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Why the West Rules - for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future (Anglais) Broché – 4 août 2011

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“When a man is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can aff ord.” It was 1777, and every current of thought, every bright new invention, was energizing Dr. Johnson’s hometown. London had cathedrals and palaces, parks and rivers, mansions and slums. Above all, it had things to buy—things beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations. Fine ladies and gentlemen could alight from carriages outside the new arcades of Oxford Street, there to seek out novelties like the umbrella, an invention of the 1760s that the British soon judged indispensable; or the handbag, or toothpaste, both of them products of the same decade. And it was not just the rich who indulged in this new culture of consumption. To the horror of conservatives, tradesmen were spending hours in coffee shops, the poor were calling tea a “necessary,” and farmers’ wives were buying pianos.
The British were beginning to feel they were not like other people. In 1776 the Scottish sage Adam Smith had called them “a nation of shopkeepers” in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he had meant it as a compliment; Britons’ regard for their own well-being, Smith insisted, was making everyone richer. Just think, he said, of the contrast between Britain and China. China had been “long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous, countries of the world,” but had already “acquired that full complement of riches which the measure of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.” The Chinese, in short, were stuck. “The competition of the labourers and the interest of the masters,” Smith predicted, “would soon reduce them to the lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity,” with the consequence that “the poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe . . . Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries.”
Johnson and Smith had a point. Although the industrial revolution had barely begun in the 1770s, average incomes were already higher and more evenly distributed in England than in China. Long-term lock-in theories of Western rule often start from this fact: the West’s lead, they argue, was a cause rather than a consequence of the industrial revolution, and we need to look back further in time—perhaps much further—to explain it.
Or do we? The historian Kenneth Pomeranz, whose book The Great Divergence I mentioned in the introduction, insists that Adam Smith and all the cheerleaders for the West who followed him were actually comparing the wrong things. China is as big and as varied, Pomeranz points out, as the whole continent of Europe. We should not be too surprised, then, that if we single out England, which was Europe’s most developed region in Smith’s day, and compare it with the average level of development in the whole of China, England scores higher. By the same token, if we turned things around and compared the Yangzi Delta (the most developed part of China in the 1770s) with the average level of development across the whole of Europe, the Yangzi Delta would score higher. Pomeranz argues that eighteenth-century England and the Yangzi Delta had more in common with each other (incipient industrialism, booming markets, complex divisions of labor) than England did with underdeveloped parts of Europe or the Yangzi Delta did with underdeveloped parts of China—all of which leads him to conclude that long-term theorists get things back-to-front because their thinking has been sloppy. If England and the Yangzi Delta were so similar in the eighteenth century, Pomeranz observes, the explanation for Western rule must lie after this date, not before it.
One implication is clear: if we want to know why the West rules, we first need to know what “the West” is. As soon as we ask that question, though, things get messy. Most of us have a gut feeling about what constitutes “the West.” Some people equate it with democracy and freedom; others with Christianity; others still with secular rationalism. In fact, the historian Norman Davies has found no fewer than twelve ways that academics define the West, united only by what he calls their “elastic geography.” Each definition gives the West a diff erent shape, creating exactly the kind of confusion that Pomeranz complains about. The West, says Davies, “can be defined by its advocates in almost any way that they think fit,” meaning that when we get right down to it, “Western civilization is essentially an amalgam of intellectual constructs which were designed to further the interests of their authors.”
