A formidable, richly engrossing effort to determine why Western institutions dominate the world.
Morris (Classics and History/Stanford Univ.; co-editor: The Dynamics of Ancient Empires, 2009, etc.) combines traditional history with hard data and a graph measuring “social development” of both East and West, which he defines as the ability to get things done. Rewinding to prehistory, his graph begins its slow climb with the West leading. Agriculture began around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, and 2,000 years later in China with animal domestication and city growth following in the same order. Illustrating that Western dominance is not inevitable, Rome’s decline gave the East its first lead after 600 CE, a position it held until 1800. The book is half complete before Morris asks two essential questions: Why, after 1400, did Western nations explore, exploit and colonize the world while the East didn’t? And why did the scientific and industrial revolution not happen in the East, which possessed identical prerequisites, including scholars and tinkerers, advanced metallurgy, a thriving textile industry and vast coal supplies? Among the author’s answers: The Pacific Ocean is harder to cross than the Atlantic. Western merchants enjoyed higher status and government encouragement. Labor was too cheap in China to provide an impetus to develop labor-saving devices. East and West had long considered their ancient predecessors the pinnacle of human achievement, but while 18th-century enlightenment thinkers decided they could do better, the East remained nostalgic. Although these answers are only modestly credible, Morris does not treat them as laws, and readers will enjoy his lively prose and impressive combination of scholarship (à la Oswald Spengler or Arthur Toynbee) with economics and science (à la Jared Diamond).
A superior contribution to the grand-theory-of-human-history genre.