An Overview of the Work of Ian Morris

The book by Ian Morris [MORR] is remarkable because it attempts to explain historical events in a scientific way. While one may argue about specifics, his approach sets a standard for history texts. He defines social development as a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done. He then calculates a social development (SD) from four traits: energy capture, urbanism, information processing and capacity to make war [MORR, pp. 143-150]. The SD can measured on the basis of archeologicla data and Morris presents a plot of SD for East (China and surroundings) and West (Middle East and Europe) from 14,000 BCE to 2000 CE (Figure 3.7). The SD has been normalized to be 1000 in 2000 CE and it is plotted on a logarithmic scale.

He tracks historical events through changes in social development that are caused by several factors starting with climate change. He points out that the earth’s orbit around the sun changes slightly over time and so does the wobble of its axis. As a result we have climate change (p. 180.) Here a sample of how he applies this technique to developments in Mesopotamian. A cooling period that started around 3800 BCE was tough on agriculture, forced people to co-operate more, and led to urbanization,. Mesopotamians invented the curses of modern life: management, meetings, and memoranda! …. Uruk had 20,000 people. “Birth of management as the monsoons dried up must have been traumatic.” Religion (incl. charity) eased the way. The key point is that cooling of the earth forced urbanization and also boosted religion. Priest would pray for rain and get credit when it came (p.183). By 2700 BCE scribes report that kings claimed gods for ancestors. Uruk became a state with warriors, merchants and bureaucrats. Everybody surrendered freedoms but that was needed for success in hard times (p. 183).

Other factors that affect history are

  • The advantage of backwardness: Adopting techniques from a more advanced region to make them work in less-developed area make result in better overall techniques (p.179)
  • Growing social complexity implies growing social fragility (p. 191). To use a modern analogy, think of the power grid. If it fails it creates havoc but that was not an issue 200 years ago.

Morris uses this methodology to track all human history.

A striking feature of Social Development plots is that West leads East until 541 CE and then East moves ahead. The situation reverses in 1773 when the West moves ahead of the East. The first crossover point occurred during the reign of the Roman (Byzantine) emperor Justinian I (527-567) and Morris devotes a lot of space in discussing the upheavals during Justinian's reign including a plague. But he does not mention the attacks on secular learning that started two centuries earlier and culminated in Justinian's reign when the last pagan scholars were eliminated. According to Gibbon "Justinian suppressed the schools of Athens and the consulship of Rome, which had given so many sages and heroes to mankind. Both these institutions had long since degenerated from their primitive glory; yet some reproach may be justly inflicted on the avarice and jealousy of a prince, by whose hand such venerable ruins were destroyed." He was on to describe in detail the suppression of secular scholarship ([EG], vol. 4, Chapter XL(40), pp. 201-208).

[MORR] Ian Morris Why the West Rules - For Now, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010. Subtitled: The Patterns of History and what they Reveal about the Future.

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