Ian Morris’s East-West History of an Endangered Species: Us

There are a few little things missing in Ian Morris‘ account of human history. People, for starters. Humanity. Ideas. Causes. Nations. Heroes. Monsters, too. Conscious movements of any kind. There’s no Magna Carta, and there are no messiahs, no St. Paul and no Shakespeare. No revelations or religions of more than decorative interest. Not much of what we call human agency, since he conceives us rather as “clever chimps.” But don’t let that turn you from Why the West Rules — For Now. The shocking part is: it’s still a fascinating story. It might even be a version of our past to save us from reenacting the worst of it. Call it History 2.0 or maybe 3.0 — nothing like the history I once majored in. It purports, at least, to be a data-driven interdisciplinary sort of science. And it seems to represent that “alliance of geeks and poets” that the Times suggests is taking over the old Humanities.

Morris makes it the story of a species with self-awareness not far above that of spiders, and no sense till recently of the rhythm and rules of our evolutionary road. Morris draws on his first career, scientific archeology, also on biological evolution, to formulate an Index of Social Development (energy use, for example, and destructiveness in war); and then to chart the relative ISD scores, East and West, through roughly 15,000 years since the last Ice Age. One starting point is genomic: we’re one animal the world around, bound by the same imperatives of biology and sociology. It’s geography, as Jared Diamond taught us in Guns, Germs and Steel, that accounts for the differences among us. But then the effective meaning of geography keeps changing as Morris extends the story.

The East, into the middle of the last millenium, took a long lead on the power of China’s ocean-going ships and sure-fire guns. But after 1400, when the West caught up in sea-faring, it mattered decisively that the North Atlantic, on the western periphery of Eurasia, was 3000 miles closer to the great new prize: the Americas. Had sailing distances been equal, it might have been the Chinese who breathed their germs on the Native Americans and colonized the hemisphere. But in fact it was the West that felt the sudden spur to master wind, tides, and astronomy and reap the benefits of a scientific, then an industrial revolution. Thus does the meaning of geography transform itself. And thus did the West come to rule the planet, “for now,” in Morris’s title. What next, Professor Morris? How did the year 2103 pop out of the graphs as the moment when the East nails its comeback? The underlying premise, of course, is that the long, slow upward creep of the Index of Social Development is now an almost vertical rocket — climbing even faster in India and China than in the West.

IM: … The distance in social development between the hunter gatherers who painted the cave walls at Chauvet, say, and us is one quarter of what the index predicts for this century, when the gap between east and west disappears. So the one thing we can be absolutely confident about is that the predictions about the future that say: well, its gonna be basically like now, but shinier and faster and glitzier and China will be richer — those predictions are completely wrong. The 21st century is going to be utterly unlike anything that humanity has seen before. It’s not too much to suggest that the 21st century, the next hundred years, are going to see more change than the last 100,000 years. CL: Is there anything we can do about it, even if we wanted to? You don’t leave much room for inspiration, visionaries, events, movements? IM: The changes we are looking at in the 21st century are very much like the kinds of changes that evolutionary biologists deal with all the time. One way or another, I suggest that the human species is going to change out of all recognition in the next 100 years. And one possibility is that social development does continue to rise to this extraordinary level. The kinds of processes we can already see around us, the partial merging of biological human animals with the machines that they’ve created, these processes will accelerate. By the end of the 21st century, we will have merged carbon based lifeforms with silicon based forms in a way that now seems like utter science fiction. And humanity will basically have ceased to be what we’re familiar with. I think the other other alternative we are looking at in the 21st century is that, thanks to the power of nuclear weapons, we will destroy ourselves completely and once again humanity will not be what we’re used to dealing with.

Man’s oldest paintings at Chauvet. 30,000 years as yesterday.

It is going to be a very different thing after an all out nuclear war. But one way or another, it seems to me that the pattern of history is implying that at some point in the relatively near future we are going to see some sort of great evolutionary transformation, much like the ones we have seen in the earlier history of humanity… over very very long time periods. Or human beings are going to destroy themselves, the environment is going to turn against us either through the process of global climate change or through changing our environment through nuclear wars… in which case this particular branch on the evolutionary tree comes to a dead end.

