An Exhausting Muddle

This is my review of Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the Future by Ian Morris.

It seems that modern historians often feel the need to Brian Coxify themselves by producing very fat books which set out to make complex topics accessible to the general reader, using lots of chatty language and references to popular culture.

The rise of the east would seem a more relevant theme at present than the past dominance of the west, but perhaps because the former has been quite well-covered recently , Ian Morris has chosen to focus on "why the west rules – for now". This is potentially a very interesting subject and I wanted to read a coherent analysis of the difficulties of defining precisely "east" and "west", and of the shifting relationships between the two, but this work frustrated me so much that I had to abandon it.

It all seems very wordy, sometimes stating the obvious, often switching from one field of study to another, say from astrophysics to paleoanthropology on the same page. Yet, although Morris gives more than three pages to the (to us) little known Zhou Dynasty in China, some time in the distant past, he makes only a passing reference to say, Singapore, surely a very interesting example of recent development to rival many western states?

Judging by the large number of catchily titled subheadings – "The Elephant in the Room", "Hotlines to the Gods", "The Gods made Flesh" or "The Wild West" to take the first four in the chapter on "The East Catches Up" (referring to a past period), perhaps we are only meant to dip into the book. But that surely means losing sight of the "unifying theory" – whatever that is. I felt I was being patronised by an attempt to popularise challenging concepts e.g. Neanderthal man grunting "Me Tarzan you Jane", past figures likened to Mafia bosses, even Indiana Jones, those subheadings again such as "Mice in a Barn", or entitling a graph on the health of US army veterans, "Be all that you can be". Yes, the range of topics covered is mind-boggling.

Then there are the meaningless maps, say Figure 5.4, "The chill winds of winter: climate change in the early first millenium BCE" which includes arrows which do not show any climatic change at all. Or Figure 1.2 defining the Movius Line, an early division between west and east according to types of stone axe used – only why does the line run so precisely through the middle of what is now France, and why say that the eastern dwellers didn't need elaborate hand-axes because they had access to bamboo when this may have been the case in east Asia, but hardly seems likely in, say modern Denmark? I could go on for ever, like this book. Take Figure 5.1, "The dullest diagram in history, social development" which shows an upward trend for the west, consistently above the east for 1000-100 BCE. My question is, how can you have such a precisely calibrated vertical axis to show social development – why not just say it doubled, and the west as a whole consistently had the edge?

This book seems to be an over-ambitious, rambling mess. Select a page at random and find the author galloping through, often back and forth between, several centuries. There are some interesting facts and anecdotes on the way, but some of the simplistic theorising got my hackles up. "There are basically two ways to run a state…high end and low end strategies". This is expanded at some length (compared with the usual grasshopper approach), but left me unconvinced

Buried within its 645 pages, there may be a valid theory. However, it is lost through a lack of editing and self-restraint – all too frenetic and chaotic.

Reading a thorough well-written history of say, the United States or the Soviet Union or China or Byzantium seems to me to contribute much more to one's overall understanding of changing fortunes between the elusive concepts of east and west. And what about the Aztecs and the Incas?

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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