If Davies is right, asking why the West rules means nothing more than arbitrarily picking some value to define the West, claiming that a particular set of countries exemplifies this value, then comparing that set with an equally arbitrary set of “ non-Western” countries to reach whatever self-serving conclusions we like. Anyone who disagrees with our conclusions can simply choose a diff erent value to exemplify Westernness, a diff erent set of countries exemplifying it, and a diff erent comparison set, coming—naturally—to a diff erent but equally self-serving conclusion.
This would be pointless, so I want to take a diff erent approach. Instead of starting at the end of the process, making assumptions about what count as Western values and then looking back through time to find their roots, I will start at the beginning. I will move forward through time from the beginning until we reach a point at which we can see distinctive ways of life emerging in diff erent parts of the world. I will then call the westernmost of these distinctive regions “the West” and the easternmost “the East,” treating West and East for what they are—geographical labels, not value judgments.
Saying we must start at the beginning is one thing; finding it is another altogether. As we will see, there are several points in the distant past at which scholars have been tempted to define East and West in terms of biology, rejecting the argument I made in the introduction that folks (in large groups) are all much the same and instead seeing the people in one part of the world as genetically superior to everyone else. There are also points when it would be all too easy to conclude that one region has, since time immemorial, been culturally superior to all others. We must look into these ideas carefully, because if we make a misstep here at the start we will also get everything about the shape of the past, and therefore about the shape of the future, too, wrong.
Every culture has had its own story about how things started, but in the last few years astrophysicists have given us some new, scientific versions. Most experts now think time and space began over 13 billion years ago, although they do not agree on just how that happened. The dominant “inflationary” theory holds that the universe initially expanded faster than the speed of light from an infinitely dense and infinitely small point, while a rival “cyclical” theory argues that it blew up when a previous universe collapsed. Both schools agree that our universe is still expanding, but while inflationists say it will continue to grow, the stars will go out, and eventually infinite darkness and coldness will descend, cyclists claim it will shrink back on itself, explode again, and start another new universe.
It is hard to make much sense of these theories unless you have had years of advanced mathematical training, but fortunately our question does not require us to begin quite so early. There could be neither East nor West when there were no directions at all and when the laws of nature did not exist. Nor could East and West be useful concepts before our sun and planet took shape 4.5 billion years ago. Perhaps we can speak of East and West once the earth’s crust formed, or at least once the continents reached something like their current positions, by which point we are already into the last few million years. Really, though, all these discussions are beside the point: East and West cannot mean anything for the question in this book until we add another ingredient to the mix—humans.
Paleoanthropologists, who study early humans, like controversy even more than historians do. Their field is young and fast moving, and new discoveries constantly turn established truths on their heads. If you get two paleoanthropologists into a room they are likely to come out with three theories of human evolution, and by the time the door shuts behind them, all will be out of date.
The boundary between humans and prehumans is necessarily fuzzy. Some paleoanthropologists think that as soon as we see apes that could walk upright we should start speaking of humans. Judging from the fossilized remains of hip and toe bones, some East African apes began doing this 6 or 7 million years ago. Most experts, though, think this sets the bar too low, and standard biological classifications in fact define the genus Homo (“mankind” in Latin) by bundling together an increase in brain size from 400–500 cubic centimeters to roughly 630 (our own brains are typically about twice as big) with the first evidence for upright apes smashing stones together to create crude tools. Both processes began among bipedal East African apes around 2.5 million years ago. Louis and Mary Leakey, the famous e... --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

