The Ancient Historian

Ancient history, mountaineering, cycling and other outside adventures

Brief Review of Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization

This brief review, meant to appear in the WSJ, did not make it in, for reasons obscure to me. So I post it here. I am doing a fuller review of it for the Journal of Economic History. After I submitted this, a big piece was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Evolution as Revolution

The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. (Princeton University Press, 2013).

In this fascinating follow up to his blockbuster Why the West Rules—For now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal about the Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), the historian and archaeologist Ian Morris explains how human civilization in the West and in East Asia (China mainly) have evolved over the last 15,000 years. This is big History, and it is comparative History on a grand scale. Both “big” and “comparative” need to be explained. It has to be big, covering the last 15,000 years, to get a sense of how human societies have developed, and it has to be comparative in order to understand which historical variables matter. Morris’ work is revolutionary and profoundly imaginative, creating a “unified evolutionary theory of history” (p. 238), which, he also hopes, can give us a glimpse of our future.

Morris’ arguments were laid out in great detail in Why the West Rules. The Measure of Civilization now provides an extended analysis of his data. Some of Morris’ historical reconstructions, he freely admits, are educated guesses. And some critics will say that this kind of work goes down the wrong track entirely, analyzing the wrong things—History, critics say, cannot and should not be a predictive science. Economists, too, after all, try to predict the future with sophisticated mathematical models. And they end up being better historians than seers. So is all this imaginative use of historical data worth it? Well, yes.

The idea behind both of Morris’ books is that human societies are biological organisms and, like human evolution, societies evolve or die out. Both of Morris’ volumes are very much in the vein of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. But as in the University of Connecticut Biologist Peter Turchin‘s work in Cliodynamics, Morris wants to quantify human history. He does so in four key variables inspired by the United Nations Human Development Index: energy capture, the “backbone of History” (p. 142), social organization, which is measured by the largest urban settlements in each period, Information Technology, and war-making capacity. The result is what Morris calls the Social Development Index.

In itself, the basic idea behind this work, that history is a laboratory, is not new. The idea of explaining “progress” was a common theme in European scholarship in the 19th century. Morris briefly traces some of this scholarship, beginning with the famous English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who set out, in an essay written in 1857, to explain what lay behind England’s progressive society. There were others. On a geological time scale examining the evolution of living things, there was Charles Darwin, whose famous On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859. For human institutions, there was Henry Maine’s Ancient Law of 1861. Later in Germany, the Sociologist Max Weber’s comparative historical analysis formed the basis of all later work in Sociology and Economics. So Morris is in fairly good company. But his efforts at quantifying social development are new and highly imaginative.

Why should the general reader care? Take a quick look at any of Morris’ charts. They all move rightward and explosively upward after 1800. The perspective that Morris gives us by quantifying the human experience will give the reader pause. We live in a rapidly changing world, with a population approaching seven billion, with resource competition and climate change. Morris’ historical techniques here are valuable. The implications in both of Morris’ studies are important; we may well be reaching a “hard ceiling” as he calls it, of energy capture, and of our ability to sustain economic growth.

What about lived human experience on an individual level, the great stories, the ideas, institutions, historical experience creating national identity, Culture with a capital “C.” This is, after all is what most historians of most places write about. Insignificant? Well no, says Morris. But humans are essentially the same everywhere, and over the longer run Culture does not explain very much. What matters for Morris instead are the “hard” realities of the world, the biology of human populations, behavior in groups (sociology) and location (geography). Examine these and you get why History really matters—why and how are human civilization successful, or not.

Morris has given us a model on long-term historical change. One might add important contingencies, of course; global pandemic would be one. There are other scales of historic time one can consider, more middle range and focused on political economies. And certainly one can quibble. Take, for example, geographical boundaries and time scale. His “classical Mediterranean” world, 500 BC-200 AD, is centered on Greece and Rome, or “southern Europe.” But there were contemporary civilizations in western and southwestern Asia (modern western Turkey, Syria, Egypt) that were at least as developed. The “reforming” rulers Akhenaten and Nefertiti are accused by Morris of a “bizarre religious and political experiment” (p. 141). I see it, rather, as an attempt (failed ultimately) of political and religious reform, indeed of transformation. But there is more to it. Just after their reign, ca. 1300 BC, Egyptian religion did transform, in processes we do not fully understand, long before the Philosopher Karl Jasper’s Axial Age civilizations, the subject of some attention in Why the West Rules (p. 669). Notably Jaspers left Egypt out of the story of civilizational transformation seen in Greek, Indian Hebrew and Chinese philosophers. But Egypt was simply precocious in transforming earlier. It is not an accident that one of the most famous poems in the Book of Psalms (104) bears great similarity to one of Akhenaten’s famous hymns to the sun. We should not brush aside such interconnections. Yet Morris’ higher-level view is crucial. He does not regale the reader with tales. Instead, his work reconstructs the underlying story of the lived human experience.

Will we humans face collapse and extinction, or create a unified world civilization? Or is there a third path in between these yet to be imagined? I don’t have the answer. And Morris honestly says that he doesn’t either. But this book, like his brilliant Why the West Rules, should be required reading for everyone interested in the fate of humans on the planet.


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