| GEOGRAPHICAL reviews |
A fantastical cartographical treasure that reminds us that sometimes the idea of a place is more intoxicating than its reality
Side-by-side diary entries bring to life the unfolding drama as Scott and Amundsen race to be the first to reach the South Pole
An attempt to solve the mystery of the source of the Oxus River offers proof that there are still corners of the planet waiting to be explored
Book of the month
Why West is best behind has certain advantages (not least the urge and potential to catch up).
Historians have become rather nervous about big ideas. They’re even less comfortable with sweeping narratives that embrace the whole of human history. These days, they rarely talk in terms of grand impersonal forces shaping humanity’s destiny. To do so is to invite accusations of simplification and intellectual reductionism. Ian Morris is, therefore, very brave. I disagree with many of his conclusions, but that doesn’t prevent me from admiring his pluck and extraordinary talents. This is a book to cherish and to challenge. Morris wants to explain the West’s global dominance over the past few hundred years. There have been many previous attempts (the arrival of the Industrial Revolution on Western shores usually takes centre stage), but Morris finds them unsatisfactory. Some have adopted a ‘short-term accident’ approach. Others have pursued what Morris describes as the ‘long-term lock-in’ theory: there was some basic factor (climatic, cultural, topographical, religious, take your pick) that distinguished East from West and made the latter’s rise to greatness all but inevitable. Morris rejects both streams of argument and invites us to place the West’s recent good fortune in the broadest possible historical context. If we want to discern the genuine shape of history, we have to take the entire story on board (from ancient times to the present day) and we must be willing to use the tools provided by a host of different disciplines. Morris also believes we require some overarching explanatory principle if we’re to understand why, at any given time, a particular part of the world ruled the cultural roost. Morris’s lodestone is what he calls ‘social development’. He defines this in fairly neutral terms: ‘I basically mean societies’ abilities to get things done – to shape their physical, economic, social, and intellectual environments to their own ends.’ Morris believes that this precious commodity is eminently measurable (his book contains lots of graphs), but he acknowledges that, at different historical moments, different cultures possess it in varying degrees: hence the protean nature of human geopolitical history. Leading the pack in terms of social development carries inherent risks (the more you develop, the more new problems arise) and falling
As for what determines this constantly fluctuating cultural steeplechase and how we should analyse it, Morris points to three factors. ‘Biology tells us why humans push social development upward’ and ‘sociology tells us how they do this’, he writes. These are commonalities, applicable at all times to all humans. The key variable is geography: sometimes you’re simply in the right place at the right time, and this, Morris argues, ‘tells us why the West, rather than some other region, has for the last 200 years dominated the globe’.
WHY THE WEST RULES – FOR NOW: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris PROFILE, HB, £25
This obviously smacks of geographical determinism (albeit of a nuanced variety), and Morris is also fully aware that some will dislike his resort to ‘brute material forces’ when explaining the twists and turns of human history. I’ll admit to being one of the gainsayers. Looking for adamantine rules in the study of history has rarely been a good idea, but Morris has made a valiant attempt.
The even better news is that when Morris steps back from theorising and gets down to, as he puts it, ‘being a historian’, he writes some magnificent central chapters: a scintillating, surprising, wide-ranging survey of the shifting fortunes of East and West over millennia.
Even at the end, when he turns prophet and applies his newfound ‘rules’ to the likely future of the human race, he scores some points. With the help of all sorts of scientific advances, stubborn factors such as geography could begin to count for less (perhaps equitable social development could go into overdrive). Alternatively, since disease, climate change, famine and various other pesky spectres are still on the scene, things could become considerably more chaotic.
I would argue that the choice is ours, and that we aren’t simply the playthings of impersonal historical forces, but if I ever need someone to question my assumptions, I would turn to Morris, who, in this book, has proven himself to be a brilliant and provocative historian. I suspect that he recognises the flaws in his arguments, but also realises that a faint heart never won a historical debate. He wants a row, and that’s no bad thing. JONATHAN WRIGHT
FEBRUARY 2011 www.geographical.co.uk 63