Présentation de l'éditeur

Why does the West rule? In this magnum opus, eminent Stanford polymath Ian Morris answers this provocative question, drawing on 50,000 years of history, archeology, and the methods of social science, to make sense of when, how, and why the paths of development differed in the East and West — and what this portends for the 21st century.

There are two broad schools of thought on why the West rules. Proponents of "Long-Term Lock-In" theories such as Jared Diamond suggest that from time immemorial, some critical factor — geography, climate, or culture perhaps — made East and West unalterably different, and determined that the industrial revolution would happen in the West and push it further ahead of the East. But the East led the West between 500 and 1600, so this development can't have been inevitable; and so proponents of "Short-Term Accident" theories argue that Western rule was a temporary aberration that is now coming to an end, with Japan, China, and India resuming their rightful places on the world stage. However, as the West led for 9,000 of the previous 10,000 years, it wasn't just a temporary aberration. So, if we want to know why the West rules, we need a whole new theory. Ian Morris, boldly entering the turf of Jared Diamond and Niall Ferguson, provides the broader approach that is necessary, combining the textual historian's focus on context, the anthropological archaeologist's awareness of the deep past, and the social scientist's comparative methods to make sense of the past, present, and future — in a way no one has ever done before. --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

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Détails sur le produit

  • Broché: 768 pages
  • Editeur : Profile Books Ltd (4 août 2011)
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 1846682088
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846682087
  • Dimensions du produit: 12,9 x 4,5 x 19,8 cm
  • Moyenne des commentaires client : 3.3 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (3 commentaires client)
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7 internautes sur 9 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile  Par Louis Expilly le 14 avril 2011
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Je serai bref. Très intéressé au début, j'ai vite été très déçu : l'auteur, qui reprend d'anciennes idées (par exemple, celles de Jared Diamond dans "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies", publié il y a une douzaine d'années), privilégie, dans sa réponse à la question du titre, le facteur géographique, sans vraiment apporter de preuves convaincantes et en se perdant souvent dans les détails de la petite histoire, lesquels n'éclairent en rien sa théorie. En outre, il termine son gros volume, plutôt laborieux et verbeux dans l'ensemble, en rapportant, sans aucune nuance ni critique, toutes les thèses les plus catastrophistes et les plus controversées, à commencer par celle du réchauffement climatique dû à l'activité humaine. Bref, je suis déçu..., mais peut-être ai-je mal lu et mal compris les propos de cet archéologue et historien de l'Antiquité qui, dans cet ouvrage, s'est voulu à la fois philosophe de l'histoire et prophète...
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2 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile  Par D. de Failly le 15 janvier 2011
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Passionnant. Très complet. A recommander à ceux qui souhaitent avoir un aperçu général des histoires comparées de l'Est et de l'Ouest. Très bien écrit, rythmé, pas du tout académique. A lire pour mieux comprendre les enjeux de demain.
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2 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile  Par Aprogene le 24 février 2011
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Gros livre très intéressant et bien documenté - bon complément à ceux de Jared Diamond (Collapse; Germs, guns and steel. Manque un peu de recul par moments
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234 internautes sur 247 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Like playing Sid Meier's Civilization 29 octobre 2010
Par Bernard Kwan - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
As can be seem by both the summary and and various book reviews, this is big history, encompassing the dawn of the first homonids (or ape-men as the author put it) to present day, with a chapter conjecturing about the future.

I was going to try and compare it to some of books in the same genre that I have read, but this book takes, disproves and/ or builds on their arguments - books such as Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Pommeranz's the Great Divergence, Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations - and they are all cited in his book and Morris takes pains to show how they only focus on one small piece of the picture. Indeed the feeling of reading this must have been similar for those who read Marx's Das Kapital for the first time (although the language is much more accessible and the conclusion is open ended) in that it attempts to set out underlying laws of history.

In the words of the author - "History is not one damn thing after another, it is a single grand and relentless process of adaptations to the world that always generate new problems (in the form of disease, famine, climate change, migration and state failure) that call for further adaptations. And each breakthrough came not as a result of tinkering but as a result of desperate times, calling for desperate measures." There may be set backs and hard ceilings, with free will and culture being the wildcards that may hinder social development but eventually the conditions give rise to ideas that allow progress to be made.

Indeed the motor of progress is not some economic logic, but what he calls the Morris Theorem - (expanding an idea from the great SF writer Robert Heinlein) to explain the course of history - Change is caused by lazy, greedy frightened people (who rarely know what they are doing) looking for easier more profitable and safer ways to do things. And it is geography that is the key determining factor where something develops first - Maps, not Chaps.

Now all this sounds academic and boring and in the case of the Morris theorem a little oversimplistic, but the presentation definitely is not. As professor Jared Diamond states, it is like an exciting novel (told by a cool eccentric uncle) and he uses a wide range of popular media to support his case, at one point talking about the movies Back to the Future, 300, the Scorpion King or making references to novels such as the Bonesetters Daughter and Clan of the Cave bear to bring conditions to life. Indeed the emotional similarities (and sheer sense of fun!) to playing early versions of the Sid Meier's Civilization Computer Game are uncanny.

There is a wide range of material here to satisfy a range of interests - his summaries of the fossil record, and early middle eastern and Chinese history are succinct and clear. Especially on the Chinese side, I had to read 2 books - the Golden Age of Chinese Archaelogy and the Cambridge History of Ancient China to gain the same understanding of what he summarizes in about 7-8 pages. He discourses on the role of the Axial religions, on whether democracy was important to the rule of the west, the role of free will in history, and on provocative ideas like the Qin and Roman empires expemplifing what he calls the paradox of violence: when the rivers of blood dried, their imperialism left most people, in the west and the east better off. I could go on and on and, of course, there may be many experts who take issue with his interpretations (and his predictions) but it will definitely stimulate thinking.

If I had to make a criticism of the book - it is that, like Marx, it is fundamentally materialistic in its approach, ideas are like memes that facilitate social development and culture is something that can help or hinder development but has no value in itself. The great religious ideas are glossed over as a product of or reaction to their times. It has precious little to say about the spiritual life and spiritual discoveries such as ethics, meditation or psychology. It may be these discoveries and qualities that will be required to get us through the challenges - of climate change, overpopulation, resourse shortages and potential nuclear war.

