distinctions between 8,000 years of human activitiy in
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East and West, an unmemorable form of historical analysis that may appeal to others, but failed to stimulate me. Ultimately, I found the book disappointing. Having spent weeks wading through it, I gained no significant insights into the current state of the world, or its future. It reinforced the idea that the Middle East was well-stocked with domesticable plants and animals, and that Europe was in a geographically propitious location, but this is hardly news. The one topic that was most interesting for me was the extended discussion, and continued references to, the relative levels of energy use, drawing a clear parallel between several different forms of social advancement, or levels of civilization, and per capita energy exploitation.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
A panoramic and encyclopaedic review of history directed at explaining why the "West" is currently top dog, but how the "East" is inevitably going to overtake it in the coming century. The title is a bit of a teaser, because the book takes the very broad view of history, and the current era is
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given a fairly small amount of attention. The broad scope of the book is helpful in getting a better perspective to current issues. The author proposes a boom or bust scenario for humankind in this coming century - west and east will no longer be relevant; the bigger question is: will the world survive? Good stuff. (Read December 2010)
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LibraryThing member LynnCar
This is the best overview of world history that I have read. It ties different aspects of development together and makes sense of most aspects of the world. I particularly liked the economic connection and the future discussions of current trends.
LibraryThing member annbury
This is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time, even if the author's arguments don't always convince me entirely. But he does attempt an heroic task -- explaining the broadest rhythms of human history -- and he does offer brilliant exposition. Also, the book is a pleasure to
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read: Morris is an entertaining and sometimes amusing writer whose prose is refreshingly free of academese. What's best about the book, I think, is its presentation of history outside the narrow confines in which we in the West tend to think -- "modern" European history, i.e. European and North American history since the Renaissance. Morris shows that other cultures have shown parallel patterns, in the process teaching me a great deal that I did not know about ancient history apart from the Greeks and Romans, and about Chinese history. The tool that he uses to compare different cultures is an index of social development: he recognizes that there are a whole lot of questions about this, but in general offers it as a very rough and imprecise measure: as a metaphor, I can live with it. The final section of the book, on where we go from here, was interesting (and scary) though I found it a bit less gripping that Morris's views on where we have been. All in all, and enjoyable and mind-opening book.
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LibraryThing member vguy
A blockbuster telling of the whole of human history; despite its ambitious scope manages to be pretty readable with occasional jokes and human interest items ( how murdered whom, who slept with whom). I particularly liked his (repeated) dismissal of the Great Man and of the Great Blunderer in
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favour of a kind of deep causality. There's an multi-factorial analytic approach which holds it together, at least while you are reading, but doesn't quite stick in the mind afterwards. In similar vein to Diamond's "Guns,germs & Steel" which also tells us that the pattern of history is not just accident or happenstance. interesting point that East and West were already radically different in culture/way of life in earliest traces of human habitation.
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LibraryThing member zhoud2005
Way too much information. Okay, I got it, geography is significant in determining history, but do we have make the book that long?
LibraryThing member johnclaydon
A good attempt to quantify global social evolution.


Original publication date


Physical description

608 p.; 9.37 inches


1846681472 / 9781846681479
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