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.