It is worthwhile comparing the book to two writings that he cites as inspiration (1) Herbert Spencer - Progress its Law and Cause and (2) Isaac Azimov's Foundation series. In each case they try to identify the forces that drive humanity but Spencer just doesn't have the data in the 19th century and the historian Hari Seldon is joke amongst professional historians as the novels seem so implausibly optimistic about what history can do. I don't know if Ian Morris has succeeded in identifying the laws of history but this book could only have been written now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, drawing together the strains from archaeology, genetics, linguistics as well as sociology and economics to create something altogether new and wonderful and accessible to that elusive thing - the educated lay reader.
210 internautes sur 236 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Fascinating as a history book, failure in terms of its target 27 décembre 2010
Par PK - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
It is hard to decide how many stars to assign to this book. Ian Morris' book would deserve 5 stars if it were merely a world history book. It succeeds in creating a unified, comprehensible narrative of world history from the stone age to the present day in a way that no other book I am aware of has done. For this reason, it would deserve to be classified as a classic.

However, on the other hand, the aim of Ian Morris has not been to write a comprehensive history of the the major world civilizations from the stone age to the present. It has been to explain the Western predominance of the last centuries and to predict what the future will look like. His discussion of the future is quite admirable and thoughtful indeed. However, I have found his answer to the central question the book poses to fall below ordinary academic standards on two fronts: it trivializes the question, and lacks novelty.

1. It trivializes the question. The central question of the book is answered by an argument of geographic reductionism and determinism. In short, the Western "rule" of the last few centuries is attributed to the shorter breadth of the Atlantic Ocean as opposed to the Pacific. This shorter breadth made the Americas more easily accessible to Europeans than to Asians, hence the former created an Atlantic economy, therefore faced different challenges than the latter, responded to them by the scientific and industrial revolutions, and hence rule. I find this argument to be rather simplistic, and I do not think that there was a need to write such a long book if its sole purpose was to put this argument down (after all, it has been said before - see below). The problem with this argument is that it stops exactly where the truly important questions should be asked. A case in point is Columbus: the author makes fun of him, calling him the best candidate for a "bungling idiot", because he thought he had arrived to the (by then obsolete) "land of the Great Khan", while he had only reached Cuba. However, the author fails to notice that Columbus did not reach the Americas merely due to the short breadth of the Atlantic Ocean: he ventured in the open sea aiming to sail as long as it took him to reach the other end of Eurasia, knowing that he should end up there eventually. Even if he had to cross the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, there is a high chance he would make it. It is surprising that, while the author tackles so many "what if" scenaria to prove his thesis, he fails to consider this fundamental "what if" question for his main argument: Would Columbus fail to reach the Americas if he had had to cross the Pacific instead? Given that Magellan did cross both the Atlantic and the Pacific a few years later, the answer appears to be in the negative. This observation by itself appears sufficient to refute the author's trivial main argument. The same reasoning applies to several other arguments in the book. For example, the author tries to argue that Newton thought what he thought because of the Atlantic economy, and he has no room for any cultural factor in it; he maintains that "each age gets the thought it needs". In essence, he maintains that thought is geographically determined. I find this fancy argument hard to accept, as I have not seen any convincing evidence for it. Last, but not least, some of the claims in the book are factually wrong: he attributes the invention of the wheelbarrow to China and claims that it was brought to Europe in the Middle Ages; however, there is evidence of wheelbarrows in construction sites in Ancient Athens.

2. It lacks novelty. The central argument of geographic reductionism and determinism that Ian Morris espouses is not new. It has been made by Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and by J. M. Blaut in "Eight Eurocentric Historians" before. Surprisingly, the author fails to give proper credit to these authors for making similar arguments, although he does at least cite Diamond. Moreover, the so-called "advantage of backwardness" of Western Europe, which forms a secondary argument in the author's thesis, has also been made by Patricia Crone in "Pre-industrial Societies". At least Morris does a good job of bringing these arguments together in a coherent way, but does not go beyond them to deeper issues that need to be addressed (as discussed above).
33 internautes sur 34 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
From ape-men to, perhaps, the Singularity 19 novembre 2010
Par Jay C. Smith - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Ian Morris' Why the West Rules is certainly audacious. As the subtitle suggests, Morris ventures to explain all of human history and, apparently still unsatisfied, to see into the future as well. He appears to have read widely and deeply to match his scholarship to his ambition. His exposition is clear and often seasoned with a light touch.

This is not the sort of book many will be inclined to read fully in just a few long stretches, but on balance it is likely to engage and challenge persons with a serious interest in mega-history. While some specialists in particular domains (say the British industrial revolution, for example) may disagree with some of Mr. Morris' interpretations or find them insufficiently nuanced, that is to be expected for works of broad historical synthesis such as this one.

