Podcast • December 3, 2010

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 ...

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.