Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 12th 2010
Why Does the West Rule for Now?? (Book Review)
I have just finished reading the book: Why does the West Rule For Now? and it has been a very exciting read.
The first half or more of the book is quite a long history lesson and then we get some speculative talk of the future.
I had to double-check a few points the author makes, and most of it checks out. But one theory that doesn’t stand the pace of time is this:
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Murphy’s law is already dead.
The book was published in 2010 So that we have the benefit of hindsight to check if the book’s theories of the future were true or not.
The book assumed that Murphy’s Law would continue indefinitely in the future so that we have would have monstrously powerful computers in the next 50 years leading to the Singularity.
The book’s thoughts of the Singularity are also a little different compared to the traditionally thought-of Singularity, e.g. that of computers being able to indefinitely become better and better without any extra touch or human involvement in the process.
In other words, the danger of the Singularity which is thought of traditionally is that computers will go off the scale in terms of intelligence. There will be a point in time in the future when computers will have more intelligence than the entirety of the human race even if all humans are clumped together.
That is the danger for the Singularity when traditionally thought of.
Imagine computers being able to build better and faster computers indefinitely (without any human action or involvement) until there is one computer that is more intelligent than the entire human race.
What would it do? What would it think? It is an outrageously dangerous moment in time – because we would not know what would happen, and we would not be able to control any consequences from that tipping point forward.
Even if the entirety of humanity joins forces – that single computer would be light years ahead of us as a species.
It could be the end or it could bring some very weird unknowns into our history.
You can see where the Terminator movies would have gotten their ideas, right?
One important thing about the Terminator movies is that when Skynet becomes sentiment it thinks that humanity is the greatest threat to it’s survival. So automatically it begins to set in motion a massive nuclear strike on all humanity.
Is that a real possibility? Do we even know if a very smart computer will think that humanity is it’s greatest threat?
The problem with this is that we don’t even know what’s going to happen when the singularity happens.
Of course there are some people such as Mark Zuckerberg who thinks that AI and technology will be helpful to humanity.
But there are others such as Elon Musk who thinks that AI is something we need to be wary of in the future, especially since we cannot control what happens to that technology after the tipping point (where the tipping point is the singularity).
Ian Morris’s Singularity in ‘Why does the West rule’?
Ian Morris’s Singularity is different than the above.
Ian Morris’s singularity is based on Moore’s law which is where computers become infinitely stronger and more powerful at an exponentially growing rate. However, Moore’s law has broken down in the last 10 or 20 years and so the predictions in the book will probably not come to pass.
But it is interesting to have a look at the predictions that the book has made about the future based on the previous ever-growing Moore’s law.
In particular, Ian Morris quotes futurists in saying that by 2030 computers will be strong enough and more and powerful enough to run programs that are able to replicate the trillions of electrical signals that occur within the human brain.
Another futurist explains that by 2030 computers would be able to upload a human mind into a machine. And that by 2045 computers would be able to host all minds in the world inside a computer.
In essence, this futurist explains that by 2045 the singularity caused by the explosive growth of computer power would be computers being able to store or humanity onto their hard drives.
In other words, the singularity would be the merger between human minds and a machine.
In other words, the singularity for that futurist is the merging of the silicon and the carbon life forms which would generate a new Humanity.
Ian Morris said that this future is to be as strongly correct that he must be right.
But now that future in his predictions will probably not come to pass at the timeline that he has stated.
Nightfall and the Singularity
Nightfall is where no matter what humanity does the destruction of the world is inevitable.
Nightfall was not probable until the Soviet Union tested their first nuclear bomb in 1949. Thousands of nuclear bombs exploding in the world are less powerful than an asteroid hitting the Earth but still, they are powerful enough to obliviate humanity.
In the future Ian Morris stresses that there is a competition between Nightfall and his definition of singularity.
Will Humanity develop even more and more until we reach the giant heights Ian predicts? Or will we make something that will utterly destroy humanity?
This is the key question that Ian Morris asks in the second to last chapter in his book.
The Real Thesis within ‘Why the West Rules?’
But after all that, we get to the real key insights of the book. It makes me think if I could have skipped a lot of the beginning book. Because a lot of the beginning is just about the details of development going up and down for the east and west.
In terms of the real thesis, you could probably skip the majority of the beginning of the book.
It might even be worth reading the last two chapters first and then going back to look at the details in the first half of the book. In any case it took me a very very long time to read through the entirety of the book. But it really did help me to understand the patterns and connections between the East and the West throughout the entirety of history.