Morris starts with pre-human "ape-men" (he can turn a phrase) and traces comparative East-West "social development" to the present and beyond. He has devised his own method for measuring it, a quantitative index that takes into account (1) energy capture (calories used); (2) organization, as measured by urbanization; (3) information processing, represented by literacy rates; and (4) the capacity to make war. He graphically plots his estimates of the index scores of the East versus those of the West since 14,000 BCE. The main body of the text describes the historical forces and events underlying the graphical patterns.

There are many objections that might be raised against the quantitative index and Morris is aware of them. He has stated that he nevertheless chose to construct it to help make more explicit what he means when he describes social development in any given period or region. In my opinion, he could have well done without it: it leaves an overall impression of being artificially contrived and unnecessary, a sort of Rube Goldberg approach to assessment of historical development.

Moreover, the question of who was "ahead" in any given epoch, East or West, turns out to be rather secondary to the salient lessons Morris draws from the sweep of history. There is no "long-term lock-in," he concludes, no factor established long-ago that has subsequently determined comparative advantage in perpetuity. The "five horsemen of the apocalypse" -- climate change, disease, famine, migration, and state failure -- have at times radically disrupted development and could do so again. So too, ascendant regions face the "paradox of social development" -- adaptations create new problems that call for further adaptations, possibly undermining the very forces that contributed to past success. Prior backwardness can even become advantageous (for a contemporary example think of low wages as an attraction to capital investment in China, an "advantage" that is eroding as Chinese development progresses).

His rejection of long-term lock-in theories is creditable and well-supported, but Morris also contends that short-term accidents and human leadership do not matter much either in the longer term. We could substitute "bungling idiots" for great men or vice-versa, he says, and at most things may have moved at a different pace to the same destination. Nor, in his opinion, do ideas or culture ultimately help shape development; rather, it is the other way around. These views are contestable, at the very least, and are bound to elicit objections from many other historians.

For Morris the operative factors are biology and sociology, which explain global similarities, and geography, which explains regional differences. Geography has determined the probabilities of where development would rise fastest, but social development changes what geography means, he proposes. For instance, when social development reached the stage where trans-oceanic commercial voyages were feasible, Western societies positioned on the Atlantic gained geographic advantages that in turn spurred further development.

How is it, then, that the long history of comparative development might inform our current prognoses? Morris projects that his index will soar, but faster in the East than the West, with a crossover to Eastern leadership by 2103 at the latest (he is that precise). Yet, according to Morris, the East-West framework may or may not turn out to matter much. Perhaps there will be an all-out East-West war, where even winning would be catastrophic, or maybe arguments about "who rules" will become passé as we will see a need to cooperate further to address global problems.

Morris shifts gears and reframes the question. As he sees it, the world's future pretty much comes down to two possibilities: "Nightfall" or the "Singularity." If we can hold off the worst-case climate change outcomes and nuclear disaster (Nightfall) long enough, he suggests, we might morph into a post-human species (Ray Kurzweil's Singularity, where the full contents of our brains can be uploaded into computers), which he seems to regard as salvation.

I have to say I found this eventual conclusion to be a bit surprising, even peculiar, a big leap from where readers were left before reaching the final chapter. The chasm underscores a fundamental antinomy in Morris' message: we should study history to prepare for the future, but development will now accelerate so fast that history will leave us unprepared.
52 internautes sur 58 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A true masterpiece 26 octobre 2010
Par M. Wang - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
History is a fascinating subject, if it is told in the right way. To me, the right way means--instead of rotely reciting the facts or twisting them to fit into a narrow thesis--tapping into the big trend, showing the big picture, making connections between seemingly unrelated events and giving objective insights into the multifaceted dynamics of large groups of people interacting with one another. While there have been some great titles available to 21st century readers, none comes close to being as grand, broad, deep and innovative as this book.

The question of why the West rules the world for the past two centuries has always been an intriguing one, at least to people of Chinese descent. In recent years, it has taken on significantly greater urgency and relevance to mainstream Americans. But the various answers to date have been narrow, incomplete analysis like those given by the blind men who tried to describe an elephant. To reach a comprehensive understanding, Ian Morris has had to combine multiple disciplines, including physics, botany, economics, anthropology, paleontology, archaeology and history, and invent his own index of "Cultural Development". Just this metric is a great contribution to mankind's knowledge base, as it finally gives a concrete, quantitative measure to the general concepts of advanced versus backward and rise versus decline.