Stanford Historian Ian Morris with Chris Lydon, November 3, 2010

Not your grandpa’s history, in short. Not your grandpa’s prospects, either.

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  • brick

    Another mind-expanding interview with a thinker abstracting history into giant size metrics. The acceleration of the technological snowball’s growth requires human input but any high-end human in that time and context will pack on the next layer developing what that age needs to advance – looking back it all seems to be a smooth progression. Curious how economic structure was abstracted into insignificance. Could those who have the most to gain by working incrementally harder be driving the shifts? Thanks again!

  • Potter

    This makes we want to take an extra glass of wine with dinner.

    I keep remembering a book I was forced to read during my college days that really made a mark on me; RH Tawney’s “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”. Then I think of Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” PBS series, Jacob Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man”, James Burke’s “Connections”. I loved them all. Nova, years ago did a wonderful 4 part series on China exploring it’s history of science and and technology exploring why it had stagnated. Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel” adds to the list. It is a fascinating story/study to contemplate. I don’t think we can or will change the trends in motion. They look dismal and on a much larger scale than we have seen since maybe the dinosaurs were wiped out.

    As a potter very interested in art history, I look at ancient China and marvel at their early technological accomplishments. I think not of geography for causing the later stagnation but more culture/religion/sociology. Morris at least in this interview seems to give a lot of weight to geography.

    Another thought- we need dark ages and stagnations and declines, recessions depressions to slow things down- maybe especially now painful as it may be. Disease and war have helped keep the planet from becoming over-crowded, uninhabitable sooner than it will be.

    About Tawny I think he was right. To the extent that we see the rise of the East, it seems to me that it is adopting what we have come to know as western values (Wordsworth’s “getting and spending”). At the same time some of us here in the West, perhaps too late and too few, are beginning to appreciate and value other religions (like Buddhism) and those cultures that value village or even tribal life, people quite content to be living peacefully, more in tune with nature.

    Looking at the wonderful drawing from Chauvet above, I do feel very close to them; the spirit comes through.

  • Pete Crangle

    Plagues and locusts are great for market corrections and popping hyper-bubbles … where would we be without our catastrophes, blights, guilt, and shame … just thinking out loud about the grand designless design …

    Re: Ships, Guns & Geography. Definitive kinks in the homo-ludens playground. I’d offer that the mythos also put wind in those sails and pulled those triggers and gave those minds the feeling of space/time expansiveness and contractions; don’t forget the mythos. One of many prime movers in the western onion (ergo, no single prime mover, no cat bird seat). A different mythos binds ships, trigger fingers, and psyches to different waters, intentions, and outcomes. The mythos is based upon inevitability and dominion. Perhaps a mere symptom?

  • Karl

    In the Chomsky interview, Noam says that the brain sciences cannot explain to us the human processes of euphemism, which can drive civilizations into committing huge atrocities. Rather, according to Noam, the human historical record is much better suited for this. And indeed, Morris uses the historical record to explain human behavior. It looks like a fascinating book which will hopefully receive the attention that it deserves. But it would be especially interesting to hear Chomsky’s reaction to Morris’ book.

  • Avec Frites

    I love this sort of thing.

    One unanswered question regarding the guest’s 2103 date is: how do energy shortages and global warming play into his assumed hyper-progress?

    Energy: All of our wonderful technology, as well as global trade, is enabled by cheap energy. What happens when gasoline is rationed and $12/gallon? Don’t things slow down, and perhaps go into reverse, for quite a while?

    Global Warming: Similarly, won’t the unrest and privation attending global warming throw a wrench into the works?

    It would be good to get him to comment in these things, perhaps in an email which you could post as a follow-up.

    Thanks for another good show.

  • Rob Crawford

    I heard your interview, immediately bought the book, and was utterly enthralled by it, Chris. You are an enthusiast, and at your best, you have transmitted it to me innumerable times.

  • Chris

    So why isn’t Australia Chinese?

  • Emily Corwith

    What a brilliant thinker … & what a depressing but probably realistic view of the future, except that the human evolution which Ian Morris foresees is occurring right now … the replacement of one-on-one face-to-face human interactions with technology-mediated interaction with anonymous multitudes is already having a profound effect on human experience …