It also helped me to become more interested in certain time periods that were explained in the book.
I already knew a few things that worth it out in the book such as the massive Chinese fleet that went down to Malaysia, Singapore, and around to India and Arabian Peninsula.
But in particular, I learned a lot more about European history.
Ian Morris’s Answer to Why the West Rules For Now
Ian Morris states that geography is why the West rules now rather than the East.
He says geography is the reason because the New World or the Americas is a lot closer to Europe then it is to China.
Ian says that the new world is at least one-third closer to Europe to China. And even though China had a massive fleet they still couldn’t have gone to the Americas at that time.
In the West, even the Vikings with their long boats were able to travel to the Americas. The reason why they could is that they could island hop their way past Greenland and Iceland and keep heading straight to easily hit the new world.
The West had access to the New World and so had a large extent of a new hinterland and materials they could access to fuel the Industrial Revolution. They also had access to African slaves as part of the slave trade or the Columbian Exchange.
The Power of Fossil Fuels
Morris also states that in the past Eastern and Western societies were kept below a hard ceiling in terms of energy production. This meant that due to a rising population there were never enough resources and energy to go around. So in order to break through that hard ceiling, a society had to access the power that was within fossil fuels.
China too was trying to use fossil fuels during the Song Dynasty in order to achieve new things. But the Mongols changed their fortunes.
Instead, it was Britain that was to continue to develop fossil fuels into their own Industrial Revolution. But without the Americas, Britain would have never been able to achieve the industrialization that it did.
This is because millions and millions of hectares of forest would have been required to get the fuel that they required for their entire industry, such as the new cotton spinning industry.
The Americas had the new resources which Britain needed to push through the hard ceiling and enter into the new modern phase of society.
Biology Means Nothing
Morris argues that biology is just the driving force for humans to develop and try to find more energy-efficient ways of development. Yeah I guess, that we try to capture energy in order to reproduce and make a higher population.
Morris argues that biology is true for all of humanity. We now understand that there is no biological basis behind racism. In other words, all humans are biologically the same. Our DNA is practically identical. No matter the skin colour or the facial features or anything else about us there is no biological difference between different races in humanity.
Despite this, previously in the past Europeans believe that other races were lower on the hierarchy because of the color of their skin. Social Darwinism was rampant in the past and it was used as a justification for European imperialism. In other words, taking control of other countries, taking slaves for the purposes of making money, stealing other countries’ resources to fuel European capitalism and industrialisation.
I must repeat this again – racism has no biological basis. There are no biological differences between different races. Races are just imaginary categories that we humans have created. No matter the color of our skin or what we look like humanity is more or less the same biologically.
Culture Means Nothing
Instead, the new theories which were developed after Social Darwinism collapsed were based on culture. A famous book proposes that capitalism arose in the rest because of the Protestant work ethic. It also argued that those in the East were used to the stabilizing forces of Confucianism and hierarchy. They proposed that the west was dynamic so that capitalism and industrialization could flourish. But the East attempted to recreate the past and attempt to conserve their societies.
These theories sound tempting to explain away the reason why the west rose through industrialization and left the East behind.
But then comes the example of Japan after World War 2 skyrocketing to become the second greatest economy in the world.
Instead of arguing that culture was the reason the East remain behind the west. Scholars argued that the culture of the East was part of the success of Japan’s rise to become the second greatest economy in the world.
They argue that Confucianism and the stable economies of the East where savings are massive is why the Asian tigers and Japan were able to rise so easily.
So in essence culture can be an argument for and an argument against.
Morris argues in Why the West Rules for Now that Culture has no bearing on why the west rose or the east fell behind. Instead, Morris argues that geography is the only factor that explains the difference.
He argues that culture and biology make sure how things happen but don’t explain why they happen in certain locations.
Ian argues that geography is the main reason the West rose above the east for the moment.
Summary of Why the West Rules For Now:
Why the West Rules for Now is a long read. A very long read to be exact.
However, all of that comes to a head in the last few chapters which spells out Ian Morris’s grand thesis.
It might be worth reading the last few chapters first to understand the grand narrative and then to return to the middle section of the book for the details.
Overall it is a very solid book and will explan your mind greatly in understanding the world and how it has come to be.
My Rating: 5/5★
I really loved the book and it has made me want to read a lot of other classic historical books as well!
(P.S. Got any other books you want me to review? Then…)