To convince the readers of his conclusion, the author retells the entire history of mankind, from ape-men to the year 2010. I am totally amazed by his ability to do so in 645 fun-filled pages and still to cover practically every relevant detail. Even more impressively, he often sheds new light on these familiar facts for me so that I finally can see the history in the right context. For example, who are the Hittites? What is their relevance? Well, not until I read this book did I understand that they represent the infusion into the core of western civilization (Mesopotamia/Egypt) a new weapon (chariot) driven by a new large domesticated mammal (horse) that is the only major natural resource missing in the blessed region militarily, agriculturally and economically since the dawn of history.

What is the author's conclusion after going through the entire human history with his new fine-tooth comb, the index of cultural development? He finds that, although individuals vary from one another greatly, large groups of people are often very much alike. He shows convincingly that this is definitely the case between the west (Europeans and Americans) and the east (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans). Differences exist in styles but not in substance. Whatever causes one to lead the other in cultural development is always exogenous, mainly climatic and geographical factors. He also illustrates clearly that each level of development brings about new challenges, which can be overcome only with the right organization using the right technology under the right circumstances. Those who fail at these challenges either stagnate or sink into dark ages, allowing the "advantage of backwardness" to be realized.

Extrapolating from recent trends, the author thinks that the east will most likely catch up with the west by the end of this century. This, in itself, is not too surprising, but the stories that leads to this conclusion are full of parallels and lessons for modern societies facing problems originating from their own development process. Anyone who cares about the fate of his nation and/or this earth will surely benefit from this book.
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A first class read but cops out on key question 25 novembre 2010
Par Miles Saltiel - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
Ian Morris' "Why The West Rules--For Now" is a thrilling read. Morris is an accomplished stylist and his romp through the last fifteen-thousand years of human activity is fun, informative and--with one or two qualifications, explored below--convincing. I would recommend the book to anyone looking for a tour d'horizon of world history and pre-history.

Morris, however, is after bigger game, seeking to bring up to date a debate on the roots of Western leadership. One theory is "long term lock-in", which would have it that the West was always destined to enjoy primacy and possibly always will. Different examples of this would be Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel, 1997), who made much of geography, in particular the distribution of domesticable plants and animals; or David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 1998), who dwelt on ideas, in particular those arising out of the northwest European enlightenment which encouraged enterprise by rewarding it with lawful property. Alternatively there is the "short-term accident" view, which would have it that Western primacy is something of an aberration, shortly to be corrected, following Joseph Needham's classic study of Chinese technology, or such more recent works as Martin Jacques' 2009 "When China Rules the World".

Morris is an archaeologist, so much of what is exciting in the book has to do with recent findings from his discipline. These enable us to learn much, even when records are absent: examples include the incidence of shipwrecks and lead pollution as surrogates for economic activity. Archaeology helps Morris fill in the gaps between the accounts of Diamond, who looks particularly at the period shortly after the ice retreated, and Landes, who instead focussed on just the last few hundred years.

Morris presents his conclusions via some home-grown sums and a trio of beguiling aphorisms. The sums are his own index numbers of human development, which he uses to illustrate the grand sweep of history and prehistory, showing that the West has been consistently ahead except for an interval from c600CE to c1800CE. He attributes this largely to geography, following Diamond. His aphorisms, "change is caused by lazy, greedy frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things"; "people (in large groups) are all much the same"; and "each age gets the thought it needs" combine to reinforce his determinism, in which ideas and free will count for little.

As for the future primacy of East versus West, Morris cops out. He makes no bones that he expects the East, that is China, to overtake the West, that is the US. But, he says, by then it won't matter. Failing catastrophe (nuclear war, climate change), we will all be so much better off that the problem will dissolve in a more or less unimaginable technological utopia.

By Morris' own account, this won't haul the freight. Even after China overtakes the US on his index numbers, Americans will still be far better off. Morris is not the first to envisage a utopian future but none has so far turned up. As to his determinism, he follows Landes to note that the Chinese state was strong enough to enforce a policy of isolation for the four hundred years after it abandoned intercontinental exploration in the fifteenth century, while the absence of a single European power led to competition and defensible economic and political rights, extending innovation and enterprise. Is it too much to draw conclusions about the rights and wrongs of large versus small states, institutions prizing stability versus competition, or economic and political concessions versus rights? China is still on the wrong side of history by all these measures.

To conclude with an analogy on primacy. Twenty years ago, we were bracing ourselves for Japanese primacy, with innumerable books, articles and even films on the subject. In the event, that gig got cancelled. If I had to, I would bet that so will this one: the prospect of Chinese primacy will founder on an over-strong state which will decline to permit competition or defensible property rights. Morris should know that.
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